Actual Friends: a creative design studio founded and run by, you guessed it, actual friends

The four that make up the design studio express why collaboration is the key to their creative success and walk us through various new projects, from wedding invitations to branding for a cheese company.

Date
16 November 2021

Ray, Shahina, Malak, and Zahra have worked together in various ways, in studios and on freelance projects over the last handful of years, and find immense joy in collaboration. After studying Visual Communications in Chennai, Shahina has been on what she describes as an “incredible journey spanning five cities in the last seven years.” From moving to London to do a postgraduate degree in design at LCC, working in interactive design in Chicago, doing a master's in branding, leading branding projects at studios in Mumbai and Dubai and “finally, moving back to London and starting Actual Friends,” it’s been a busy and exciting time for Shahina.

Ray went to the American University of Sharjah for Visual Communication before starting her career in print design and photography. “I worked at a small studio for three years,” she tells It’s Nice That, “then independently for a year until I was introduced to the studio Malak was working at, and after a year I shifted my work form from graphic design to human-centred design.” Ray believes this elevated her approach to strategy and it made sense to open the conversation with Shahina about starting Actual Friends. They started by creating “a mechanism behind how to develop brands, and added in bits and pieces of our career paths to mix and match our approach.”

Whilst Malak doesn’t have a background in graphic design. Having studied Multimedia Design at the American University of Sharjah where she first met Ray, she says her focus was more on “storytelling and time-based media, honing in on motion graphics, animation and film. I also love experimenting with audio.” And Zahra says she’s the most unconventional addition. “After closing the door on my science girl life, I worked at Aesop for four years in Toronto,” the strategist’s hometown, “before moving back to Dubai where I dived into freelance copywriting. I floated in and out of a couple agencies before meeting Shahina, then Ray and Malak through the same branding studio they had all worked at.” It was there that Zahra dipped her toes into brand strategy. She explains “it’s not often that as a copywriter you’re valued as much as the designers are. We bring each other up in an industry we’ve navigated together and apart,” Zahra says of her studio.

“One thing that’s embedded in our work is definitely a sense of play,” explains Ray when speaking about the studio’s current style. “We like to make things approachable, instilling a sense of fun for our clients so they associate the entire experience and results with joy.” And Shahina believes that the “brief dictates the style. This makes every project varied, exciting, so we’re not steering it towards an in-house style.” Having grown up, studied and lived in different cities around the world, the group believe themselves to be lucky to have such an “abundance of cultural context to bring to the table”.

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Actual Friends: Shahina + Akbar (Copyright © Actual Friends, 2021)

Taking a hands-on approach, Shahina explains that the team follows its conversational and visual immersion practice with the client with explorations of practical and physical crafts. With Seesaw, the team explored linocuts, “with Cocolily it was photographing gates across the United Arab Emirates to reach our final icon system,” Shahina continues. “We question everything to understand what influences the brand, the client, and then collate the insights to reach a brand that we’re all happy with. And of course, the user journey is considered at every step. Almost before anything else, we’re putting ourselves in the user’s shoes,” says Shahina, “making sure that they enjoy the product or the result as much as we do.”

For Yellow Block, Actual Friends created something that was tasteful rather than, well, cheesy. Malak claims the branding for the cheese company is “super fun and a good example of how a brand can scale and develop over time while maintaining a collaborative, collective approach”. Ray wasn’t obsessed about creating a perfect mark with Yellow Block, which she believes allowed the team to “keep the brand as a bit of a guinea pig. We’re lucky that we can test out how different approaches to branding impacts sales,” Ray continues, “or changes the community’s interaction and engagement with it”.

Zahra chimes in, believing that nothing is compromised for the sake of progress in Yellow Block’s branding; “the pace of growth is measured and the integrity of each touchpoint is maintained. It’s almost comforting because everything is a learning moment.” That’s something Shahina also experienced when creating her wedding invites. “By letting circumstance and design work hand-in-hand,” she expands, “I could inject humour into something that was stressful, so it can put a smile on people’s faces while still remaining culturally on-point and staying true to our values and personalities.” For Shahina and her now-husband Akbar’s wedding invitations, Shahina created little stamps with each of their profiles like the Queen’s, and adorned the envelopes in dancing figures mimicking the iconic table-top dance by Uma Thurman and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. The result was simple and strikingly effective, romantic and personal yet never erring on the side of cringey.

Currently, Actual Friends is working on projects for a furniture gallery, a jewellery brand, a bakery, and a dental practice in the UK: they’re not about to slow down now. The team is happy that they’re able to work with so many predominantly female-owned businesses. “We’re hoping to continue to work with women, especially those with sustainable practices as a priority.” Whilst admittedly, they acknowledge that they deserve a break now and again; “let’s go on a retreat!”

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Actual Friends: MTR Muraba (Copyright © Actual Friends, 2021)

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Actual Friends: MTR Muraba (Copyright © Actual Friends, 2021)

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Actual Friends: Seesaw (Copyright © Actual Friends, 2021)

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Actual Friends: Seesaw (Copyright © Actual Friends, 2021)

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Actual Friends & Ellen Mary Cronin: Yellow Block (Copyright © Actual Friends, 2021)

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Actual Friends: Yellow Block (Copyright © Actual Friends, 2021)

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Actual Friends & Ellen Mary Cronin: Yellow Block (Copyright © Actual Friends, 2021)

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Actual Friends: Yellow Block (Copyright © Actual Friends, 2021)

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Actual Friends: Shahina + Akbar (Copyright © Actual Friends, 2021)

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Actual Friends: Seesaw (Copyright © Actual Friends, 2021)

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About the Author

Dalia Al-Dujaili

Dalia joined It’s Nice That as a news writer in July 2021 after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh. She's written for various indie publications such as Azeema and Notion, and ran her own magazine and newsletter platforming marginalised creativity.

dad@itsnicethat.com

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