Arts & Culture People

Getting to know Kohenoor Kamal: designer and illustrator

This week we talk to Kohenoor Kamal, a designer and illustrator from the North West on the highs and lows of freelancing, what sparks creativity and her favourite spots for inspiration across the North.


Can I start by asking you a little about yourself, where are you from and what do you do?

Hey Jenna! I’m an illustrator and designer based in the North West of England. I have been freelancing for a few years now and enjoy making bright, colourful works, which are influenced by my passion for colour, texture and detail. 

I grew up in a Bangladeshi household surrounded by delicious Bengali food as well as the beautiful culture that comes with it. I think a lot of this has had huge influence on my work, from the intricate and detailed clothes my family wear to the food that my dad (a chef) cooks.

Growing up with a traditional Asian background as a first generation Bengali meant that I grew up with a lot of pressure and expectation of what kind of career I should have been looking at. The kind of person that I am always wanted to reject these expectations and pursue my own path of working in the creative industry.

I had many battles with my family about them supporting me on this journey and I think they found it quite difficult to accept that I wanted to pursue this venture as they are from a working class background and their main focus was to make ends meet. I think since then I have been very fortunate that they have been able to witness my passion for creating art and the work that I have been able to get off the back of this, which I am grateful for.

When did you decide that you wanted to be a designer and illustrator?

I have always been a creative person, but it was only when I went to university that I felt like I could use that creativity and work within the creative field. The good thing about the university that I went to was that I was able to explore different specialisms outside of design, some of those things included animation, illustration, photography and art direction. 

At university I felt like I had the tools and knowledge on how I could pursue working as a designer and illustrator. Even though I had trained and studied within the realm of graphic design, I always had an interest in subjects outside of this, especially illustration. I would go on to embedding this into projects using my knowledge of design principles and experimenting with how I could play around with this hybrid of specialisms and use creative problem solving to answer briefs and produce artwork.

My course emphasised the integration of the contextual nature behind projects and this framework helped form the decisions behind my work, such as thinking about how I can make a meaningful impact with a design with the consideration of aesthetics too. In the past, I would make pieces of work that were visually appealing, but I think this extra consideration has helped me make more meaningful pieces of work.

How did you go about getting into the creative industries?

I think the key thing for me was integrating myself into the creative scene, particularly going to events (even virtual ones) and talking to different people. I used to find this nerve wracking, so to help me get out of my comfort zone I asked a friend if they would want to attend events with me to make things a little less anxiety inducing.

Social media has played a huge part in where I am now and the kind of work that I have been able to get. Whether that’s posting new work on Instagram or connecting with different pages that promote people’s work or creative resources where I have shared my own personal experiences on how I got into the industry. 

How would you define your design style?

My design style is a combination of things , I like to embed texture into my work wherever I can as well as using bright and engaging colours. I have also incorporated illustrative features into my work to resonate with my differing creative qualities that I enjoy working on and combining all of these lovely things.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

At the moment, I’m working on a number of projects whilst I have the availability. Last year, I was juggling a number of projects, which was really exciting but also quite time consuming so I am now focusing on developing and experimenting with illustrations of food, portraits and animation. 

I have a project that I did early on in the year with Root-ED and I was able to exhibit some of these food illustrations. Here, I illustrated an array of key ingredients featured in recipes which people had contributed to them. After doing this project I played around with more of this in my spare time, such as illustrating a recipe card of my own, which includes the ingredients to a special recipe of mine which my parents had taught me.

Animation has also been something that I have been playing around more with since working with Leeds Inspired to help them produce Call to Action artwork for their grants and website. There is something very fun about working out the logistics behind simple graphics and figuring out how to make something move fluidly.

What have been some of the career high and lows so far?

I am proud of the fact that I have been able to establish a career in an industry which can be quite cut throat especially having had obstacles in my way and out of my control, such as finishing my degree throughout the first lockdown and graduating into a pandemic, which left me and many of my peers with so much anxiety and uncertainty about whether we would be able to pursue this.

I’ve also been able to transition from one industry to another as well as be able to go back and forth between the two. With illustration and design, for a good amount of time I didn’t think I’d be able to pursue any illustration-based work but I think this was more about my lack of self-esteem. With time I’ve started trusting my process and seeing the engagement that I’ve received has proved that I can do both. 

Something that I didn’t expect from working as a freelancer, is how much work can fluctuate from one extreme to another and managing my own expectations and setting boundaries. It can make me quite anxious when there are periods where it’s very quiet because it feels as though I won’t pick up any more work, but something that I’ve learnt is to look at this in a more positive light and utilise this time by working on more personal projects and refining my skills. 

Also, I didn’t expect how reliant I would be on social media for getting new clients and also putting myself out there. It can be a double edged sword using social media as a freelancer and in your spare time, as well as the blurred lines between being on Instagram all the time and checking how much engagement you might get on a post or stories. I think it can become quite consuming when you fall into that state and I know that many people, myself included, still feel this way. But, I’m still thankful for having access to things like Instagram and Twitter where, even though I don’t have that many followers, I’ve been able to find so many more creative friends who are dotted all over the place.

I think another aspect I’m really quite proud of is the fact that I’ve been able to transition from one creative industry to another as although I studied a graphic design union, I actually wanted to study illustration but I wasn’t able to get onto this course at my university so I made use of what things I could learn on my course and then carried this through to what I was actually passionate about and I ended up creating this sort of hybrid of  illustration work, which has subtle tones of design principles behind it and I think that’s what makes my work stand out. I’ve always found it tough to pinpoint myself because I have this multidisciplinary practice, which is inspired by so many different creative fields and it’s hard to say oh yes I’m this one particular thing but I think that’s just the nature of creativity.

What inspires you as a designer?

I feel like at the moment I am fluctuating between lots of different  things I would love to work on or people I would like to work with. I have always admired the work of Studio Moross and I have been following the work of Aries Moross since I was in college. I love their use of experimental components using colour and texture. As well as this I love the work of Sha’an d’Anthes. The friends that I have made over the course of this journey have also played a large part into what I’m inspired by as the work they do motivates me to see the kinds of things that they are getting up to. 

What would be your ideal project to work on?

My ideal project at the moment would be to work with more musicians. Whether that’s in the capacity of producing albums or single artwork or being able to work on print-based ephemera, as I have always had a passion for tactile things such as screen printing and making things with my hands. I think something that I’ve found since making the transition to making more work digitally, using programs such as Procreate, is that I don’t use many handmade processes anymore but this used to be something that was the key focus behind my work.

Could you tell us a bit more about the poster you created for In Good Company Leeds’ poster campaign?

Being able to work with Laura Wellington, my good friend George Brown and Kate Phipps on producing this poster design, as well as being able to see it large-scale plastered all over the UK to celebrate key workers — this poster design was probably one of the most exciting projects that I worked on last year. 

I wanted to highlight some of these key workers and I illustrated a few people from mine and George’s family who are key workers. For example, I included a small illustration of my mum into this project and as a nod to many key workers who have worked really hard throughout the pandemic. In the design I wanted to portray a sense of empowerment and feeling proud that these people have worked really hard, and all sorts of colours are used to make it eye-catching so it could be visible in a variety of environments. I’ve actually had nurses, paramedics and teachers get in touch saying thank you for being part of the design.

At the time, George and I had just graduated from the same course and while both of us are very passionate about the work that we do, we were finding it hard to land design roles and jobs because of the uncertainty during the pandemic, so we were really grateful to have this opportunity to work with Laura and to make this poster design because it’s not often you get to go straight from university to having your work displayed on a mass scale, whilst also raising money for a good cause. 

How has the North shaped you both personally and professionally?

I think the people have definitely had a huge influence over who I am today. I have met so many wonderful creative people in all kinds of industries and being able to learn about different people’s perspectives has only helped me become more open minded as a person as well being there to push me when I’ve needed it to pursue a project that I’ve wanted to do and put off.

As well as this, going to university in Leeds where there is an amazing network of creative people as well as the city in itself. I regularly go to exhibitions and meet up with creatives who are based there. Leeds has been the apex for a lot of things for me and I consider it a second home for me just as it has allowed me to find the confidence I needed to push the boundaries of what I could make and beyond.

Where are some of your favourite places in the North?

There’s too many to count but some of my favourite things to do in the North include popping into local independents to do some work and also catching some downtime with friends. Some of my favourite restaurants in the North can include Bundobust, Cafe 164 and Rudy’s Pizza as well as galleries such as The Whitworth and Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where I go to get inspiration for new work.

What do you like to do outside of work?

This is a tough one as a lot of the things I love doing surround creativity in some form or another. I think my favourite thing is to go exploring or to see friends. Working as a freelancer, I find that often I’m either swamped with work or I have much quieter periods, so I like to use the most of my time to catch up with friends and go to galleries, cinemas and restaurants. I also enjoy cooking when I can. I grew up with Bengali food with my dad being a chef and I think that’s where I get my love for food from, I find it the most soothing thing to do when I feel stressed.


Interview: Jenna Campbell

Imagery: Courtesy of Kohenoor Kamal

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