D&AD Meets is a regular series where we elevate the work of need-to-know creatives who have been through D&AD programmes Shift and New Blood. Each interview features new talent deserving of a spotlight, the ones to watch, and the ones to work with. Here we speak to Rafaaye Ali, who graduated from Shift in 2018. He has since worked as an illustrator for the adversiting agency Mother where he creates work for clients like KFC, and was on the Illustration jury at the 2022 D&AD Awards. Here, Ali talks about creating illustrative pro bono work for human rights and feminist organisations in his spare time and how he dealt with a huge loss.
Tell us about yourself, what’s your background and what are you currently doing?
I’m a 32 year old dyslexic, Muslim, Pakistani, that works as an in-house illustrator at Mother London. A mouthful that sums up some of my nuances. I often do pro bono projects in my free time that are offered to help support marginalised communities or Muslim female-run projects/businesses, human rights organisations and intersectional feminist spaces. I also have a personal project where I aspire to visualise misogyny and toxic masculinity.
Tell us about what your role entails at Mother?
Within Mother, I am able to work with various different teams. Sometimes I'm working with new businesses where we would have strategists, and creatives coming together. Sometimes they just want to be able to articulate that data or information into a visual image to just help clients understand and comprehend information in a new visually compelling way. Then sometimes I'm working with creatives to just visualise their ideation to make it feel tangible.
When you're selling an idea to a client, it allows them to buy into the idea without feeling like you're just having to imagine it for yourself, sometimes it's just bridging that gap. I also will tend to do storyboards, mocking up things for them to, like, really just slip into the world in which it’s being depicted, and I think that touches on illustration. There's a lot of thought, there's a lot of nuance that comes before it gets to that final visualisation and sometimes that's the sad part that you never really see the build up. I'm one of those little hidden figures who are the building blocks of a finished campaign.
What was your route into the creative industry as an illustrator and designer?
My route wasn’t a conventional one, I failed my last year of university as I withdrew into a shell after my best friend in high school passed away. It was a moment where I just couldn’t really come to terms with it and instead poured in all my time reading up on what was happening in the Middle East where he had volunteered in a hospital and was unfortunately killed. It’s part of what got me politically conscious. It took a long while to get back into the headspace to write and start creating again. When I finally did, I came across the D&AD Shift programme and it was the right time. It really allowed me to find an alternative route into the creative industry, which is really, really wonderful.
I did work in a creative educational startup. Unfortunately, it wasn't necessarily the best place to work because there was an employer who mistreated me and was unfortunately racist. I had to take it to the court and so while I was doing the Employment Tribunal I was doing night classes at Shift. It helped me maintain my creativity while I was dealing with that at the same time. After the program, it was thanks to that portfolio I made during Shift that I entered and won the chance to be featured at CREAM 2019 which was hosted at Mother London. The following day, beyond my expectations, I got an email where someone at Mother had a glance through my portfolio. I then got an interview and an internship.
Can you tell us a bit more about your experience doing the Shift programme?
I think Shift is something which can be intense. It really requires you to pour a lot of time and effort and it's hard when you're doing other things at the same time. I would definitely recommend making sure you have a healthy mindset so that you can make the most of it, because it's wonderful to be able to meet other creatives in similar circumstances who haven't necessarily got a degree. And so there's a lot of individuals who are facing impostor syndrome. Shift was a safe place to allow yourself to constantly put yourself outside your comfort zone and ask questions and learn from those around you.
I got the chance to go into various prestigious agencies that I had absolutely no knowledge about until Shift. It made the creative industry feel like less of a lottery ticket moment and something achievable that we could all do. I got amazing talks from some of the brightest and most creative individuals who shared so much of themselves to empower us. I then built a portfolio over the Shift program and had a showcase. It was my beginning point to bounce from and grow.
What was the biggest challenge that you have faced on your career journey and how did you overcome it?
I think the hard part of getting into Mother was that every three months I would get a review. Mother is one of those ad agencies where so many people wish to work and so they get an infinite amount of people seeking an opportunity here. So people get cut off after a few months when they might not necessarily be the right fit or they might not have been able to create the work which was necessary for the brief. That's not to say they couldn't always come back to Mother at a later date but I guess I was like imagining it was a ticking time bomb that I was eventually going to be cut because my role didn't exist. And so I had to kind of carve out a path for myself. I tried to put myself out of my comfort zone to learn things. There was a graphic design team but my graphic design skills were not at the level of what everyone else was at. But illustration was a strength. It was something in which I was able to be competent in and be able to support an offer. After two years I was given that full time position where suddenly I no longer had to worry about the rug being pulled under me.
You were also on D&AD Awards 2022 Illustration jury, what was that like?
That was honestly one of the most incredible things. The other judges were really established, they were very prestigious illustrators, very well known ones and far more skilled than myself. So I first thought, ‘I wonder why I'm on this board of judges’ because all these illustrators are far more gifted than myself. But as soon as I came onto that panel of judges and we were looking through the work, I realised there were things I could offer. So you know I'm an illustrator for pro-bono human rights organisations, and that became a really useful asset in my judging panel. Because when we were looking through work it wasn't just the aesthetics of it just being a beautiful picture, it was about nuances and depth. As soon as we started talking about the work, we started fighting for the projects, which we really thought should have been amplified. So it really was empowering and it was invaluable to see that I had some sense of worth there.
What have been your career highlights so far?
My career highlights have to be making the KFC illustrations on the app and kiosks. Being selected as a D&AD Judge where I got to show my value and awareness on topics around institutional racism and social justice helped to make sure work which had nuance to it was taken into account. I’ve also enjoyed just looking at portfolios and sharing tips with young illustrators which I will hopefully be doing more of soon.
But I think my career highlights are sometimes moments where I realised that I am able to connect people together and allow them to have those connections which might not necessarily have been possible. I really enjoy listening to those around me. Sometimes you never really know how it might be such a great resource for someone else. So when I find female-run organisations that are tackling misogyny or domestic violence, or just trying to upskill women, I know someone else who might help support that cause. So it's really empowering to be able to just create bridges, share those connections.
What advice do you have for someone trying to break into the creative industry?
Our routes into the industry are unique, individualistic. Try not to compare yourself to those around you who stepped into it earlier or through a straightforward manner. The way you get into the industry will allow you to break barriers and offer new perspectives. It’s never too late to change your career and enter this industry. Try reaching out to creatives you admire and seek out some mentorship, some feedback on portfolios, join the Dots platform and find the forum of questions asked to hopefully help empower you. Any work you create can always be developed at a later stage, go back to it and instil what you learned from those internships into your older pieces in your portfolio. Create projects for yourself that you are passionate about for causes that are meaningful to you. Imagine who your dream client is and what that brief would look like, and how you would create work for them. One final thing I'd advise is make sure you tailor your portfolio to wherever it is you are applying. A generic portfolio will be taken less seriously.
Who are the three creatives that have most inspired you and that you think are doing interesting work?
Kishan Rajani is an amazing book designer at Faber, who is colour blind, and yet makes such beautiful and colourful book cover designs. He’s also my best friend. Another designer I’m proud to know who creates wonderful work is Samar Maakaroun, who runs her own studio called Right to Left, utilising typography and language in meaningful and insightful ways. My third creative I’d suggest is Charlotte Mei whose work I always admire and that I’ve been able to see develop over the years.
Get in touch with Rafaaye Ali: raafaye
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