Zara Arshad: Graphic Designer

by Kate Andrews | March 10, 2010

zara arshad graphic designer

Zara Arshad is a British designer currently based in Beijing, China. Having also lived in the UK, Syria and Indonesia, she continually promotes internationalism as well as the potential of design to solve social, economic and political issues. Previous experience includes working with the British Council, and Don’t Panic and Icon magazines; she is also a persistent volunteer for Architecture for Humanity, which she represented at 100% Design, London. As well as practicing as a freelance, multi-disciplinary designer, Zara is now working as Greening and Environmental Support Officer for the British Embassy in Beijing. Zara is joining the Notes on Design team this month, to bring us design news from China, so we caught up with her journey to date to welcome her to the team!

Notes on Design: Where are you originally from?

Zara: Good question! My family are originally from Pakistan, but I was born and raised in London. Over the years though, I’ve also been fortunate enough to live in Jakarta, Damascus, and Beijing where I am currently living.

Notes on Design: How and why did you choose a career in Graphic Design?

Zara: This was actually an accident. I’ve always been creative; from a young age, I was constantly producing drawings. My family are fairly traditional and were not very keen for me to engage in a creative career, however, when it came to picking potential courses for university (I was schooling in Indonesia at the time), the only thing that I could think of that I really wanted to do was Design. This was set to be a basis for a career in Advertising – well, that was the plan then!
 I accepted a position on the BA (Hons) Design course at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Coming from a strong academic background, with a limited knowledge of design, the first year was quite a struggle. I had to do quite a lot of catch-up reading on things that everyone else already appeared to know from undertaking specialised design and/or foundation courses, and every project was a new learning experience.

This struggle, however, also helped me to find focus quickly. I soon realized that Advertising was not the right choice for me and that I was more interested in the social aspect of design. I also found that I enjoyed graphics and immediately started teaching myself how to use design software and some of the rules of graphic design. So, with the combination of conceptual thinking taught at Goldsmiths, an interest in where and how design overlaps (ideas and disciplines), and the self-taught technical skills, I found myself working as a graphic designer.

Notes on Design: What would you say was your creative break?

Zara: Somehow, I don’t think I’ve had it yet. I envision a “creative break” to be something really life-changing. So life-changing that you immediately recognise it whenever you look back on your career. Perhaps, my “creative break” was working for Icograda in Beijing. Having said that, I see my life as a series of chapters where this magical thing called a “creative break” doesn’t really exist. Living and schooling in Indonesia, for example, was one chapter; life at University was another. Now, I’m in China and it’s the start of another one, where I’m in an amazing situation where design is just getting started, where people outside the design profession don’t really understand what it is, and I’m amongst amazing people that speak a whole other language and think in an entirely different manner. It has been a lot of hard work to find my footing here – you have to be very very proactive to find work.

Notes on Design: What has been the pivotal piece of work you are most proud of?

Zara: My Unity Flag and Prayer Flags are two pieces that I am especially proud of. Both were conceptualised and created whilst I was a new graduate – I had a couple of post-grad months in London before I embarked upon my adventure to Beijing, and was unsuccessful in obtaining a job (or even an internship) because I couldn’t commit long-term. I still felt like I should be doing something to fill in the time though, so I hunted around for some socially-focused design briefs online. This is when I came across the briefs for the 2 projects mentioned above: one from Adbusters, and the other from Colors magazine. With Unity Flag, this was a pivotal piece because I was in this weird place where I had no idea where to start (the project). Then, all of a sudden, on one afternoon, I ended up drawing so many ideas so quickly, that each one looked like chicken scratch. Prayer Flags became a basis to explore isometric (and other gridded) papers. This paved the way for various future projects. Both were lessons in being proactive – something that would define the start of my career in China. These pieces will remain pivotal to me as they are all about transition: from graduate to designer, from London to Beijing. They signify personal change.

Notes on Design: What led you to working at the British Embassy?

Zara: To celebrate months of hard work at the Icograda World Design Congress 2009 in Beijing, I had planned a trip to Xiamen (south of China), to visit a friend. Then, a couple of days before I was due to leave I received an e-mail from another friend working at the Embassy, informing me a job had been created that entailed greening the FCO. Beijing is a strange place as opportunities come and go; you really have to learn to grab something whilst you can. At that time, the momentum for Copenhagen was also building, and the eco sector is something that is really taking off here in China, so I decided to go for the interview. By God’s good graces, I got the job. I’m now trying to intertwine design into a non-design practice. I think it’s important to show the impact and potential of design outside the design bubble.

Notes on Design: So, what does your working day at the Embassy entail?

Zara: I currently jobshare the ‘Greening and Environmental Support Officer’ role – my counterpart is the information, whilst I’m the creativity and the design. We’ve only been working in this role for a couple of months now; the initial few weeks were spent gathering information from various people within the Embassy (including the voluntary Green Group, who were doing our job before we were officially employed). Once we had gathered all the information in one place, we decided to run a series of mini-campaigns – each one focusing on a small area that we would like to green: i.e. “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” transport, kitchen waste, water usage and energy usage.

The first mini-campaign was called “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” which approached stationery and office supplies, printing, recycling etc. We drew up a list of things that had already been done, where they could improve and what new things could be implemented. For things that could be improved or newly implemented, we’re really trying to get people excited about being more environmentally-friendly; one way to do this is via good design. For our present recycling system, for example; I am now working on new labels that have more information and are more visually appealing. Hopefully, these will get people more excited about recycling (an otherwise monotonous and dreary practice for most). It’s these simple things we’re looking change.
 A lot of our job entails chasing up various people; a large portion of the day means e-mailing both internal and external contacts, or being on the phone.

The Embassy itself is split over 2 buildings, which means that we have to spread our work to cover the two. We are working in close collaboration with the British Council, who are in an entirely different area altogether! I am also trying to approach and involve local organisations, businesses and/or individuals wherever possible. The Green Group has previously held lunch-time talks with Greenpeace China, for example, but I’ve started to get involved with the really local market and offer them a platform to communicate what they do to a more international audience.
 Once every fortnight, I also spend time creating our greening newsletter, BE: Green Express. This was a new creation on my part, and has become our main communication method. The newsletter is circulated internally to all Embassy and British Council staff, can be downloaded from our Intranet, and publicly on the “UK in China” website, whilst printed versions are pinned on noticeboards. We found that one of the weaker areas of the greening work that had already been done was communication; a lot of impressive sustainable measures had already been taken by the Green Group, but barely anyone seemed aware of them. The new, BE: Green Express, newsletter aims to change that.

Notes on Design: So, how would you advise other creatives to work with people and clients who don’t understand design?

Zara: To not understand something is simply not knowing how it works. Designers are problem solvers; we are taught to question everything around us in order to innovate. We question how effective things are in communicating a certain message, what visuals and aesthetics work, what don’t work; we consider the context of things. If you strip away all these qualities, how do you start to understand things? To deal with clients who don’t understand design, you have to place yourself in their position. Become the user; pretend you have no idea how design works or what it is supposed to do. Don’t patronise, but go back to the basics. How would you explain, for example, how a website works? Start with a wireframe for a website (you’ve previously completed) and present this to the client. You can use this to explain various aspects of the website: navigation, where links go and why, why the logo of the company is placed at the top, why does it link back to the homepage? If you are effective enough in explaining how things work, this process may build up trust between yourself and the client. More importantly, when a client requests a change to the website that you think wouldn’t work, you can explain why with validity. You have to take the time to make your client feel comfortable as they embark upon a project that covers (for them), new territory.

Notes on Design: Here’s the big question – do you think design can make a difference to the world around us?

Zara: Definitely! This is what I’m all about! Design can certainly make a difference to the world around us. It’s just taking the time to make people understand and realise that! The “recent” Obama campaign was a pivotal point in illustrating the impact of good design, whilst the UK recession has seen many articles predicting that businesses would be calling upon creatives to help boost their profits. Design is everywhere in everything, and its potential in bringing about change is limitless.

Notes on Design: Do you have any recent freelance or personal projects you’d like to tell us about?

Zara: I do have a couple of projects I would like to share. They are recent ventures, completed in collaboration with a couple of British artists also living in Beijing. The first, is a piece commissioned by Plastered8 (Beijing’s iconic t-shirt brand) owned by Dominic Johnson-Hill. He asked me to illustrate a portrait of Jiang Zemin (former President of the PRC) in a stained-glass window effect. I wanted to do something a little less traditional, and ended up incorporating a lot of triangles into the piece. This was, initially, hand-drawn and then digitalised in Illustrator, so ended up being quite freeform. There have been some problems realising this piece though; factories here in China are refusing to make it into a product because Jiang Zemin is still alive. It has caused quite a stir, apparently, so only time will tell what happens with this one.

The second project is a collaboration with Martin Barnes, a British artist based in Beijing. After reading the concept behind Martin’s original “chicken, handbag and heels image”, I decided to abstract the Chinese characters for “Ji Nu” (pinyin for “chicken girl”); this was then drawn on isometric paper and used to fill out the hollow chicken shape in an attempt to make the image pop (see a sneak preview here). I liked the idea of this piece being something that one could stare at for a long time, but still be able to find new shapes and details. Some areas appear more 3D than others, so I think this helps to draw the eye around the canvas. It also gets people wondering about the concept more!

Notes on Design: What are your dreams for your future?

Zara: Quite simply, to keep helping people through design. When you graduate, you have these ideas about how big you want to make it; I’ve come to learn that it’s best to just take it as it comes (especially in China!) and focus on what is around you: who needs you, and how can you make a difference, even if it’s a small one.
• Follow Zara on twitter @zara_arshad


Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.


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