Mohammed Samad on freelancing, the evolution of his process, and seeing design as more than work
For Mohammed Samad, freelancing has been an unexpected, sometimes difficult route into the design industry. Despite a tricky start navigating post-graduate life in the midst of the pandemic, the London-based designer has excelled, contributing his type-driven expertise to an array of projects; from the V&A to continuous collaborations with Nike. We caught up with Mohammed to find out how his work has changed since entering the industry, and how he hopes his practice will shift and grow.
PT Hi Mohammed! How are you?
MS Hey Poppy, I’ve been sitting on this first question for the longest time trying to find an interesting response but failing. In saying that, I’m all good thanks and hope you’re well!
PT I’m good, thank you! What have you been up to lately?
MS I’m currently working on a branding project with Nike which is super fun. Also, I have recently completed a small editorial for Savvas Alexander, who is a London-based fashion designer. In general, I’m looking to shape my practice more and form better working hours and build a structure more aligned with a studio. Being a freelancer it’s very easy to get caught into cycles of bad working habits; I think a bit more of a framework around the ways of working can help establish a better work-life balance.
There’s not been many, if any, projects where the first idea has been the best.
PT Could you tell us a bit about your design process? Do you have common methods you usually stick to?
MS My design process differs depending on the project, client and also if it’s just for fun. My process has definitely transformed in the past few years, as I’m constantly learning on how to improve this. A few years ago, my process was very limited and centred around just using design as a form of play. Making work as a form of escapism. I loved getting caught up in the details of a design which had barely any concept and just purely crafting something for the sake of it. I would probably be 20 hours deep into designing something like a few letters or exploring layouts (over a week of evenings) before thinking “oh, I should probably start making rules or start rationalising some of these design choices I’m making.” In general, I loved the idea that there was no real end to a design, there was always another possibility or small change. I was fully absorbed into this pattern of spending evenings just designing and apart from the many extremely laggy 500+ page InDesign files created from this time, I also gained a lot of hours of enjoyment practising a craft.
I soon found out that this approach doesn’t really work in the design industry as being efficient and having a reason is always necessary. Now I typically follow a more ‘industry standard’ process of insight, research, concept and then design. I’m still learning and evolving the details of this process and realising that slight adaptation is needed depending on the client or brief. However, I think this idea of seeing design as not just a source of work but as a source of enjoyment is an inherent part of my practice.
PT Do you recall any projects where the breakthrough moment came after hours and hours of play and exploration, versus one where the first idea was the best one?
MS A lot of the lettering that I do and have made previously comes from hours of play and exploration. Most of the time there’s no real direction, to begin with, but the direction forms from the play. Below is an example of some lettering that started with just the urge to make something. Starting from a random grid and looking at ways to build tension within the forms. A lot of time was spent constantly refining the letters to build consistency. To be honest, every few months I’ll open this file up with the aim to make it a working font, however, my concentration to complete something functional thinks otherwise.
There’s not been many, if any, projects where the first idea has been the best. However, I have found that in-depth research and planning into concepts, to begin with, helps to establish the framework to then design from. This typically leads to a reduced amount of time on aimless designing as the frameworks and direction is much clearer. Myself and Ana Lapa often collaborate on projects such as on V&A East, East Bank Summer Programme and creating a wordmark for London-based design studio Companion (who I think you have featured before). It was a great learning experience working with Ana as she has a real passion for the research stage of a project. Something that I have also grown to really enjoy and even sometimes prefer the building of a concept over the designing of it.
PT One of your university projects, Banal Nationalism, blends editorial design with social and political theory. What inspired you to research this topic for your thesis?
MS My cultural identity is difficult to box. I grew up in care for a large portion of my life and lived in a predominantly white area for around 12 years. This has always made me question my own identity and where I fit in. Whether that be at home or on a larger societal level. I found it difficult to conceptualise and articulate some of my feelings around race, identity and how environments shape our sense of self for a long time. It wasn’t until discovering the likes of Akala or Ash Sarkar through YouTube that helped me get a broader perspective on this.
At university, this topic was explored in more depth through a Contextual Studies class called Global Identities. In my years of school/university, it’s probably been my favourite class to take (maybe aside from PE). I loved the teachings which centred around identities through specific topics and concepts such as cultural hybridity, globalisation, migration and national identity to name a few. For the first time, I could somewhat see myself within the education that was being taught and it really helped to break down some social constructs that affect the lives of many marginalised and POC communities.
The Banal Nationalism theory is centred around the idea of everyday symbols and repetitive acts that remind us of the nation-state and subconsciously build one's sense of national belonging. This was super interesting to me as from my own experience and from other British POCs, the banal nationalism also is subconsciously installed in them. However, that sense of national identity is often used against them to push political divides.
PT Do you think you would return to this theme of identity within your own work?
MS For sure, I think identity is something that is constantly being shaped and developed throughout our lives and design is a great way to express and archive this. Inherently everything that one creates is part of their own identity and self-discovery. In a lot of the jobs I have done prior to design, the final outcome is very detached from one’s self, it’s very difficult to see yourself within the final material which I find to be the opposite within design. There are elements of my own identity that I would love to place more emphasis on within my work however this will only come through self-discovery in my own life.
I find that when I’m busy, I’m super busy and when I’m not busy I feel guilty.
PT Is freelance work what you expected? What challenges have you faced so far?
MS One of the big challenges was getting to terms with what a freelancer is. I didn't really know what it meant to be a graphic design freelancer. I just called myself that as I did not have a secure job when graduating in the early months of the pandemic. It was super difficult to navigate as there was a real lack of jobs in the industry due to the world being on pause. At the time It felt like the only thing graduates could do was change their position on LinkedIn to freelance and hope that some work would come through (a tactic I still unashamedly use today). I had one client that I had been working with in my final year of university which extended a few months after graduating. This helped massively but I was barely surviving. After a few months, things started picking up again and I started freelancing with different companies and learning the diversity of this term.
I think freelance is often socially thought of as a way of working that one gets control of their lives and working hours and so on. I think this can be true for many people but I find that when I’m busy, I’m super busy and when I’m not busy I feel guilty. A lot of this is down to how multi-dimensional a freelancer needs to be. At the moment it has a large control of my life. That being said, I love it and prefer the possibilities it brings.
PT How have you gone about finding clients and studios to work with? Do they normally come to you, or do you have a method for approaching them?
MS It’s been a combination of both but mostly clients have approached me through finding my work online. In the past few years, I’ve had a number of offers to freelance for big clients, however a lot of the time I have gotten overwhelmed with my anxiety and imposter syndrome that I don't take the work on (unless I really need to). This is something I’m working on and each project I’m completing is broadening my knowledge of how to deal with this.
On the other hand, I do seek out to work with people, since university I have been sending out DMs to musicians or artists however this typically fails but every “we’ll keep you in mind” or “I’ll let you know” gives me a slight glimpse of hope and I find myself drafting another. I often find having a mutual connection is more successful for approaching people, so being introduced to an artist by someone you know.
PT What kind of working environment suits you?
MS As a natural introvert, I tend to favour working from home. In office environments, I overthink every movement that I make, whether that be dragging vector objects to eating the 4pm snacks. Overall, working in diverse spaces remotely is where I feel most comfortable as a designer and as a person.
PT Do you have any side projects or passion projects on the go at the moment?
MS I have a side project which I’m hoping to grow to be my main practice. It’s called Kaam Kaaj, which means ‘general work’ or ‘service’ in some South Asian languages. I liked the idea of using such an industrial word/phrase to name the practice as subverting the meaning is something I’m interested in. Emphasising play through self-initiated projects and secondly encouraging better work-life balance through challenging the standardisation of the 5-day work week. Aside from this, I have a TikTok account which I use to research and share historical designs from South Asia and other parts of the world.
PT Dream project, client or collaborator?
MS The sport-obsessed child me would say Nike or anything sport related. So it’s super cool to have had the chance to work with them. There are not any specific projects but I want to produce a more diverse range of outcomes through Kaam Kaaj.