What’s it like to be a young, female, Muslim designer? How does one’s faith affect the work done and the career path taken? Sabika Hassan is about to graduate from Manchester School of Art. Dave Sedgwick from StudioDBD talked to her about life at university, her faith and her hopes for her future career
I was recently asked by Manchester School of Art to take part in a portfolio review for final year students. It was aimed at helping to give them an insight into the ‘real world’, enable them to explain their work better and also offer some constructive criticism along the way (writes Sedgwick). The day went well with a steady stream of students showing me the fruits of their labour. As expected the level of work was high and the way in which students display their work these days made me embarrassed to think of how I presented mine when I graduated.
The last student to come through the door was Sabika Hassan. Sabika proceeded to show me her portfolio and spoke in great detail about the different projects she had undertaken on the course.
We came to one particular project for Durex condoms and Sabika instantly explained how she had ‘some concerns’ whilst working on that particular brief. Discussion drifted towards Sabika’s own faith and how it had impacted on her design career options, which made me appreciate how hard it might be for Sabika to integrate herself into the design world upon graduation.
There has been, and rightly so, a lot of discussion recently about the role of women in the design industry. But what about young Muslim female designers? How does a designer’s faith affect the kind of work they produce? I felt there was currently little discussion about this and so asked Sabika if I could interview her for CR.
DS: Thank you for agreeing to do this. Can you give me a brief introduction about your background in design?
SH: Graphic design is something that felt very natural to me. Further along in my education, I found myself at a crossroads deciding between which course to study at university. After being selected to study English at Cambridge Sutton Trust Summer School I discovered that although I enjoyed the subject I couldn’t quite imagine pursuing a career in any of its related fields.
My heart was screaming design, but I was apprehensive of listening to it because all of my family had possessed academic degrees. I felt pressured to excel in a field like medicine or dentistry but my parents knew that studying graphic design made me happy and they encouraged me to apply for this course.
DS: Do you think your tutors have understood how important your faith is to you?
SH: I think the tutors have been incredibly respectful of my faith and have always understood when it came to religious holidays and events. I’ve never wanted my faith to cause anyone to feel closed off from me and so I also approach the topic sensitively.
Whenever a religious holiday came up, taking a day off for Eid celebrations for example, they would encourage me to enjoy spending time with my family.
Crush to Cure kit, a project which “explores the ideology behind potentially extending ones life through utilising natural remedies- as opposed to prescription medication. By combining my own personal experiences and knowledge of natural medicine (which has been passed down to me from generation, after generation) and researched remedies, I created a beginner’s kit to alternative medicine. The kit includes, a pack of 18 laser-engraved recipe cards, individually screen-printed, of which 16 are recipes, a branded chopping board and a wooden spoon”
DS: Could perhaps universities be even more accommodating to Muslims when it comes to teaching design?
SH: Generally I think the course has been taught wonderfully and I’ve never experienced any kind of pressured situation.
However one issue I have faced has been when guest lecturers visit the university and socialising after that. After the lecture we are often invited to a bar to socialise, network and see more of the designer’s work, because of my religious beliefs I can’t attend such gatherings and so I feel as though I do miss out on my chance.
The same goes for exhibitions. Despite these difficulties I do sometimes choose to make an appearance to support my fellow students or be the advocate of my own work. This has been an awkward situation to balance, because alcohol is forbidden in Islam and so being around it places me in a rather compromising situation.
An extension of the above project, Crushed is an “exploration of what it means to ‘crush’; natural elements must be broken down and extracted in order to create home remedies”
DS: What about fellow students. Have you been able to mix with them?
SH: I think building a relationship with your peers is crucial at any level because you never know when you have to work or collaborate with someone you don’t necessarily socialise with.
I’ve always tried hard to make myself ‘approachable’ in terms of making fellow students feel comfortable around me and not allowing my beliefs to deter them in any way. I’ve achieved this by being as helpful as possible, sometimes a small act can go a long way.
Having this attitude has helped me sustain a healthy and respected relationship with my peers, which in turn has made collaborative work more enjoyable.
DS: How do you think they feel about your faiths and beliefs?
SH: Actually a lot of the time when my friends and peers ask me about my beliefs, they’re fascinated and we focus on the common ground rather than our differences.
Sometimes they’ve invited me to events and then pulled a sad face as a gesture of understanding my circumstances and why I can’t come along.
It’s taken some time to build this kind of relationship but talking, sharing and discussing has been a huge factor in dispelling any kind of misconception.
DS: Have any of them questioned you on your faith?
SH: Yes but never in a manner which has offended me, they know that I pray and fast and don’t drink or go to clubs and although this sometimes seems strange to them, they have a deeper understanding of my faith and who I am from getting to know me.
I don’t hide it from them, sometimes I’ve had to rush out and leave my belongings on the table for example to go and pray, and I can say that without worrying what they’re going to think.
DS: Do you think your faith has helped you develop your style or skills as a graphic designer?
SH: Definitely, I think my faith has made me a more sensitive designer, often I find myself carefully considering how to word things and the impact my design could or would have.
I love exploring my cultural side and tapping into that knowledge too, I recently did a project about alternative medicine and home remedies and I was surprised by how much overlap there was between my Islamic knowledge and the research I uncovered.
My faith has allowed me to be more sympathetic and subtle in my work, I’ve never been loud or have an overly boisterous personality and I think that translates in the way I handle a brief.
DS: In terms of preparing you for work after university life. Has there been much help, guidance or advice from your tutors?
SH: There’s been really helpful sessions, portfolio crits and advice given about preparing for work, but it’s all general stuff. I guess there haven’t been enough Muslim students to come through the system yet for tutors to realise that perhaps there needs to be something more tailored to someone in my position.
DS: Do you think there should be more done to prepare you for life after university?
SH: Yes, I think it would be helpful to know how to tackle questions such as ‘why can’t you endorse alcohol?’ Or ‘why should we hire you as opposed to the other candidate who doesn’t have the same beliefs as you?’. It would just give you that boost of confidence to not see yourself as a drawback and confidently handle questions like that.
Illumination – Sabika’s final year project. “Based on the theme of knowledge, this project explores the intersections between western and Islamic belief- the interactive sculpture requires a light source, ideally an iPhone torch, to be shined into the cube- thus revealing the typographic shadow art.”
DS: Moving on to the work you have done at university, do you think you should have a choice not to partake in certain projects or work on certain briefs?
SH: I think everyone has the right to their own views, and if working on a particular project could potentially be upsetting or compromising then of course we should have a choice.
Last year for example there was a Macmillan brief and some students couldn’t handle that due to personal experiences, similarly in the case of belief, this shouldn’t be treated any differently.
DS: Do you think that perhaps more female Muslim designers are put off going to University by the kind of work you might be asked to do? Or even by the culture that University is known for.
SH: Perhaps. Other disciplines accommodate an easier vocational career pathway, architecture for example, whereas graphic design specifically rotates around a very social scene, one which often involves networking and showcasing your work in bars.
That’s the only element I didn’t foresee and is something which places me at a slight disadvantage to my peers. However, I do think that those who want to pursue design will do so no matter what, and certainly won’t let their beliefs hold them back.
DS: Onto getting that all important first job, do you think you will find it harder to get work when you leave?
SH: I hope not, because I have so much to offer and am excited about my future prospects.
It’s been a slight worry because everything is so competitive, and trying to find an agency who I fit well with is something I constantly think about. There are agencies out there who have strong ethical beliefs, thinking about that helps calm me down! I’ve never wanted my faith to be considered a drawback because if anything it’s enhanced my level of sensitivity and allowed me to bring a fresh perspective to my projects.
DS: One thing I didn’t realise is that you can’t accept a handshake of another male.How do you imagine an interview situation going?
SH: I try not to worry about that aspect too much, but it is my first hurdle and I know how important first impressions are. I just judge the situation and improvise. Usually I diffuse any uneasiness through conversation, a smile or a humble justification as to my action.
So far I’ve never really faced any real problems because I clarify my position from the beginning, generally people have been very respectful and understanding. I was however at a portfolio surgery a few weeks ago and faced a situation where a handshake came my way without any time to really explain or act, it was the first part of the conversation and I quickly apologised for not extending my hand. Things were a little awkward after that though but I tried my best to be as bubbly and amiable as I could!
DS: Can you see how some people might find that difficult to understand?
SH: I appreciate that it isn’t common knowledge and could come off as a little unorthodox, but I generally try my best to let my personality shine through during the rest of the conversation (and hope that they aren’t put off) and I’m always apologetic in case I have unwillingly offended someone.
DS: One project that really interested me was one you did for Durex. I’m really interested as to how your faith can impact on your creative thinking and perhaps allow for an entirely different route that maybe someone else would never even consider.
SH: I managed to find a loophole and tackled that brief in a very subtle way, the idea was to create a set of glow in the dark visuals, which would be invisible during the day but would be charged by daylight- highlighting romantic hotspots within Manchester. There was nothing illicit within that project, and endorsing Durex doesn’t really compromise my values either because contraception isn’t forbidden.
However, because alcohol is forbidden in Islam I cannot endorse it, and working on a brief would mean that ultimately I have made a contribution, which goes completely against what I believe in.
DS: So do you think having certain strong beliefs greatly influences your work?
SH: I think so, but for the better, it gives me a unique perspective and allows me to me to be a very empathetic person. I want to share stories with the world and change perceptions.
I have a certain way of being able to make myself relatable in my work and that’s something really important to me; I’m always trying to find connections and dissolve differences. I know that my work is often very personal and I’ve seen some strong emotive reactions from people.
A model wearing one of Sabika Hassan’s headscarves from her Covered project
DS: Have you tried to do this with any of your projects before?
SH: A recent project I worked on called ‘Covered’ shares the experiences and stories of women who observe the headscarf in Islam. There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to Hijab (the veil) and what it means. I wanted to introduce ideas about what it is and answer common queries hijab wearing women are often asked. Wearing the Hijab myself, this was something very personal to me. I wanted my designs to come across as lightweight and fun, but with an informative angle.
I also wanted to arouse curiosities and draw audiences into the artwork rather than push them away with something ‘preachy’. Essentially I’m just telling the tale of thousands of women who live in a culture, which is often the focus of negativity from the media.
DS: Can you ever see yourself being able to put aside these beliefs for a better professional career?
SH: My beliefs make me who I am. I can’t imagine myself putting those at a secondary post to better my career, its part of my identity and facilitates my uniqueness as a creative thinker.
DS: Is there a muslim design scene? For example do you know of any studios that specialise in creating work for the Muslim community?
SH: Not that I’m familiar with or have heard of, I hope there is one day. I might even do something to kick-start a networking channel.
DS: Would you consider leaving the UK to find work perhaps in a more Muslim country as a designer?
SH: I think if I couldn’t make it here perhaps I would consider leaving, there’s a high demand for graphic design in Muslim countries because designers there are within the minority.
DS: Finally, do you think the design community could be more open to accepting creatives from all sorts of backgrounds, faiths and beliefs?
SH: I think part of being a creative is accepting each other’s values and appreciating one another’s views, creativity is an outlet for expression and that can’t be suppressed.
We live in a very cultured city and its richness comes from sharing our stories with one another. I’ve always been fascinated by other cultures and think that the world would be a very dull place if we were all the same.
Colours, languages and traditions have the ability to inspire and refresh us; I hope that’s something we never lose or forget.
DS: Thanks for your time Sabika. I wish you the best of luck on your journey and hope that the design industry can continue to accommodate all creatives whatever faith, belief, religion or background they come from.
To find out more about Sabika’s work visit behance.net/sabikahassd669 or follow her on twitter @sabika_hass
To find out more about Dave Sedgwick and StudioDBD visit studiodbd.com or follow him on twitter @studiodbd
The Manchester School of Art degree show opens on June 13. Details here