Describe your path to becoming an illustrator and designer.
I think it all started when I was a kid. I was quite a compulsive drawer and would draw absolutely every day. My mum was a painter and she drew with me. We didn’t have TV and we were not allowed video games or anything like that, so I would draw all day. My mum was really harsh with me because she wanted me to draw really well and when you’re a kid, you don’t—you draw an oversized head and think it looks absolutely brilliant. She would never let it go. She really pushed me, which was quite fun. I remember feeling frustrated and getting angry because I couldn’t draw as well as her.
I always thought that artists don’t make any money and my mum was my first example. I didn’t want to be like that. I knew I was going to draw all my life, but I never knew it was going to be my job or that I was going to live off of it. So, after high school, the first thing I did was go to a science prep school because I wanted to become a quantic engineer. After four months of that, I thought, “There is no way I’m going to do this with my life.”
Up until then, I had refused to do art, but it started to become stupid not to do it. I decided to try to get into art school and I got accepted at Olivier de Serres, which is a big art school in Paris. I still thought that there was no way I was going to be an illustrator and I needed to make money, so I studied advertising and I really loved it.
After graduation, I wasn’t ready to work just yet. I went to London to study and get a BA. I studied digital media and realized I didn’t like it. The English system is funny because they let you do anything you want at school, which is the opposite of the French system where you can’t do anything; if you’re having fun doing it, it’s probably wrong for you. (laughing) In England, it’s like, “Do whatever you want; find yourself.” That’s where I actually started doing illustration again.
I got an internship at Airside, which was the one design studio I really loved in London. They were doing funny, colorful, quirky illustrations and lots of animation. I interned there for three months and it was the best three months of my life! I worked my ass off and after that, I stayed in England for another year of school. During that year, Airside used me quite a bit as a freelancer to do illustrations, which helped pay for my studies and stay in London. That was brilliant. I was really lucky because my parents couldn’t afford it either—it was one year or nothing.
After I finished that year of school, I really wanted to work at Airside, but they were a really small company and no one ever left. I knew someone needed to leave for me to get a job there. That was the deal. I think it took a year. After a year, one of their designers—Richard Hogg—left to go freelance. I met him in the street and when he told me he was leaving, the first thing I said was, “Can I have your job, please?”
He said, “Yeah, I’m sure you can.”
I was working at a different company and the next day I got an email from one of the founders of Airside saying, “Dick told me you wanted his job. Were you joking?”
A week later, after an interview in a pub, I got the offer and I took the job. I was so happy. I stayed there for four years and I think that’s where I really, truly found myself. That’s where I started doing the girls, all the erotic drawings, everything. I was doing that as self-initiated work because they wanted all of us designers to do client work, but to also do really exciting self-initiated stuff for the Airside shop. They were clever enough to know that one fed the other; clients always came for the self-initiated thing because it looked like we were having fun.
After four years, I was ready to go freelance. I left Airside nine months ago and now I’m a full-time illustrator.
That’s an awesome story. You briefly talked about creativity in your childhood. Do you want to elaborate on that at all?
Well, my dad is probably the least creative person you can think of; he has no imagination. He’s more of an intellectual and is good with words and concepts. Somehow, that also helped me. I had the pretty side of things by drawing with my mum. With my dad, I felt like I needed to have an idea or story behind everything because I needed to intellectualize what I was doing. I think that was quite important.
Actually, I recently dug through my old drawings because my mum kept all of them. I was drawing every day, so it was the same girl over and over again. She was dressed as a princess when I was six and seven. Then, when I was eight, she was starting to be a little more fashion-y, like a teenager with fancy dresses. In the middle of all those drawings, there was the same girl with the same face, but dressed in S&M clothes—I’m not kidding. And I was nine when I drew it. It was crazy.
After that, there were more princesses. There was just one S&M girl in the middle, dressed in leather with a whip. I asked my mum, “What did you think back then? Did you think there was something wrong with me?”
She said, “No, no, you know—just the hormones kicking in.”
Somehow, I think it all started there when I was nine.
“I was doing that [the girls] as self-initiated work because they wanted all of us designers to do client work, but to also do really exciting self-initiated stuff for the Airside shop. They were clever enough to know that one fed the other; clients always came for the self-initiated thing because it looked like we were having fun.”
You said that your mom was pretty harsh when you were a kid, but was she still supportive?
Yeah; it was just that she would never let me get away with things. She always told me that I had a talent. She was always like, “Oh, my daughter draws better than any other kid.” She’s my biggest fan now, so it’s funny.
My mum is the sweetest person and what she draws reflects that. She has no cynicism in her whatsoever. She never managed to take her drawing to a level where it was more modern or edgy because she doesn’t have that in her head. I think she’s proud that I do all these erotic, slightly edgy drawings because for her as a women, it’s like, “Yes! My daughter is liberated.”
Was there an “aha” moment when you knew that illustration was what you wanted to do?
I think I had it when I was in prep school. Some of the people I was surrounded by were very immature. They were brilliant geniuses and so good with numbers, but so shit with life. They were missing some of the basic skills of human relationships. I thought, if I do this, I’m going to end up working with these people. That’s when I realized I’d never be happy doing that. The only thing that made me happy was drawing, so I had to at least give it a shot.
I knew I was going to work hard because I didn’t want to struggle being a starving artist. I had never considered myself an artist or thought I had anything to say; I never had this stroke of genius. So, I decided that if I was going to go into art, I would do something practical. I now realize that what I love the most is doing all my self-initiated things. Also, now I think I have something to say.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
My mum was when I was really young and then the teachers took over. I always had a funny relationship with teachers because of the way my parents brought me up. I was quite an arrogant child. I was brought up with the notion that a child has to be free; just because a person is an adult, it doesn’t mean they are smarter than you—it was quite the opposite. There were some teachers who I thought were incompetent and I would absolutely not respect them and they would hate me. But when I really loved a teacher, I would get into this really intense relationship with them. One of my biggest inspirations was my French teacher from when I was 14. She pushed me to write stories, which I think triggered my imagination. I still see her now; I went to her wedding and she really became a friend.
The same thing happened when I went to art school. Some of the teachers hated me because I was doing very graphic novels and all the sexy ladies that were in my sketchbooks—they told me, “That’s not noble enough; that’s rubbish.” They never saw the potential in it.
I did have one advertising teacher who was amazing and he would never let me slack. If I started slacking, he would actually call me. One day, he called me at midnight on my cell phone, which I don’t think you’re allowed to do. He said, “I can’t take it anymore. You’re really slacking off these days. You really have to get a grip, Malika. It’s not good enough.” It was the kick I needed. I thought, I’m not safe when I leave school. He can get me anywhere. (laughing)
Was there a point in your life when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward?
The biggest risk for me was going freelance. When I think back on it, I didn’t have a life for the last six months I spent at Airside. I felt like I just lost six months of my life, but I knew that was what I needed to do. I didn’t want to go freelance and say yes to jobs I didn’t want to do just because I needed the money. It had to be on my terms because I wanted to do more of what I loved and not struggle. In order to do that, I had to save enough money to live for five months without working so that when a bad job came in, I wouldn’t have to say yes.
For six months, I didn’t have anything to say; I didn’t have any social life. I worked at Airside during the day and came home and did freelance every single evening and weekend. I became the most boring person and only talked about work. Thankfully, my friends waited for me. When I left Airside, I felt really good; I felt ready. It was a risk, but I did it in a way where it wasn’t too risky. I knew that if I ran out of money, I’d have to go back to Paris because I didn’t have a safety net.
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do? Who has encouraged you the most?
Definitely my parents. I was quite surprised that my dad didn’t want me to go into science—he thought it would brainwash me and I’d become really dull. So then, when I left and decided to go into art, I thought he was going to love it, but he was actually quite proud that I was doing science. There was this moment where I think he was a little disappointed, but then I got into a good art school and both my parents were relieved.
Every time I go back home, I show them my work. I think my dad is slightly… not ashamed, but I think the Kama Sutra makes him slightly uncomfortable; my mum loves it. My grandma also loves it, especially the sixty-nine: “It’s so lovely, so abstract; ohhh, but it’s kinky.”
I think one of my biggest supporters was also my grandpa. He paid for the first year of school in England because my parents couldn’t afford it. I knew I had to pay him back. The deal we had together was that every time I went back to Paris, I had to bring my portfolio, go to lunch with him, show him everything I’d done, and he had to be happy about it. He was a businessman. It wasn’t personal; it was an investment. He was investing in me and I had to show him results. He was really supportive.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
I don’t know. I try to keep some time to work for things that I really believe in. I think that’s important.
We did this film at Airside for Infoasaid, which is an organization that helps aid agencies around the world to assist those affected by natural disasters. They’ve just contacted me to ask if I can help them design some things and I’m going to say yes. It’s easy for me to do an illustration and give it away for a good cause. I’m not going to do that for a big brand—they have to pay the full price for it. I am trying to find this balance where I do little things for small, interesting ventures to help people who are doing good things because I don’t do those things myself—I don’t go and save the whales. If somehow I can help people communicate about those things, I’m going to say yes as long as I have the time.
Are you satisfied creatively?
Yes, very much since I’ve been a freelancer. I have to be careful of not working too much and to keep doing self-initiated things. I need to do that to keep going and not be a one-trick pony. So far, I’ve had amazing clients. It’s nice to be in the position where people come to you because they want your ideas and your work. Most of the time they give me creative freedom to work. I’m really satisfied.
Right now, you have a really distinct style. Was that something you developed at Airside so that when you went out on your own, people sought you out for that?
It all came together at Airside. I’ve been drawing these girls since I was a kid, but I drew them so much that it became a reflex. I have really bad habits when I draw. I’ve spent too many hours drawing these girls like this that I can’t do them differently. That was my frustration when I came to Airside because everything they were doing was about simplicity and paring things down. They were pioneers in the early vector style and everything.
I thought I would try an experiment and play with what I can do—I can draw a girl with my eyes closed. I asked myself how I can make it as simple as I can and suggest things rather than show them so that I let the imagination of the viewer do the trick. It came together like that. I did a few screen-prints and designed an alphabet. It got such a good response that I knew I was on to something.
I can do a lot of different styles of drawings, which I did at Airside, but this style was the one thing that only belonged to me. I kept pushing it and pushing it. After four years, people had seen some of my work and it was recognizable, but the danger was that I was going to be a one-trick pony. That was something that I was worried about when I went freelance.
I actually met an agent that told me he was only interested in the girls. He said he would represent me, but only if I pushed that work. I remember thinking that I couldn’t just erase the four years I spent at Airside and all the character design I can do. Now, weirdly enough, I haven’t had that many commissions for the girls. I think people manage to make a leap of faith in connecting that the way I think—it doesn’t have to be a girl, it can be a landscape or anything. Every time I do a new project and see I can push it somewhere else, I really try and do it. The last project I did with girls was for London fashion week. Now, I’m making them really abstracted with triangles and circles. That’s me trying to push it because I don’t want to do the same thing for 10 years. I’m gonna bore myself.
You’ve been doing freelance work for about six months. Do you have any thoughts about where you’d like to be headed in the next 5 to 10 years?
I have no idea. For now, I’m going with the flow. The great thing about illustration is that you can do it on anything—it’s not medium specific. I’m actually doing a mini-collection for Volcom, which is clothing. I have a say in the shapes of them and everything, which is amazing. I have a good friend who is a shoe designer and I told him that we need to do a pair of super sexy heels together. We’ll see. I might be in a completely different place in 10 years. It’s strange to think that I might never go back to work in an agency again. I don’t know. You can draw until you die, so it’s fine.
If you could go back and do one thing differently what would it be? Or would you?
I don’t think I would. It’s a bit cheesy, but I really think things happen for a reason. The choices you make shape you. I’ve had some rough times, but I think it has taught me a lot. I’m super lucky to do what I do and be surrounded by friends and family. I have a job I love and I don’t have to use an alarm clock in the morning—how good is that?
How does living in London impact your creativity?
I think it does a lot. I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t come to London. It’s the perfect place when you’re between 20–40 and are creative and want to live a bit freely.
It’s so easy to meet people here. You don’t have these spheres of design like there are in Paris. In Paris, there are the cool people and the not so cool people who hate each other. Here in London, you meet someone and they’re so lovely and then you realize that this person you met is an amazing graphic designer whose work you admire, but he acts just like the guy next door.
You also get projects here that you wouldn’t get somewhere else. I wouldn’t have gotten into the Kama Sutra drawings if I was in Paris. I get projects from Japan, Switzerland, the States. If you’re in France, it’s going to be in French, so it has to be for French people. I love London; it’s great.
“The choices you make shape you. I’ve had some rough times, but I think it has taught me a lot. I’m super lucky to do what I do and be surrounded by friends and family.”
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
Definitely. Being surrounded by people who do lots of exciting things makes you feel guilty when you don’t do anything. You have to push yourself because you’re surrounded by people who are super talented and you don’t want to be complacent. For me, it’s really motivating.
There is a real community. Sometimes I feel like I live in Melrose Place, but in a creative way. We live in this block of flats and I share my studio with a girl who lives in the same flats. We’ve got lots of friends on the different floors and a lot of them are in design, writing, textiles. It allows you to think outside of the box because you’re not just limited to yourself and your skills.
One of the things we’ve noticed in interviewing creatives from different countries is that Americans tend to work, work, work and the Europeans we’ve spoken with seem to place a higher value on having downtime and hanging out with friends.
Yeah, you really need to do that. I think that was something that Airside taught me. When I started working there, I was told, “Your day starts at 10am and you’re going to finish at 6:30pm—and you’re not going to finish later than 7pm unless there is a massive deadline—because we don’t want to you to burn out and be useless for the next five days. Then you have no excuse; you have to be really productive for these eight hours.”
The company I worked for before—I used to stay there long hours and work until midnight. You can’t think straight after that. You go in circles in your head and can’t come up with new things. Sometimes you don’t know where inspiration comes from; it could be stories that people tell you or something you’ve seen. That’s what makes you interesting as well, which I realized when I was working like a maniac. I was really dead boring and had nothing to say. For me, the way I work is that I take things in without even noticing. Just by meeting up with friends or traveling, I take visual things in, forget about them, and then it comes back in a project in some shape or form. But if you don’t go out, there’s nothing to pull from. I’m still finding my feet in the freelance world, but I do try to finish work at 7:30pm max and then go out.
If you could give one piece of advice to another illustrator or designer starting out, what would you say?
I think it would be portfolio advice, especially for students. I’d say if you’re not sure about something, don’t show it; don’t put it in your portfolio. It doesn’t matter how many hours or months you spent on something—if it’s not working, then it’s not working. I think that sometimes young creatives decide to show absolutely everything thinking that the person they are showing it to is going to find something they like because there is so much. But actually, it’s all about curating your work. If you show someone three amazing projects and then one really, really shit one, the reality is that I’m going to think, “How the hell did he manage to do that thing that’s so bad?” Whereas if I just saw one really good project, I’d think, “I would need to see more, but there is potential there.” It’s important to not show everything.
My other advice is that there is no point in adding and adding things to a design. If you can live without it, then you don’t need it; get rid of it. That’s really essential to what I do. If you can remove that line and it still works, then remove that line. Why would you put it there? Less is more.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I wake up, check my emails—it’s quite bad.
We’re noticing a trend with that.
Exactly. (laughing) I wake up with my iPhone next to my ear. Actually, I just check my emails—I don’t even read them. I make coffee. Then I smoke, which is quite bad. It’s the French breakfast of coffee and cigarettes. Then I read my emails, take a shower and get ready, and get to work by 10:30 or 11am.
I’m pretty obsessive compulsive when I work. I probably freak out the girls sitting next to me sometimes because I can focus for six hours straight without moving. When I draw, I’m in some parallel universe. I work really fast and really intensely. I only go on cigarette breaks. Sometimes I don’t eat lunch—that’s not good either. I finish my day around 7pm and then usually meet up with friends and have a drink, have dinner at home with my flatmate, watch TV or a movie, and then go to bed really, really late. I always find something to do at 2am—just any excuse not to go to bed.
Current album on repeat?
I always listen to the same kind of music. I absolutely love Portishead and anything electro-rock. I listen to Desire as well. I think they did a song on the Drive soundtrack, which was amazing. I like anything rock and mainly depressing, which is the opposite of who I am, but I just love it.
Favorite TV series or movie?
I’ve got my favorite TV series and nothing can top it—Arrested Development. It’s the funniest thing I’ve seen in my life.
Any favorite books?
One of my favorite books is L’ecume des Jours by Boris Vian. It’s completely surreal and fucked-up and beautiful. I also love Alessandro Baricco, who is an Italian writer. I don’t know why, but his covers are dreadful. It looks like a book your mother would buy and read, but it’s amazing. His books really play with your imagination.
Italian. Simple and all about the ingredients. I love that.
I’ve got a weird story about food. I used to be a vegetarian. Growing up, it was no TV, no video games, no meat. We were a bit hippyish. I didn’t eat meat for years and years. It’s been a year since I decided that I needed to educate myself and try some things. Lately, I’ve discovered that I love steak and roast beef. I can’t eat an entire portion yet, but give me a few years and I’ll be a full-on carnivore.
One last question. What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
I think that with what I do, I just want people to remember me as someone who had fun. I love what I do. I have a lot of fun doing it as well and I think that shows—there is this happiness.
Also, if you work hard enough, you can actually do what you like as long as you have empathy and a connection with people. The more open you are to people, the more it will show in your drawings and the more others will identify with your work. That’s what I love—when I see something and it speaks to me on an emotional level. I try to be really spontaneous and genuine about what I do. I believe that if it makes sense to me and makes me laugh, it will make someone else laugh.
“…if you work hard enough, you can actually do what you like as long as you have empathy and a connection with people. The more open you are to people, the more it will show…and the more others will identify with your work.”