“Engage in work that aligns with your soul’s calling.” Kaam Kaaj on the shared joy of their practice
The London-based trio of creatives – Mohammed Samad, Bouk Ra and Joanna Domagalska – specialise in branding and typography, having previously worked separately as freelancers and individuals, honing their own skills. Now, with a synchronicity and deep understanding of each other’s creativity, they work together under the name Kaam Kaaj. In addition to the here and now of their practice, Samad, Ra and Domagalska reflect on their own design journeys post-uni; designing the branding for LCC’s 2023 degree shows; and what advice they would give to fresh graduates.
PT Hi Kaam Kaaj! How are you all?
MS Hi Poppy, we’re all good. Just melting away in our seats due to the heat! :)
PT How did you meet? And why did you team up and launch a studio together?
MS I was working with a lot of freelancers in the past few years and that made me think that we could probably just put a collective name to what we are producing. I also liked the idea of building something bigger than myself with other designers. So six, seven months ago I was on the lookout for collaborators to build a small design practice with.
I met Bouk through working with him on the Air Max 97 logo. I loved the way he worked and felt his skill sets complemented my own skills. Bouk is super detailed and amazing at creating systems. He has his own practice developing and selling fonts, which is something I’ve always wanted to do but never had the patience to commit to developing a whole font.
I knew of Joanna’s work from university (London College of Communication). I loved that Jo explored different tools and techniques which made her design work stand out. All three of us are into typography however with Jo there’s the added dynamic of her 3D work and thinking of future technologies.
We see our approach as quite playful and explorative however having a structure to it.
PT What does ‘Kaam Kaaj’ mean to you? Why did you pick this phrase to name your practice?
MS Kaam Kaaj is a phrase used in some South-Asian languages like Urdu, Hindi and sometimes Bangla. It means work or occupation. I liked the idea of using an industrial phrase and subverting the meaning. We see our approach as quite playful and explorative however having a structure to it. With the studio we want it to be exactly that. Having structure but also subverting traditional standards of work, through a four-day work week and embracing exploration through self-initiated projects.
PT How is your workload typically distributed between the three of you?
MS I think this varies a lot depending on the size of the projects we have. Typically we have two people working on a project but at any stage, this can become three if there are certain deadlines we need to meet. If it’s creating a font or making a logo then myself and Bouk are normally the ones working on this. Whilst if it’s 3D rendering then it’s mainly Jo working on it.
With self-initiated projects, it varies a lot. Sometimes it’s just one person and others all three of us have played a part in the creation of it. We normally have a couple on the go but it sometimes can take a back seat when juggling client work.
It’s so nice to see an identity being applied across a physical space.
PT What does a typical day for you and the team look like?
MS This varies a lot as well but we normally have three main points in the day. A morning meeting at 9am, lunchtime at 1pm and end of day is at 6pm, or slightly before. The morning meeting helps to guide us throughout the day. We’re all working remotely so we find these meetings important to help guide us for the rest of the day. I think a lot of our day can be determined by external project deadlines. Jo likes to take a walk in nature or do some gardening at lunch and Bouk is either rock climbing before or after the work day. I sometimes like to sneak a quick six-a-side football match on Monday lunchtimes which helps break up the routine of work.
PT You come full circle with your branding work for the LCC 2023 shows. What was it like to work on this project?
MS It was incredible to work on the LCC 2023 shows, myself and Jo are alumni so the degree shows are etched into our minds. We were very excited to pitch for this project, it’s not something we normally do however when we got the email for the opportunity we were all super excited as the project has so many mediums from editorial, socials, supergraphics and wayfinding. As a designer, it’s so nice to see an identity being applied across a physical space. It’s not often we get to plaster a custom typeface across a giant building, so it felt special.
We worked with a great team at LCC to produce the identity shows which made it so much easier as it’s a massive project. Olly Corps – Designer, Ned Alderwick – Content & Creative Lead, Amy Melling – Curator & Exhibitions Producer, Chloe Murphy – Editorial Content Coordinator, Tony Yard – Specialist Print Technician and Scott House – Technical Coordinator, Print and Finishing, Daniel Fletcher – Print & Finishing Specialist Technician, Helga Schmid – Programme Director, Graphic Design Communication, Alistair McClymont – Senior Lecturer Coding and Development, Irene Martin – Associate Lecturer Design School and Ravin Raori – Lecturer in Narrative Media.
PT How did you develop the design direction? Were you given any parameters to work within?
MS The design direction was based on the brief that was produced by the LCC team. The brief focused on ‘navigating challenging spaces,’ which is referencing the awkward architecture of LCC. Each gallery space can be difficult to find and can be hidden up two flights of stairs or tucked away behind a cafe. So with that in mind, we developed a couple of design directions and the successful direction was based on the idea of maps as a way of referencing the brief but also looking at it in a metaphorical way, as graduating students are mapping their future paths in their chosen industries.
PT Could you explain the thinking behind the final look?
MS The look behind the identity is based on maps and the deconstruction of them. From grids to symbols, scales and topography. We developed a custom typeface which is used throughout the identity. As the identity predominantly sits on a grid we felt it was fitting to create a typeface that embodied more organic forms found in topography. This helped to counteract the rigidness of the grid. With the colours, we looked into gradient maps and colour bars in the key of maps. We extracted the warmer colour tones to represent the summer shows in contrast to their winter shows. It was important to have a colour palette which had personality, however, when the identity incorporates students’ work the colour is toned down to light grey which allowed the students’ work to be main the focus.
Don’t get discouraged if your path after university isn’t as smooth as you thought it to be.
PT Looking back at your time since graduating, what was it like navigating the industry?
JD I graduated last year and took some time off before starting to look for jobs, as I was feeling quite burnt out after the final year at uni. I left London for a bit, in need of a break. When I came back, I spent some time working on my portfolio and researching creative opportunities whilst working as a barista in the meantime. It took a while before I started getting any responses but in the end, I managed to get some interviews. When I got the opportunity to work with Kaam Kaaj, I was very sure that it was the best choice – a small studio which puts a big emphasis on experimentation and self-initiated projects. I’ve been there since the end of last year.
BR I did not actively search for a job after graduating. Initially, I lacked interest in pursuing a career in design. Instead, I took up a position as a server at a restaurant, which lasted for a few months. However, during this period, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, confining me to my home. With ample free time on my hands, I began revisiting my old typography projects. In the absence of other engagements, I decided to transform these projects into fonts. Surprisingly, I found the process to be immensely captivating, spending my days and nights sketching and creating letters. I took great pleasure in carefully expressing my thoughts through typography. It was during this period that Mo approached me for a collaboration on AM97, which marked a significant turning point in my life. It was the first time an external individual or company had shown interest in my lettering skills. Recognising the distinctiveness of Mo's approach to work, I became deeply intrigued by the possibility of merging our creative energies. Subsequently, I joined Kaam Kaaj, where I have been actively working ever since.
It’s important to continue your own work and style.
PT Is there any advice you’d give to graduates?
MS Try to find the time to work on your own projects, develop your approach, visual taste and learn the tools. I think it’s good to work for a company but it’s important to continue your own work and style.
JD Don’t get discouraged if your path after university isn’t as smooth as you thought it to be. Sometimes you might not hear back from people, but from my experience sometimes you can also get an amazing opportunity from one day to another that you would have never even expected. Other than that, share your work and stay connected with your creative peers.
BR Discover what truly captivates your interest. Engage in work that aligns with your soul’s calling. Good opportunities will come naturally. Stay open to new things. Don’t underestimate other people’s projects and ideas. Be curious and willing to learn from different viewpoints. And don’t forget to think deeply and explore new ideas.
PT How important is self-initiated work? Why?
MS Self-initiated work allows us to explore and develop our approach. It’s a great way of getting to know the other designers and seeing what’s possible without expectations from external clients. It’s something that has been embedded within us from our time in university, to create projects ourselves. Although time-wise it’s not always easy to do as we have to balance our time across different projects. At the moment we have a lot of folders that each represent different ideas and progress for projects. They all vary on completion, some are nearly finished whilst others we have parked but I think it’s nice to go back to a project after some time as we can approach it with a new perspective.
PT Do you have any side projects on the go? Is there anything we should keep our eyes out for?
MS We have a lot of things but realised it’s best for us not to put pressure on when it’s going to be released. However, something which is very close to being finished is our typeface Rukh. It’s a display font with a lot of tension. Working with Bouk on building a typeface has been a dream as the expertise he provides is invaluable. So yeah, Rukh, out soon, maybe?