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Interview with Arwa Al-Salam, Shillington Graduate and Designer at Human Appeal

Arwa Al-Salam was a practicing freelance designer and co-owned a wedding and event stationery business for five years before deciding she wanted to get up to scratch on design theory and design thinking and enrolled at Shillington. Just two weeks after graduating from the part-time course, Arwa got a job with the charity Human Appeal, quickly went on to lead their design team and hasn’t stopped there.

Read on to discover Arwa’s love for all things paper, the amazing work she does for the charity and how she managed with balancing studying, work and family.

Shillington wasn’t your first foray into design, you’ve been a freelance designer since 2012. Why did you choose to study at Shillington? How did the course build your skill set?

Shillington was the missing piece for me for so long. I came across it about 4 years ago, as I wanted to learn about graphic design in an official setting, but my son was quite young at the time so I felt it wasn’t right for me. Fast forward a few years and I had more experience designing, but lacking something that gave me the confidence to apply for design roles and make a living doing what I loved. I went into Shillington feeling confident on the technical side, that was never the reason I joined, and I still learnt so much more.

I was a self taught designer, so I felt I needed to go back to the basics of design theory and design thinking, and that’s exactly what I got out of it. I came out with much more than I had hoped to gain.

What have you been up to since graduation? How has your life changed after Shillington?

I was very lucky that I got a job straight out of Shillington—I started my current job about 2 weeks after graduation, and I know it sounds cheesy but it has truly changed my life. For the first few months at Shillington, I struggled with my confidence and I really didn’t think I would get a design job.

My teachers and classmates helped me believe in myself and that changed everything.

I started applying for jobs while I was still studying, I wanted to test the waters and be 100% ready post graduation.

You’re working in-house for Human Appeal, a humanitarian charity. Can you tell us about them? What kind of things do you design for them?

We’re a global aid and development charity—setting up sustainable development projects and delivering aid to disaster zones around the world. I joined HA’s design team as a graphic designer in August. Shortly after, the senior designer left for a year long sabbatical. This saw me leading the design team, something I never expected, and was really fearful of. Imposter syndrome was alive and well! I needed to make a choice, either to accept the opportunity I’d been given or kindly decline the trust that’s been placed in me. A few months on, things are going really well, though very chaotic and very fast paced, but it keeps me on my toes and challenges me constantly.

My day to day is ensuring we meet the organisation’s design needs, poster, leaflets, event collateral etc. and designing our seasonal campaigns, which is how we make the money that fund the projects that are so desperately needed around the world. Campaigns entail sharing the stories of vulnerable people and convincing people in the UK that we’re the charity they should choose to help make a difference.

As well as freelancing before Shillington, you also ran Eighth + Autumn, a luxury wedding and event stationery company, with your sister, who’s based in Orange County, California. Can you tell us about that and how it came to be?

My sister and I decided to set up our own business, designing wedding and event stationery. It was a passion project for both of us, connecting with couples to make their beautiful paper goods was a dream. I’ve loved paper since I was a child, and so working with paper felt like the natural thing to do when I first got into the design world. Our first break came when we got accepted to sell on Not On The High Street. We loved creating new designs to add to the range and getting to know our clients—who, more often than not, would come back to us for more stationery when the occasion called, which meant long term relationships that I enjoyed looking after. Unfortunately, after a few years, both of our personal circumstances changed and I wanted a more stable income. This is when I came across Shillington for a second time—I enrolled the next day.

Did you enjoy studying part-time? Were you able to continue working on your own projects during the course?

Part-time was the only option for me due to my son being at school—I loved it. Though it meant a longer time commitment, it also meant I had the time to fully take in everything I was learning. I wanted to really make the most of the course so everything in my life was put on hold. I was lucky enough that that was an option, and I’m so grateful to my family who helped make it happen.

What was your biggest challenge during the course? Why?

One of the things, as I mentioned was that I didn’t have a life for 9 months! I knew it would be worth it, but it felt difficult at times. And again, my confidence was letting me down at times, I couldn’t believe that I would be graduating with a portfolio that looked like the portfolios I’d been shown throughout the course.

It just felt unattainable—until I trusted the process and the teachers that they knew what they were doing and that it was possible with hard work.

Who were your teachers and what were the most important lessons they taught you?

My teachers were Martin Power and Dave Bird.

Among countless other things, they changed the way I thought about the design industry and about my work. They helped me dig deep into the potential I didn’t know I had and taught me to channel it in the best possible way.

They also encouraged me to reach out to people I admire in the industry. I’m an introvert by nature, so I struggled with that a little, but once I connected with a few people it made me realise how lucky we are to exist in this small design world. I’m forever grateful to them for all of that.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone starting at Shillington, what would it be?

My advice would be to immerse yourself in it, learn as much as possible from your teachers and class mates. Ask 1000 questions (heaven knows I did!). It’s a temporary journey, and the more you gain in that time, the more it’ll benefit you on your next step. And don’t stop researching, try to decide what your next steps are before you graduate, I believe that helped me a lot.

Huge thanks to Arwa for sharing her story with us! Keep an eye on her website to see what she’s been working on.

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