This interview series aims to shine light on different design communities across the world. With our fourth interview we look at design in Pakistan, featuring designer and illustrator Shehzil Malik.
Shehzil is unstoppable. Her work, a comic book explosion of color inspired by her life, Pakistan’s history and the future she’s working toward, tells a story and has a purpose. There are Pakistani superheroines. There are powerful depictions of life as a Pakistani woman. There are scenes and patterns and details that both honor and reveal Pakistani culture. Much like Shehzil’s work, there is a lot to unpack in this interview. Let’s get to it.
First, let’s talk a bit about you and your work. When did you start working as a designer and illustrator, and what motivated you to pursue it as a career?
I’ve been drawing since I was a kid, so it only made sense I’d go to art school. I chose to study design instead of fine arts because I liked the idea of design being art used for problem solving. My first job after graduating was as art director at a socially conscious clothing label. At the time it was my dream job; I got to draw for a living, create good design and fund social impact. After a year, it was again time to challenge myself, so I applied for higher education and got the Fulbright scholarship to pursue a master's degree in computer graphic design. Since returning to Pakistan, I’ve been trying to figure out what I can do as designer with a focus on social change.
Now I do a mix of collaborative graphic design jobs, create illustrations, sell art prints through my e-store and stay involved in the international human-centered design community. Every day is different and that’s what is exciting for me — there is so much to explore and learn and create! Next on my agenda is to design more products and public art projects, and become more involved in our design community through workshops and residencies.
Receiving the Fulbright Scholarship is an impressive achievement. What’s the typical path to a design career in Pakistan? Is quality design education available within Pakistan or are most designers self-taught?
I’d definitely say getting the Fulbright scholarship is not the typical way and I would encourage more art students to apply for it. Studying abroad was a life changing experience for me; it was my first time in a multicultural environment and I learned so much more than I had in the classroom. Now the Trump administration is considering cutting the funding for the Fulbright program by 47%. This is a disastrous move specifically for Pakistan, because the impact I’ve personally seen Fulbrighters make in our community is invaluable. Also, most of us can’t dream of an education abroad without financial aid.
In terms of design education in Pakistan, we have a few institutions offering degrees in our major cities and I often feel we are behind the times. There’s a strong focus on print design despite the fact that even our market is changing to demand more UX and interaction designers.
“There’s no easy formula for good design; it’s the unglamorous method of working hard, being obsessive, spending time studying the processes of the best in the field and slowly getting better.”
My advice to anyone interested in design in Pakistan, whether they have formal design training or not, is to be self-motivated and find resources online to help you. Between online tutorials, design portfolios, process work and great inspiration, the internet has been invaluable to my learning to design. It is also a good idea to look for mentors — locally or abroad. There’s no easy formula for good design; it’s the unglamorous method of working hard, being obsessive, spending time studying the processes of the best in the field and slowly getting better. Many of the best designers and illustrators I’ve met in Pakistan have been self-taught, passionate people.
Shehzil in her creative space.
Tell us a bit more about Pakistan’s design community. What are the job opportunities for a designer in Pakistan, and do platforms or events exist that help you connect with other designers?
Things have changed over these last couple of years. When I returned after my masters I had a tough time finding the right job for myself. This is also why I began to focus on my illustration practice and start an online print shop to supplement my income. It’s after searching for years that I’ve now found like-minded individuals who’d be open to creative coding and more innovative interaction design projects.
Get prints of Shehzil's illustrations at shehzil.com
Traditionally, designers become part of the advertising world or join large agencies. Now there’s a new start-up culture, and independent design and game studios are popping up. Design conferences are also beginning to emerge — we recently had our first UX Design Conference and a National Digital Design Conference is taking place in September. Times are changing and if you’re motivated and have a vision for yourself, it’s an exciting time to be a designer in Pakistan. I personally turn down many of the projects offered to me, because I like to focus on a few good projects as opposed to spreading myself thin. I hope more designers work hard and put their work online so we can spread and share these opportunities amongst one another.
“The challenge in all walks of life in Pakistan is to not fall into despondency and cynicism. If you let all the negativity get you down, you will never change things.”
I read an article that said Pakistan's film scene is suffering from lack of budget, direction and confidence. It suggested there’s no faith in big ideas and the Pakistani audience. Does any of that ring true for the overarching arts and design community in Pakistan? What challenges does the Pakistani design community face right now?
I personally have little faith in big institutions in general when it comes to creating anything that is cutting edge or innovative, since they rarely take the risk of going against the tried and tested. I think young people have to let go of the notion that someone older with a big budget is going to change things. I like examples of movies like “Once,” which was made with a shoestring budget (but with a lot of heart) and became a huge success. With self-publishing, crowd funding and the internet as a distribution network, it’s the age of creating our own material.
In terms of Pakistan, I like to look at it not as a lack of opportunities, but as a time to create those opportunities for ourselves. The challenge in all walks of life in Pakistan is to not fall into despondency and cynicism. If you let all the negativity get you down, you will never change things. It all comes down to being stubbornly optimistic — write that book you wanted to read, make that movie, draw that graphic novel, start that design company. This is the incipient stage of design in Pakistan and we have to work consistently and well to define what good design looks like in our local context. You could suck at first but a few years down the line, you could become our Pixar, Disney, Apple, Ideo or Pentagram.
“I’ve come to a realization that while a society needs its doctors and engineers, it also needs its poets and artists and designers for life to feel truly liveable, for a culture to remain humane and compassionate.”
"Walk III" from Shehzil's "Women in Public Spaces" series.
In a country fraught with social and political angst, it seems as though good design could be disregarded as unessential or excessive. Is good design is valued in Pakistan? Why do you personally think good design is important?
This is a question I’ve struggled with over the years and the answer changes depending on the day you ask. However, I’ve come to a realization that while a society needs its doctors and engineers, it also needs its poets and artists and designers for life to feel truly liveable, for a culture to remain humane and compassionate. Pakistan has been struggling with huge issues for years now. Tragedy strikes, we react and life resumes.
We’ve always had beautiful design in terms of our historic architecture, pottery, textile, craft and jewelry, and a rich visual language of kitsch from our cinema hoardings, street posters and signage. Graphic design, and especially good design as it is recognized internationally, is new to Pakistan. But with the rise of globalization and people increasingly interacting online, companies are beginning to realize that they need to invest in design to communicate effectively. A country may have security threats but business and economic activity continues, and good design is slowly being seen as good business. Not just in Pakistan — the whole world is changing and becoming more intolerant — but I think you can always find beauty and humanity if you look for it. I think designers need to consider the role they play in bringing this side of humanity to light.
“I’m amazed at how often our very specific stories have a universality to them.”
Much of your art focuses on issues like women’s rights, and it’s clear you consider design a tool for social change. How have you seen design positively impact society in Pakistan?
I think you can use any field as a tool for social change if it is the intention or motivation of those involved. If you look at projects in human-centered design in Pakistan, there are many efforts being made. I have friends who work on innovations in education, clean energy, child immunization, maternal health and water sanitation. Part of their process is assessing the impact their projects have on the community. I hope more people discover how designers and engineers can work together to make these positive interventions.
I also think of illustration as a form of storytelling with transformative power. A lot of my art works as a catharsis to my experiences — they are literally notes I write to myself that I post online. I’m amazed at how often our very specific stories have a universality to them, from the difficulty of navigating public spaces as a woman, to questioning perceptions of beauty, to the struggle between tradition and modernity when you’re searching for identity.
"I am Now Socially Acceptable" illustration by Shehzil Malik
Pakistan is generally a harsh place to live in a number of ways; most of the systems don't work and society is becoming increasingly intolerant. It’s getting harder every day to have meaningful conversations around social issues. This is where art can step in. It’s easier to talk about beautiful pictures and foster empathy through an image that is honest. A public art project I’ve been a part of addressing intolerance and extremism was a transformative experience for me. I can only hope it helped others in our community feel a sense of hope as a counter-narrative to the extremism around us. I am hoping to work on similar projects in the future. It simply needs more planning before tackling an issue this sensitive.
As the world is getting smaller with the help of the internet, many designers are working for clients overseas remotely. How is it for you? Do you work mostly with Pakistani clients or internationally as well? And do Pakistani businesses typically use local designers?
I think many of the most talented designers in Pakistan choose to work freelance and with overseas clients. It pays better and their work is accepted for what it is. The downside to this is that we locally don’t see great design, nor do we hear about or recognize great designers. Businesses here typically use local designers since it’s much, much cheaper than finding a designer abroad. I personally choose a project based on how exciting it is, be it local or overseas. If it’s cool and has something to do with female empowerment, technology or storytelling, I’m in! If I don’t find such a project, I make one up for myself. A lot of my work has been either passion projects or a collaboration that’s come about by my approaching a company I admire. An example of this is a Pakistani feminist fashion line I’ve designed with a local clothing retailer that will hit stores this summer. I’m very excited!
Shehzil in her natural habitat.
How much impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
Turns out, social media has made all the difference in how I work. I’ve had a website up for years, but it’s only recently that I made a Facebook page for myself, and it really changed how my work was seen and acknowledged. After I left my stable advertising job, almost all my projects have come by word of mouth or by reaching out to someone cool I found online.
I use my Facebook page as a showcase of what I’m up to professionally, and my Instagram as a more personal archive of my art, places I’ve seen and design motifs I’ve come across. I often use Instagram as a visual diary to take inspiration from. I don’t have a strategy behind how I post; I do what comes naturally to me. I feel that if the work speaks to you, people will organically share it and publications will write about it. Let’s see how well this strategy works in the future!
When I look up “Pakistani design,” I see Mehndi tattoos and Pakistani fashion in all its incredible, ornate detail. But I unfortunately know little of Pakistani graphic design. Does Pakistan have a distinct design style?
That’s a very good summation of what design in Pakistan feels like to an insider also! We are heavily involved in fashion design. Many women run small boutiques from their homes, and we have a very sophisticated fashion design industry with a huge market for it locally and overseas. The graphic design field in comparison is nascent, tiny. I think this has to do with our priorities as a people. Pakistanis in general are obsessed with weddings and fashion, and are willing to pay for it. People follow the money when it comes to choosing a career path. Graphic design is often seen as something with no tangible raw materials and it’s often a struggle to convince a client to pay well.
In terms of a Pakistani design style, it’s hard to say. Most designers end up playing it safe and derivative, quickly copying something they’ve seen online. Copyright laws are non-existent and many designers are not accustomed to creating anything from scratch — may it be taking an original photograph, working on typography or drawing an illustration. This is something we must work on because there’s a plethora of indigenous art, architecture and craft to take inspiration from and make into something new, beautiful and functional. The closest we have come to this is customizing our very distinct painting style on trucks (“truck art,” as it’s locally called) but in my opinion we need to continue to find new hybrids in our visual language.
“I try to question the fixed ideas we have about our own identity and challenge the stereotypes associated with being from this part of the world.”
How does Pakistan’s culture and history influence your work?
I am committed to contributing to a Pakistani visual language that is both modern and rooted in culture, so I often take pictures of our flora and fauna, textiles and patterns to use in my work. I often juxtapose aesthetics and symbolism from both the East and West to show our interconnectedness — how our shared experiences are at the heart of our humanity.
My illustrations can take inspiration from the traditional Indian Miniature painting and Western comic books, and depict historic figures like Mughal kings, women warriors, Hindu gods or contemporary characters. I often use background patterns from the architecture and craft I find in my travels around Pakistan. This is part of my personal mission to to take ownership of where I’m from. I try to question the fixed ideas we have about our own identity and challenge the stereotypes associated with being from this part of the world.
In your opinion, what are the top 10 designers or studios from Pakistan that everyone should know?
The design scene in Pakistan is pretty scattered, and the difficulty I’ve had collecting names has made me realize the need for more design studios and blogs (this may be the push I needed to start my own!). I’m just listing a bunch of things that stand out.
Citizen’s Archive Pakistan:“The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP) is a non-profit organization dedicated to our cultural and historic preservation, mostly through the tradition of oral storytelling, emphasizing the importance of such narratives in a dialogue on national identity.”
Mazaar Bazaar:This is the definitive book on Pakistani visual culture by Saima Zaidi.
Makistan:Our first maker space that wants to teach everyone to be creative and code for fun.
Last question: How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Pakistan design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
You reaching out, asking questions and bringing to light our design community is one fantastic way of starting this engagement, because I think we often feel invisible living in Pakistan. Highlighting what we do, the steps we are taking and following our progress on social media would be amazing. Being open to acting as a mentor or speaker at one of our new conferences, talking to design students, becoming friends with us (dinner’s on us!) — all interactions would be tremendous! We as a community would love every opportunity you can send our way.