Working towards a fairer music industry

In Conversation With : Yasseen Faik

Graphic Designer
Yasseen Faik is a London based graphic designer working in the music and arts industry. Since graduating, Yasseen’s varied experience has led him on the path to find that sweet spot between working on passion filled projects that nourish the creative spark and the commercial jobs that ensure some kind of financial security as freelancer. Marrying the skills learned at both ends of this spectrum has come to benefit the work of both.

He’s worked for independents such as Crack Magazine, behemoth institutions like the Tate and niche record labels you probably haven’t heard of. We sat down with him over a coffee in the Purcell Room cafe at Southbank Centre to find out more about his process, the importance of maintaining your principles and his journey to become an established sought after designer.

How did university prepare you for working as a graphic designer?

I went to University of the West of England in Bristol. For working in general, I think where you go to university has a big impact on what skill sets it gears you up for. Graphic design is so broad that you can go to an arts uni, or a uni that focuses on branding and corporate identity and on becoming a professional designer in that sense. UWE was a very open and experimental course - they really focus on concept and typography and layout as opposed to branding.

I do feel that I’ve become the kind of designer I am because of that university. I had a really positive experience there but I know that not all people come out of uni with such a positive experience, and I don’t think you need to go to university to become a graphic designer either. You can be self-taught in your bedroom, and if you’re good then you’re good. But personally speaking, it helped me a lot. I didn’t know graphic design before I went, and I came out feeling like I was more of a professional.

What skills do you feel you developed at university that you wouldn’t have been able to develop being self-taught?

Talking to people, and learning how to use design vocabulary. Learning how to talk about your idea, and also to have faith in yourself. If you’re just working isolated in your bedroom then it’s hard to know if something it actually good or not, but as soon as you have a bar of quality from others at university you can see where you fit in. I found seeing the quality of other people doing graphic design at my age and on my course really helped.

Did you go straight into freelance design work after uni?

God no! When I left university I spent a few months doing the standard internships in shitty places where there’s over a hundred people and only two of them know your name. And I quickly realised that I didn’t want to exist in that corporate design world of rankings and climbing ladders to pitch for Colgate packaging. Then I moved back to London where I’m from, but my girlfriend was still in Bristol so I wanted to move back there. I applied for loads of jobs, and I ended up getting lead designer for Crack Magazine which was pretty sick. I worked there for two years and that job took me from being a young designer to a professional. I learned how to work on very fast turnovers and time-frames, and with lots of people.

Then I left Crack in 2016 and got a job at the Tate as lead freelancer, which was amazing! Great pay, great exposure, and mega projects. It was the complete opposite of Crack where we created the rules and there were no limits on how the design went. Tate was very much, “here’s your brand guidelines that are as thick as your arm.” I’d learned how to work in a really experimental way then had to reign it in and learn how to work in a very structured, methodical way. Both are opposite ends of the cultural spectrum, and from those two experiences I learned where I wanted to work, which is somewhere in the middle – trying to be a creative and experimental designer but with corporate appeal. That’s the area that I find most interesting.

What does a normal work week look like for you?

I’d love to just work on one thing at one time, but usually I’ve got a few things on. One will take precedence as the big project and then there’ll be a couple of other smaller things. I create an imaginary hierarchy of what I think is most important, which is usually based on budget or time constraint. But truthfully, freelance has its ups and its downs. I won’t gas it up like every day is mad busy, because it’s not. Some weeks I’m super busy and I’m working until two in the morning, some days I’m finished and I’ve still got half a day where I have no work to do. Then I’ll use that time to make some music, but it all feeds back into my own work somehow.

Does organising and prioritising work come naturally to you, or was it something you had to learn over time?

Not at all. Organisation in general doesn’t come naturally to me so I had to work at it. I’m very much a jump-into-a-million-things kind of person. I’m a lot more creative than I am pragmatic, and it’s something I’m still learning to do. It’s hard because as a graphic designer or an artist you know your craft, but then applying that to business is a whole separate thing. It’s nothing to do with design but it’s something that you can’t ignore.

What are some of the biggest differences between working for big institutions and small independent companies?

Definitely creative freedom, just because the bigger the brand the more consistency you need across it. It’s all about risk – the more money a client has to lose, the less likely they’ll want to take risks. They’d rather go for something a bit cleaner and safer than allowing for experimentation. Also the people. In a big company you’ll have thirty people in an email chain, and only three of them are designers. So you end up with Janice from accounts giving her two cents and you can sometimes feel a bit strangled by bureaucracy. But they’re all useful experiences on how to deal with people and learning about what kind of designer you want to be.

What have been your favourite campaigns to work on?

Well, outside of design I love music. I DJ and make music myself and am very passionate about the UK Dance scene. I started working for a label called Critical Records, which is a Drum and Bass label. It was one of those projects where I just fanboyed them for years and had all their records and then I got a chance to actually contribute artwork. I still do to this day. I’ve got a really close relationship with them and I also make records for them. It’s not a huge money job, but if you’re talking about pride in a project then the cultural significance of that job for me is tenfold over something like Tate. As a designer, you’ve got to find a balance between passion projects and your bread-and-butter stuff. Not everyone has the luxury of only being able to work on passion projects but it’s good to try to as much as you can.

Why is typography so important to your work?

There’s kind of two reasons. The first being that I can draw, but I can’t draw. I can’t draw amazing, 3D life-like stuff. As a kid I wanted to be an artist but I wasn’t that good at realistic drawings, and I think that put me off imagery. So as a teenager I would draw these wild, illegible letters, and that gradually grew neater and neater. Then I went to Camberwell College of Arts and all the pieces came together. I wanted to be an artist but I didn’t really understand how to be an artist in a commercial sense, because growing up you only hear that artists don’t make any money.

So I started reading about graphic design and typography, which leads to the second reason – I realised that your average person doesn’t look at a letter form and think “that’s a nice curve in the‘o’” they just read an “o”. It’s that raw essence of communication that I find so fascinating. There’s a hidden beauty that unless you’re trained to see or have an eye for you’re just going to miss. In general conversation, if you ask someone to name a musician or a painter, they can do it. But if you ask someone to name a graphic designer, no one can. And that’s what I really liked about typography; it’s this whole world that you have to know is there to appreciate.

How do you manage to find new inspiration for your designs to avoid repeating ideas?

That’s a tough one. I feel inspiration is a word that’s difficult to quantify because you can’t always wake up in a creative zone. The idea of waiting until inspiration strikes is quite a luxurious place to be in. I can’t wait for inspiration to strike, I’ve got stuff to do! So it’s not sitting around and waiting for an idea; it’s actively researching, reading and looking at materials, and not just following Instagram blogs. Instagram has done wonders for my career but in general, I find that people who only use Instagram for their design inspiration begin to look the same. It’s a very insular circle and the same people are making the same work for the same blogs. That doesn’t create progression. It’s not a big outward spiral of amazingness; it’s an inward spiral where everything becomes tight and stale.

I don’t just look at design stuff. I go out, meet people, have experiences. Emotion gives me more inspiration than visual stuff. And once I have that feeling that I want to make something, then I start looking for visual cues.

When did you decide that graphic design was the right career for you, as opposed to other mediums of visual art?

I think at Camberwell. Before that I was into all different kinds of visual art but I didn’t really understand what graphic design was. Then I went there and learned about grids, and type and structure, and I began to understand how you can have all these crazy ideas but you can also refine it and present it. I’ve always known that I wanted to do art – my dad was a painter and his mum was a painter, so it was always in my blood – but Camberwell in 2010 was the moment I realised I could make a career from it.

Looking back at yourself as a young designer, is there anything you would have done differently to get to where you are now?

I feel as a young designer you don’t know how to say no. You’ll take on any job, and for the most part you should do that because you need to learn. But if there’s a job you don’t agree with, and not only from a moral point of view like if some fracking company needs design. I also mean if you just don’t vibe with it, then think about not taking it. You can’t be interested in everything you do, but if you genuinely don’t care about something then you’re not going to make nice work for it. And that goes back to being inspired – you’ve got to believe in the idea to make good work.

Now I can be much more selective with who I work with and I only do the jobs that I want to do. Young designers need the work and need the money, but the kind of work you put out dictates the kind of work you get given. If you’re just pumping out work for money then those are the kind of clients that are going to continue to contact you, and you’ll always be stuck doing that Colgate packaging when really you want to be designing those weird record sleeves. So yeah, I’d say have a vision of the kind of artist you want to be and try and work towards that by immersing yourself in those circles.

Finally, is there any other advice you would give to burgeoning designers?

Figure out who you want to be. Graphic design is a funny one, because you’re not pigeonholed into one skill set. You can be a programmer, a tech designer, a brand designer, a strategist, a type designer – there are a hundred jobs within the bracket of graphic design, so if you think about where you want to be on that scale it will help guide you. Before I thought about it, I was just a graphic designer, but didn’t really know what that meant.

Who’s your audience? Where do you want to be? What do you want to do and say with your work, and where do you want it to exist in the world? It’s a slow process, but you need to learn yourself and work towards achieving that.