Designing the Future

16th April 2019

Alfie Thompson (Morshead's, 2011-13, DuBoulay's, 2013-16)  

The most striking aspect of talking to Alfie Thompson is his air of quiet resolve, which he credits to a life-changing decision he made at Winchester.  

In his first couple of years at the school, he says, he was adrift. ‘I would spend my whole time in Mill, just making things,’ he says. He loved the feeling of being able to think through a problem and then designing and crafting a solution to it, but didn’t consider it as a path for him at university and beyond, partly because it wasn’t widely viewed as an academic subject or one with safe career prospects.  

However, he gradually realised that he didn’t just love it – he was also good at it. Around halfway through his time at Winchester, Alfie decided it was time for him to take a different approach. ‘It was about picking myself up. I said to myself: “I’m going to really get this. I’m not going to be a balloon in the wind anymore, I’m going to forge my own path.”’ And he made a vow to himself: ‘Things don’t happen to me now. I want me to cause things to happen.’  

He decided to pursue Mill further, but at first wasn’t sure how. In the real world, the closest job to ‘making lots of stuff in Mill’ seemed to be design engineer. But while he was confident enough in his design skills, he wasn’t sure he had the aptitude for maths or pure science needed for the engineering part. Nevertheless, he applied for an MEng at Imperial College, London’s Dyson School of Design Engineering, founded in 2017 with funding from inventor and entrepreneur James Dyson.  

Now in his third year of the course, Alfie will be one of the School’s first graduates. He is currently looking for a six-month placement at a company, after which he will return for his final year on the course. When we spoke, he was in the midst of a module on robotics, coding human-seeming arms. ‘It’s incredibly difficult to do,’ he says, laughing at his own frustration. On his sleek website (, he offers glimpses of some of the 15 or so projects he has already completed for his degree. Some of these took a few days to complete, some months, and most were in collaboration with other students on his course. The work spans design genres and forms, from a detailed computer rendering of a noir detective’s office – complete with bottle of Jack Daniels and filing cabinets wreathed in smoke – to a model for a self-piloting medical helicopter pod and kitchen tools for the blind.  

The helicopter pod, which looks like something out of a science fiction film, aims to allow paramedics to reach isolated spots quickly and avoid the overcrowded hospitals. The group he designed it with won a competition organised by the university, with judges from six companies listening to presentations from them and 12 other groups’ proposals for public transport vehicles. Alfie was particularly keen to create something that wasn’t simply well-designed, but which could benefit society.  

The kitchen equipment stemmed from a similar impulse. The group worked with a close friend of Alfie’s, a blind reflexologist, to get her input into what would be most useful. They also ran a focus group with 23 people from the Kingston Association of the Blind. ‘That was such an inspirational project to work on,’ he says. ‘Visual impairment is such a hard thing to design for, especially when you want to make it a mass-market product, but new technology is emerging all the time.’  

The group used that to its advantage, designing a multi-purpose blender that links to Amazon’s voice-activated Alexa service. The resulting prototype met with a hugely positive response from the focus group. ‘They were delighted, and pleased we were putting the effort in to try to cater for people whose normal everyday needs aren’t met.’ Following graduation, he wants to return to the blender and produce at least a small number to give to people.  

Alfie is at that exhilarating point in life where a near-infinite number of options is available for him to pursue, and he’s on the brink of having the skills and experience to pick and choose which to take. This can be overwhelming, but he seems to have his head set firmly on his shoulders and is weighing up his options carefully. One possibility following graduation is to work with design consultancies for a few years, and once he has gained enough experience of the industry set up his own company – a Dyson-to-be. A few years’ experience would give him more insight into which avenue to hone in on: his skills could potentially be used in films, video games and many other fields, including public health.  

This is all enviable ambition in someone so young, but he’s also keeping an open mind – his experiences at Winchester and since have also led to him considering a surprising long-term career possibility: teaching. This might change, he says, but it comes from his recognition of his love of working with others to learn new skills. ‘Teachers, if they’re proactive, learn as much as they teach.’  

Like many others, Archie credits Winchester, and especially Div, with teaching him intellectual curiosity, but he also notes that it fosters humility: the idea that there is always more to learn, and that you should never rest on your laurels. He also remembers the passion many dons had for their subjects. ‘Passion is contagious,’ he notes.  

Perhaps most importantly, he says Winchester taught him to look at the bigger picture: beyond exams, the wider journey you’re setting out on. He says it fed in him an insatiable curiosity, and allowed him to start thinking about topics that would otherwise have passed him by at that age. Beyond his obvious talents in his field, perhaps it’s this combination of curiosity and passion that has brought Alfie to where he is today. Now familiar with the tutor who interviewed him for his degree place, he knows that it wasn’t so much his maths or science skills that saw him accepted on the course, but his attitude. ‘Nothing was going to stop me any more,’ he says.

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