Posted 30 May 2023
Mention Ya'Qub Mir
Interview by Lyla Maeve

How answering a brief at a uni lecture kickstarted branding designer Ya’Qub Mir’s career

Having scored a two-week work placement from Studio Up North [SUN] founder Jamie Kelly during a uni guest lecture in 2019, Ya’Qub Mir has continued honing his voice in branding ever since. Joking that his managers at SUN have “forgotten to get rid of” him, he counts his company’s melting pot of clients as a source of continual inspiration for his work. But it wasn’t always this way: finding his footing as a fledgling creative, he was told by a teacher that he didn’t “look like a designer”. Here, Ya’Qub tells us how he proved them wrong, and concisely breaks down what it means to create an authentic brand voice – as well as how he does it.

Ya'Qub Mir

Ya'Qub Mir

Job Title

Brand Designer, Studio Up North



Selected Clients

National Fostering Group, DB Cargo, Thomas Crapper & Co., Word360, Yantan

Place of Study

BA Graphic Design, University of Bolton (2016–2019)

Social Media


What I do

How would you describe what you do as a designer at Studio Up North?
The general perception from people who aren’t in a creative field is, “oh, he makes logos” – but brand design is a lot more than that. It’s creating a robust visual and verbal language so that if logos suddenly disappear, you would still know what brand was talking to you just based on what it looks like, what it’s saying and how it’s saying it.

I work with a fantastic team. All of us share a vision, express ourselves through our different perspectives, have different backgrounds but work towards the same goal. They leave their ego at the door, which makes for an incredibly fun, creative and collaborative environment. It’s never a case of, “this is their work so I’ll leave it to them”; they all create an environment that’s inspiring, creative and fun.

What recent piece of work at SUN are you most proud of?
One thing I enjoy about working at SUN is that we’re not sector specific, so our days and the clients we work with vary a lot. It has given us the opportunity to expand, not only in brand design, but to do a bit of campaign work. We get to work with clients that share our purpose of finding ways to help create a better world, by helping them best communicate their own purpose to their audience.

Most recently, we created a TV ad campaign for the National Fostering Group (above). With 77 children being brought into care everyday in the UK, the objective was to encourage people to reach out and take the first steps towards potentially becoming a foster carer, or at the very least, ask to learn more. We spent time speaking to real carers and children, learning as much as we possibly could about their stories, views and challenges in order to best communicate the essence of being a foster carer. As a result, we created a campaign based on real people telling real stories, called “It’s because of you”.

How I got here

What kind of skills are needed to do your role? And would you say you need any specific training to do what you do?
The most important skill is idea generation. It’s not easy to come up with something from seemingly nothing; I’ve learnt the importance of doing the right research.

At SUN that involves a lot of direct communication with the client, finding out their wants and needs, why they do what they do, what’s their approach, how it differs from their competitors and so on. From there, there’s a good mixture of desk and field research. If it’s a product, going out into a shop where their product would sit and get a feel for its environment; if it’s a service, maybe testing it out, asking people who use the service what the benefits are.

The next skill is translating the findings of your research into a robust brand strategy. Who are you targeting? How do we communicate to them? What do they care about? What makes them tick? What’s their purpose? A lot of brand strategy is not only answering questions, but thinking of the right questions to answer.

“A lot of brand strategy is not only answering questions, but thinking of the right questions to answer.”

Landscape applications from DB Cargo’s “Together we’re safer. Together we’re DB.” safety campaign
Authority to Intervene card, given to employees as part of the “Together we’re safer. Together we’re DB.” safety campaign

From there it takes an assortment of hands-on skills to further translate the brand’s strategy into visual components. These can range from typography, colour theory and icon creation, to illustration, animation and so on.

With branding, a “brand” is more than just the logo. The logo is like the eye of a person – everyone’s is unique, and there’s a lot of beauty to be seen, but we must go further than just that.

Lastly, communication and being able to confidently speak to your team and your clients about your work. It might take some time to get there, and it’s not always an easy process – but the more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll become in that environment.

“It might take some time to get confident communicating with clients, but the more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll become.”

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Brand Guidelines, part of the Thomas Crapper & Co re-brand

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TC&Co icon wallpaper, part of the Thomas Crapper & Co re-brand

How did you land the job at SUN?
I was in the right place at the right time with SUN. Jamie [Kelly, SUN’s founder] had been invited to the university by our lecturers to give a talk to the design students. As a bonus, he tasked the class with a brief, which was simply to create a brand. He would then go on to select a student who answered the brief, and they would work with him on a two-week work placement.

I feel incredibly fortunate that Jamie selected me for that two-week work placement, which has turned into three-and-a-half years – I reckon he’s just forgotten to get rid of me.

The SUN office

What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
I didn’t find any kind of real footing until the last year of university. I didn’t have a clue what sector of design I wanted to specialise in. So I took every uni project as an opportunity to be creatively experimental, see how far you can push things and learn when to pull it back; test what you enjoy and try the things that you don’t think you would’ve.

Back then, I often created work purely because it was fun to do, without a sense of direction and no solid theory. I still have that urge, as a creative, to play. I’ve learnt how to harness that ambition to find ways to make it work when backed by a strong theory, rationale and understanding of my own personal capabilities and limitations.

Yaqub mir designer creativelivesinprogress DIN Envelope

Ya’Qub’s personal project, a re-brand for Manchester-based dentist Dr Imran Nisar

Yaqub mir designer creativelivesinprogress Billboard Landscape 1

Yaqub mir designer creativelivesinprogress Wall Poster Set 2

If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work, what would they be and why?
One million percent, books. I’ve just started reading Creative Leadership: Born from Design by Rama Gheerawo. The book explores whether designers can be better leaders due to their creative capabilities and empathy taught from the human-led strategy used in design.

For creatives starting out in brand design, I would recommend both Book of Branding by Radim Malinic and Brand Identity by Catherine Slade-Brooking. They offer great insight on the process of creating a brand from initial research to releasing the final product, with great exercises throughout.

I’d also shout out Creative Waffle, hosted by Mark Hirons. Mark has interviewed some of the greatest designers in the world in both the world of branding and sport design, speaking to the likes of Stefan Sagemeister, Paula Scher, Geo Law, Gail Anderson and Ibby Tarafdar, to name a few.

Other podcasts I’d definitely recommend are: Design Matters with Debbie Millman, Design Your Life by Vince Frost, The Logo Geek Podcast with Ian Paget and The Creative Boom Podcast with Katy Cowan.

What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
I never truly felt I belonged in design classrooms, as I was never shown designers who I could relate to. Sure, I was taught about some amazing creatives whom I take inspiration from, but with each new introduction, I felt more out of place. I felt I had to be overly ambitious and come with over-the-top ideas in order to get noticed.

I was once sat down by a lecturer (they no longer work at the uni). They flat out told me to give up on design, that I don’t fit the mould as I don’t look like a designer. It broke my heart. For many years I would refer back to that moment if I ever felt like I wasn’t going to succeed in this industry. Over the years my take-away from that meeting has changed; I use it more for motivation. I believe that representation is massively important in an emerging creative’s development.

My desire isn’t to be famous; my desire is to create great pieces of design, continue to be vocal about who I am. To give inspiration and better representation to the next generation of designers.

You do not have to look, talk or act a certain way to be a creative. Creativity becomes homogeneous if you’re only taught one way to design; diversity always broadens creativity.

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Wordskii digital application, part of the Word360 re-brand

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Poster series applications, part of the Word360 re-brand

Have there been any courses, programmes or access schemes you would recommend to get into your sector?
In terms of courses, I often look to Skillshare; for branding there are videos from Paula Scher, Alex Center, Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman, Debbie Milman, Khadija El Sharawy and more. They have an amazing library; I try to set time aside to pick one course, watch through it and make notes.

I’ve always loved going to design conventions, going to talks from a variety of different creatives. To me, the stand outs are Design Manchester and Birmingham Design Festival. Events like BDF are truly inclusive; the community really does care about breaking down the notion of having to look and talk a certain way to be a designer. Their line-ups offer different perspectives, and have pushed me to keep going and taught me aspects of my sector that I hadn’t yet considered.

My advice

What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
In branding, we aim to create systems that last a long time. If something is overly complex, the client may not understand the system and how to put the design work together after our work is done. So keep it simple. If it has a strong rationale behind it, it will last a lot longer. Nike is a great example; it has become timeless in a way that allows the brand to experiment visually.

My university lecturer, Carol Allison, always gave me the best advice. Carol said: “design is a series of peaks and valleys, sometimes you’re stuck in a rut and other times you’re on top. Both pass with time”. So the advice I took from that is to learn to acknowledge when you are in that valley, know that it’s OK to take breaks, work on something else, come back to it later – or even try looking at the challenge from a different perspective. It’s all part of the process, and every designer goes through it and being stuck isn’t a reflection of your ability.

A career is a long period of time. Stepping away doesn’t take anything away from you or your process; it allows you to clear your head and eventually reach the peak on the other side.

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Brand guidelines as part of the Yantan brand launch

Ya Qub Mir branding designer creativelivesinprogress 11

Labels on knitwear as part of the Yantan brand launch

What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Sometimes opportunities appear when and where you least expect it. When they do present themselves and you feel like it’s something you can’t miss out on, go for it. If it doesn’t work out, then it’s a great learning experience. Either way, it’s a positive for you.

A lot of emerging designers may be initially intimidated by opportunities at certain agencies, as they see it as a big step-up. It’s important to remember that skills can be taught, more often than not, people are looking for your love for what you do, and how you translate that love into ideas. Everything else from there can be built upon. So go for it.

Tailor portfolios to the places you’re applying to. Keep the layout clean, let the work shine and remind yourself of the process it took to get to the final piece, so that you’re comfortable talking about your work. And if you ever feel something is missing in your portfolio, or there’s an area you’d like to personally improve in, don’t be scared to create self-initiated projects.

Ask as many questions to as many people as possible. Jump on LinkedIn, reach out to people and connect with initiatives like The Arena and Fuse that are full of creatives at various levels.

The best work comes out of the projects you’re the most invested in. The more you enjoy learning, the more you enjoy designing.

Remember that interviews are just as much for you as it is for them. It’s your opportunity to learn about the studio’s process and what it’s like as a working environment. Trust your gut, you want to work at a place that inspires you, that pushes you but does so in a way that grows your confidence.

Finally, remember to manage your time at and away from your computer. I think a lot of designers fall into the habit of driving until the wheels fall off, all it does is lead to burnout. Enjoy your weekends and take time to clear your mind of work.

Mention Ya'Qub Mir
Interview by Lyla Maeve