“Practice is key”: We chat typography, freelancing and finances with graphic designer Mohammed Samad
Mohammed Samad is a graphic designer from London with a penchant for typography and brand identity design. After graduating in 2020, Mohammed didn’t want to stick to just one studio or full-time role. Instead, he opted to work as a freelancer from the very start, and gain a “more unique perspective and approach to design.” Since then, he has worked on projects with the likes of Nike – in particular their Open Doors initiative, which gives disadvantaged kids access to underutilised facilities. Here, Mohammed reflects on the journey to financial stability, shares some of his key influences and tells us about the importance of practising your craft.
Place of Study
BA Graphic and Media Design, University of the Arts London: London College of Communication (2016–2020)
What I do
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a graphic designer, focusing on brand identity, editorial and typography design. However, in the past few years I have been working mainly on brand identity design. This entails creating bespoke visual language for a company, organisation or event. To do this, I work to develop a strong concept that can inform outcomes such as logos, colour palette, typography and grid systems.
In the past few years I have been working with a wide range of clients and collaborators. Sportswear brands, art institutions, design studios and small businesses such as cafés and music event promoters. Currently this all happens from my (tiny) flat but I regularly collaborate with freelancers who have been situated both in the UK and internationally.
What’s been your favourite project to work on, from the past year, and why?
I’ve had the chance to work on some great projects over the past year. For a few weeks now, I have been helping a friend with his music event promotional company in Margate, designing posters and social assets for gigs. This is super-fun to work on as it allows me to be more experimental and design with less pressure.
However I would say working on initiative Open Doors has probably been my favourite project to work on, as it was for an amazing cause. The project was backed by Nike, UK Active and iron-man athlete John McAvoy. Covid highlighted a lot of problems within society and one of them was the inequality to access outdoor resources, with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds impacted the most. The main aim for the Open Doors initiative was to combat this problem by unlocking underutilised sports facilities during the school holidays to allow for activities such as yoga, football and boxing.
“I’m happy to have had the chance to work on a project so early on in my career that does not stem from the need to sell a product.”
It was held in multiple locations throughout the UK. The project was fairly lengthy as there were a few unexpected problems that came about, such as the changing of the name of the initiative. The design process was great as there was plenty of time to experiment and push the design forward. We landed on the concept of “unlocked spaces, unlock hope.”
I worked with an amazing team; the Nike EMEA Brand Creative team: Paul Kennedy, Cissy Lott-Lavigna, Joep Pingen, Sabrina Maerky, Anthony Smith and Nina Ririmasse were super-supportive, patient and gave me a lot of trust to develop the identity. I also worked with extremely talented freelancers Ananya Mohan and animator Jack Collis.
What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
Influences differ from project to project but a strong theme throughout my work is typography and how it can be formed and manipulated to express different emotions. As well as how it can create tensions within its shape or body. This is something I try to embody in all my work, either through designing lettering or from the shape of typographic structures.
Aside from that, my inspirations and influences vary depending on the project. A class I took at university called Global Identities was a massive inspiration for me to start working on editorials which contained social or political theories, such as Banal nationalism. The key components of the theory influence the structure and design decisions of the editorial.
I’m also inspired by designers and artists that push their craft forward, such as Gina Guasch Team, 40mustaqel, Darryl Daley, Alina Derya Yakaboylu, Mohamad Fawal, Right to Left, Cha Chaan Teng to name a few.
“A strong theme throughout my work is typography, and how it can be manipulated to express different emotions.”
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
I think the main element is being motivated enough to put in the hours to develop as a designer. This can be hard to do without a structure like university. I would recommend university as it gives you that time and structure needed to develop your craft. I’m also aware that there are a lot of tools and online resources like YouTube which help bridge that gap.
What’s your favourite thing on your desk right now?
Nothing that interesting on the desk, but I have a football underneath it. The work days can be super-long and tedious, so whenever I have a random burst of energy I tend to do a few step overs in my flat and embody my inner Cristiano Ronaldo.
If you could sum up your job in an emoji, what would it be and why?
👨💻 Super-simple but I spend most of my time staring at a screen, thinking and working on design.
How I got here
What was your journey like when you were first starting out?
I grew up in foster care so there were a few barriers I had to overcome before getting into design. I found it extremely difficult to concentrate on one thing which resulted in me doing a lot of dead-end jobs. Although I was always creatively inclined, it wasn’t until the age of 21 (still young) that I became aware of graphic design. When I found design I knew it was something I wanted to do for a career, so it became easy to work hard and focus on it, as I did not want to go back into working a job where everything seemed hopeless.
“There’s still a lot more to learn but the choice to go freelance from the start has given me a more unique perspective and approach to design.”
I did a one year BTEC graphic design course which got me into university to study graphic design. University was very helpful to my growth as a designer as it allowed me the time to explore, experiment and develop my craft. I had an opportunity to do the diploma in professional studies course which meant spending a year interning at design studios. And following my final year, I found myself with a few small freelance jobs here and there. Luckily I was featured in a few design articles which helped promote my work, and soon after Nike reached out to collaborate on a project.
I still consider myself at the beginning of my career but it’s amazing to see how much I’ve improved since my first big project; it was like being dropped in the deep end. Since then I’ve been forced to learn quicker in all aspects of design, from developing concepts to project managing and working with fellow freelancers. There’s still a lot more to learn but I feel that the choice to freelance from the start has given me a more unique perspective and approach to design.
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Jamie Brindle on TikTok and his freelance advice. He talks about navigating the freelance world and negotiating and talking money with clients.
The It’s Nice That podcast (from 2017). During university I remember listening to this series of podcasts. There were some great nuggets of information scattered throughout each episode. The one that really stuck with me and I regularly quote is the episode about colour, which looks into colour theory and the psychology behind it. I know that It’s Nice That have a new podcast, too, which is on my list!
Failed It! by Erik Kessels. It’s a short book that teaches one to embrace imperfections within art and design. A friend of mine introduced me to the book, which has subconsciously influenced my work ever since.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
There have probably been a few but I would say a big challenge is stability. Since leaving school I’ve not really lived a stable life until now. Job security, working zero-hour contracts or in the gig economy was extremely tough, and I did not have the skills, education or support to be able to pull myself up out of this kind of work.
As mentioned earlier, being in education gave me time to develop both as a person and in design. I guess in many ways I still live the same life as before with no job security (as a freelancer) but this time around it feels like my choice instead of it being out of necessity.
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
Putting work out there – whether you're a beginner or experienced – is a great way to get exposure. A lot of companies have designers, creative directors and recruiters using the same social media platforms. It’s much easier now (than say 10 or 20 years ago) to be found for a specific job or project.
“Social media has changed the industry landscape; it provides access to visibility that was previously all taken up by legacy design agencies.”
Social media has changed the industry landscape; it provides access to visibility that was previously all taken up by legacy design agencies. It’s an amazing tool for self-promotion and you can see how platforms like TikTok are offering emerging creatives access to visibility and all that brings.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
“Being rejected is part of the process.” I can’t pinpoint exactly who told me this but it was while I was interning at different companies during my year out. You’re not always going to get everything the first time around, you might need to send 50 emails before you get one reply and that’s okay – it will help you develop as a person and as a designer.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Practice is key. At the beginning it can be very disheartening not being able to design the way you want because the skill level is not there. However this can only be reached after many hours of experimenting and exploring your craft. The more hours you put into developing your design approach, the better you will become at it.
There are many ways to put in the hours, including critical thinking when seeing design and questioning why some is good, or why it might not work. Reading about both design and non-related topics, such as philosophy, geography, music and every other topic can play a part in influencing your approach.
Finally just start designing – pick a theme, topic, genre and start experimenting.
Interview by Mohammed Samad
Interview by N'Tanya Clarke