Freelance Graphic Designer


SaniaSaleh (Freelance Graphic Designer)

An experienced designer + director in London helping clients shape meaningful products, brands, and processes.

London, UK • April 27, 2023

What led you into design?

I just remember always being fascinated by textures and colours around me, like a lot of designers I have synaesthesia, so I think that played a big part in being drawn to make things. We grew up in Germany, with my family routinely making road trips to neighbouring countries as my parents found different festivals and markets to set up shop, so I had a weirdly autonomous childhood full of small adventures: we’d often be in new places, befriending strangers, and spending a lot of time entertaining ourselves, which meant that I was always collecting things, sticking them together, breaking things and mending them. I loved art, drawing constantly, and filling sketchbook after sketchbook—but, honestly, never quite expected a career out of it. 

In my late teens, now in England, some friends recommended Graphic Communication as an extra A-Level. I thought it inconsequential at the time, but it turned out to be anything but; I had such a good time that within a few weeks, I just knew this was going to be what I did with my life. I studied Graphic Design at university soon after and was lucky enough to get a D&AD pencil for my final project, which paved the way to landing a nice job at a lovely design studio in London a couple of weeks after graduating. I had a full 7 days to find a place to live and move cities before starting! It was hectic but fun and in hindsight a pretty transformative time. 

What does a typical day look like?

I switch up my routine quite frequently. When I started freelancing, I was working pretty much flat out all week—client calls in the evenings, and work on the weekends. When you first start it’s really hard to say no to good opportunities. We all know how that ends, it’s just not sustainable, and ultimately not worth it. So I’ve spent the last few years trying out different schedules and methods to see what fits me.

I’m currently trying to do the direct opposite to counteract the years of overworking. I have 3 ‘normal’ work days a week and try to leave 4 unplanned days. I think I’m someone that is naturally productive if I’m left to my own devices, so for me, it’s more important to plan relaxed time rather than work time. The unplanned days can consist of anything, work if needed, outside if the weather is nice, or spent on improving systems so that my actual work days run that much smoother. The nice thing about working for yourself means you get to redesign how you run your practice from the ground up. It’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about and working on. 

I try to be up at sunrise (I started doing this a few years ago to prevent seasonal disorder, and it worked like a charm) and spend ~2 hours doing whatever I fancy that morning: nice breakfast, gaming, garden time. By the time I start work, I’m relaxed, energised, and in a good mood. My preferred work schedule is 7 am—3 pm. I’m happiest when I work in uninterrupted 90min focus sprints, with half an hour breaks away from the screen, it’s my magic recipe for unmatched productivity. I don’t always manage to stick to it, especially with the majority of my clients and collaborators being in the US, but it’s worth attempting it every day, I haven’t found a better setup for a great work day. 

Evenings consist of making dinner, getting some DIY around the house, and going for a walk. I’m really excited for the weather to get warmer, there’s nothing better than post-dinner strolls when the sun is setting and there’s a cool breeze out.

What's your workstation setup?

Picture of a desk in front of a bay window. The desk has a laptop on a stand, an external monitor on an arm, a keyboard, some plants, drinks and a black cat on it. It's evening and the golden sunlight is flooding the photo.

I recently got a Jarvis standing desk, which I absolutely love. I try to keep it clear, but somehow always end up accumulating titbits. On it lives a Studio Display on a monitor arm, so I can retain as much desk space as possible, a standard Apple keyboard, and my trusty Wacom Bamboo that I’ve used as a mouse for well over a decade now. Finn, my furry junior design assistant, often joins me when I’m working on my desk since it is an excellent spot to keep an eye out for his nemesis (neighbour’s cat). 

Where do you go to get inspired?

Away from the screen! I think sometimes the best thing to do is to give yourself space to step away, so your brain can marinate, and ideally get busy with an uncomplicated but physically engaging activity. We just got our first home, so a gardening break or even manual tasks like stripping the old wallpaper leaves me more refreshed than browsing design inspiration for hours would. I’m also lucky enough to live a 5 min walk from the woods, so taking a walk in nature never misses. Even if it’s raining, once you’re there the trees block out pretty much everything.

I’m also a big book lover, fiction, and non-fiction both, so either immersing myself in a great fantasy series, design magazine or graphic novel is a nice way to get my brain working creatively without any of the stress of engaging with actual work. I have a tracker I’ve used for just over three years, and there’s a direct correlation between how happy and inspired I'm feeling and how regularly I’m making time to read.

A screenshot of the Eagle app with a colourful mix of saved design inspiration.

If we’re talking online — Eagle is my happy place for design inspiration. I’ve had a lot of fatigue lately from the same design platforms that I used to feel inspired by a few years ago. Over the last few years, I’ve ended up curating a mix of things that catch my eye and sorting it (into a somewhat elaborate system) in Eagle. It’s genuinely been a really great addition to my stack, I was looking for the perfect app to gather visual inspiration in for so long before this. Going to my personal bank of visual references also means that I’m collecting things and visiting inspiration outside just brand and web design, and looking at adjacent practices more frequently.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

I have a wildly unnecessary amount of Toyo boxes in my Ugmonk basket—I have to think of any half-decent reason to hit the checkout button and I will do it, the colours are all so delicious, the little ones are stackable, and I’m just weak when it comes to resisting stationary and storage items, especially if it’s made of metal and comes in lovely colours.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

In all honesty, I have a tendency to not like anything I’ve made by the time it launches. I used to think this was a bad thing, but is apparently very common—it just means you’re already looking for the next big step up in your skill set. Now, whenever I feel that dissatisfaction, I recognise it as a marker that I’m just in the next transitional phase of my work. 

Whenever I get some space away from it, I do look back fondly on some projects over the last couple of years. Here are some of my favourite screens: 

The things I’m proud of the most aren’t out in the world yet. I’ve spent the last year collating a decade’s worth of notes and have somehow ended up with 20k words of thoughts, some of which I’m fleshing out into a series of visual essays. Watch this space, I guess. :)

What design challenges do you face at your company?

I’ve been working freelance for so long because of the autonomy and control it gives you, so I’m currently in a good spot with work, thankfully. My biggest pet peeve is avoidable stressors, so if I go through a situation I know I could have handled better, I’m pretty proactive about just setting it up for success the next time around. They say you fall to your systems, right? The longer you work, the better the clients and projects get, so at this stage, I’m pretty content with my day-to-day, and I’m grateful for all the amazing people I get to work with.

The only thing that comes to mind is the oldest annoyance in the book—making time to pull together old work for the portfolio. Between client work and getting excited about side projects, it honestly is difficult to find the time to revisit and sort old work into case studies. Sometimes I wonder if it’s even necessary.

What music do you listen to while designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

— If something doesn’t sit right with you, on any level, challenge it.
— Most of the rules we take for granted are made up, and there’s more wiggle room than you think. 
— You can only change the circumstances you take responsibility for.
— Prioritise quality. If you’re going to do something, it’s typically worth doing it well.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

It’s Ramadan at the time of writing this, so I’d urge anyone to think of the less fortunate around them and help in any way you can. Little acts of kindness add up. 

I love meeting other designers, if anyone wants to chat just tweet me @saniaio or drop me an email — if you’re in London and want to go for a stroll in the park, hmu!