Khadijah Abdul Nabi was a freelancer designer in her hometown of Erbil, Iraq, but found it hard to gain the necessary skills there—so she packed her bags and spent three months studying graphic design abroad at Shillington London to get her skills up to scratch. Since graduating in December 2018, Khadijah has moved back to Erbil, worked on Iraq’s first business incubator, appeared on TV, building a community of Iraqi female creatives all while documenting her journey as a female designer in her home country on her Youtube channel.
Read on to discover Khadijah’s experience of living and studying in London, what inspires her work in both Iraq and abroad and (spoiler alert!) the surprising connection she made at Shillington.
Tell us about your creative journey! How did you end up as a graphic designer?
The first love of my life was art. I started taking serious art classes when I was 10 years old. I always loved making booklets, posters, drawings, cards, anything to express myself in my own way telling my own stories. I was accepted into the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in New York for Visual Art and really began to develop my love for art through mixed media. One day during one of our art projects, I noticed a classmates graphic rendering of a leaf and I was instantly hooked. I loved the abstract and powerful storytelling power of art in its graphic and communicative form.
Graphic design was a thought at the back of my mind but little did I know at that time, life would take me away from my art for about 12 years before coming back to it. In 2016, I quit my job and changed my life—I decided to study graphic design on my own. But, this time I was no longer in the creative capital of the world, New York City—I was in Erbil, Iraq. In Erbil, studying my passion was doable, but much more difficult. I studied on my own using various online courses for about two years before realising I need to really buckle down and get some industry standard training, which is what lead me to Shillington.
You previously studied at Barnard College, part of Columbia University, in New York. Why did you choose to study at Shillington London?
At Barnard, it wasn’t about what we learned—it was more about how we learned the material, what we processed, how we approached our thesis, what were the questions we needed to ask. Making the correct observations, the right mistakes and being given the responsibility of learning.
After Barnard, it was difficult to navigate that through the jungle of the internet.
I needed structure and similar learning techniques. I was amazed to find all of that at Shillington.
I also always wanted to spend my last year at Columbia as an exchange student in London. I loved the vibe and I also always wanted a different style of education that wasn’t American.
What were your favourite things about London? Why did you love studying and living there?
My favourite thing about London was getting to meet my second cousin, Ismael! It was definitely quite a surprise to both of us and our families! We found out we were related (second cousins, our grandparents were siblings) on the first Friday during week 1. It still makes me smile how Shillington brought us together.
I also loved that I finished my first 10K run during my Shillington course in Greenwich Park! That was an amazing highlight and accomplishment that I am really proud of because I was really able to commit to myself during a time of great change and difficulty. I could have easily given up, because of how tired I was everyday, but I didn’t!
I started a YouTube channel to document my journey and hope to continue showing my journey as I grow as a female designer in Iraq.
Do you have advice for someone who wants to study abroad?
My mental health was my priority. I knew I would be away from everything familiar and pushed into learning a great deal in a very short amount of time. As a New Yorker, I was prepared for the worst, and as a regular human being I was panicking, kicking and screaming inside, wanting comfort, needing friends, familiar food, rest, clarity, security. So, I did what I knew was best for me, I set up a morning routine of waking up at 5am every morning and having an hour to myself to stretch, eat a healthy breakfast, talk to family, and set myself up for my day, then when I came home I would go for a run and eat a proper meal. This isn’t to say I didn’t have bad days, breakdowns and sleepless nights, but it helped me focus on the task at hand for any given day.
My advice to anyone studying abroad: Based on your personality and needs, determine your non-negotiables and support yourself by implementing them into your schedule. It really helped me.
Before Shillington, you were working as a freelance designer. How did Shillington help to build your skillset?
I was working as a freelance designer with the basic knowledge of the tools, but without any formal training on how to go through the creative process when pressed with a tight deadline. I also didn’t understand industry standards, effective workflow and really pushing my ideas to their full potential. As a freelancer, one of my favourite projects was designing the logo for Tango Café and Bar here in Erbil, Iraq. I really loved the concept and the idea behind it.
What have you been up to since graduation? Can you tell us about what you’ve been working on?
I have been trying to really establish myself as a brand strategist. It’s been quite difficult but I wasn’t afraid of learning and pushing myself more. So I did. Recently, I have been working on an international campaign called #FemaleVoicesoftheWorld. I helped with the concept of a visual identity for the first business incubator in Iraq, which was a learning process. I attended the Arabic Graphic Design Conference in Cairo, Egypt and was blown away by the regional talent and met Tareq Atrissi! I spoke on a local TV show about the importance of graphic design in improving the quality of life here in Iraq and I have been learning as much as I can about the business of design. I am working on starting a chapter of Ladies, Wine and Design to build and develop a collective of female creatives in Erbil.
How was your experience moving back from London to Erbil?
It was eye-opening. When I moved from New York to Erbil 7 years ago, I had no idea that my life would change as it has now. Coming back to Erbil from London has given me a new perspective, drive and focus. Though I do miss having dinners at Nando’s with my Shillington classmate, Ziye Hu!
What’s the creative scene like in Iraq? Is there any designers or creatives we should be looking out for?
There is a healthy creative scene in Iraq. Re:Coded, the first co-working space in Erbil just opened up in Baghdad and its been incredible meeting other designers and seeing the amazing work that they do.
I love the work that Hussien Abul Ma’ali does—especially after founding the Zuqaq 13 T-Shirt store in the heart of Baghdad. Raz Xaidan, aka The Darling Beast, is an amazing photographer and poet here in Erbil. She creates powerful visuals for her poetry that highlights the continuous struggle for the Kurdish people with a focus on strong Kurdish women. She always inspires me through her work and her amazing friendship.
Where do you take your inspiration from? Do you try and consider your heritage in your design work?
My inspiration comes from the concept of hybrid identities. I’m very interested in the cocktail of different cultures, languages, points of view that build who we are. I love looking back into my rich heritage as a Tunisian and Iraqi, and especially as a New Yorker.
The exploration of my identity and how it continuously adapts fascinates me and I love finding inspiration from others who explore this as well.
I’m also inspired by the brand Bonita.
Where do you see yourself in 12 months’ time? Any projects you would like to work on?
I am deeply focused on establishing my presence in the region as a Brand Strategist that understands the local nuances and translating that for the international community. In 12 months, I aim to have a proper design studio with 3-4 female creatives leading the conversation on what design can do for Iraq. I also would like to continue to document my journey on YouTube to help inspire and encourage others by demystifying the path to design.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I am forever grateful to my teachers at Shillington.
Thanks to Andy, Fiona, Hillary, Ed, and Amy (as well as Clay!) for supporting us, pushing us and really giving us their all. I don’t know how they do it three times a year!
Fancy learning graphic design and discovering a new country at the same time? Why not follow in Khadijah’s footsteps and study design abroad in New York, London, Manchester, Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne with our three month full-time or nine month part-time courses? Find out more.