What does creative success mean? Seeing people like me
A view from Raafaye Ali Sheikh

What does creative success mean? Seeing people like me

Raafaye Ali Sheikh, an alumni of the D&AD Shift programme, reflects on the barriers that almost prevented him from accessing the creative industries.

What does success look like in the creative industry? A realisation hits me: growing up as a British Pakistani Muslim, I didn’t know anyone who was in the creative industry – no family members or relatives, no mentors, not even an acquaintance to help me envision a creative career. The closest I ever had was an art teacher. It’s hard to imagine what success in the creative industry might be when you have been so disconnected from it. As they say: you can’t be what you can’t see.

We have a systemic problem preventing access to the creative industry – barrier after barrier that filters out many people with so much potential. I have been to more than 10 state schools across the UK, from Ireland and Scotland to the Midlands and all the way back to London. Regardless of the school, they were always unimaginatively bleak when it came to inspiring children about the wide range of possibilities in the creative sector. I didn’t know what a creative, strategist or copywriter was until my current age of 28. I don’t believe that I’m unique in this.

Due to implementation of austerity, that bleakness within our state schools is only expected to get worse. When cuts are implemented, schools naturally, without much thought, cut away at what little there is left of their arts programmes. This just doesn’t make sense, because the creative industry is among the largest and fastest sources of growth to our economy – bigger than the automotive, oil, gas, aerospace and life science industries combined. Meanwhile, an Oxford study found that the majority of traditional careers are expected to be replaced by automation. 

Despite the creative industry’s continuous bloom, the obvious benefit of a creative education doesn’t ever seem to transfer back into our schools. Instead, you have the likes of Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman saying that traditional core academic subjects are the best route to higher education, particularly for the working class. It’s no surprise that new generations of ethnic minorities and the working class are still alienated from this sector. Plus, huge tuition fees make the creative industry feel even less attainable because there is no secure career guaranteed at the end of it.

A statistic that particularly shocked me is that there are less than 5% of ethnic minorities in the creative industry, despite ethnic minorities making up almost 44% of the population in London. I recall a talk where a SOAS course leader and lecturer said ethnic minorities have to apply for around 70% more roles to be on par with someone who is white. This is not even taking into account that it is far more competitive to get a job in the creative sector. With statistics like this, I can understand how ethnic communities see a creative job as some kind of lottery ticket and rule it out as a possibility.

With many opportunities in society built around who you know and the privileges of what kind of school you went to, it has always troubled me that people within my ethnic community don’t see the creative industry as something that is achievable for them. Also, the acceptable and respected career paths are to be an accountant, engineer, doctor or lawyer. Aspirations for a creative career within my community are largely discouraged or criticised before we even get a foot into higher education. We are often told to be more realistic and drop our idle fancies. I remember being rushed into university due to pressure and expectations, despite how naive I was of various subjects and career paths. I later tried to change university, lost and rebuilt a portfolio, and eventually dropped out of university. 

Failure is something I am far more accustomed to than success. All I could do was try to get back onto my feet while my community watched my fall from grace, ridiculing me as I ended up in a low-paid job. 

I’ve always dreamed of that lottery ticket into the creative industry. I must have applied for a few hundred creative opportunities and gotten only a handful of interviews. However, the meaning of success has always been far simpler to me. Success would be seeing people such as myself in this industry, showing young, passionate ethnic minorities of the next generation that it can be a reality. That the creative industry is full of people from all walks of life, who may not have the highest grades or qualifications, who may have failed traditional routes of education, and yet still managed to get into the creative industry because their talent transcended barriers. 

Raafaye Ali Sheikh is a designer, illustrator and D&AD New Blood Shift 2018 alumni. Shift is a 12-week programme that provides young people without traditional qualifications a way into the creative industries.