Flexing Your Creative Muscles with Fathima Kathrada

I chatted to Durban-based illustrator, hand-lettererer and graphic designer Fathima Kathrada about the way she's strategically used 30 day challenges to stretch her creative capacity, to hone her craft and to overcome things some of things we all struggle with, like procrastination. 


Claire: Firstly, can you tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from? What is your 9-5? Any other details you’d like to share?

Fathima: I’m from Durban, and I’m an illustrator, graphic designer and hand letterer. I work with a variety of clients, from small businesses, to agencies, to commissions or wedding stationery for individuals. My personal work style has a hand drawn feel - I like the natural imperfections and variations that come from that instead of work that tries to look “perfect” and enjoy the process of using different mediums.

Claire: What particular creative challenges have you completed? Please tell us a bit about them.

  • #InktoberFS - part of global Inktober (ink drawings during October)
  • #FSpapercuts - paper cut out watercolour illustrations
  • #HIfeblove - daily giveaway series of hand lettered and illustrated alphabets, illustrations of things starting with each letter
  • #hiDoodleDiary - hand lettered and illustrated pieces of something that happened each day
  • #hiLettering - hand lettered quotes
  • #HI_foodles - watercolour food illustrations
  • #HIWordsinShapes - as it says, hand lettered words in shapes
  • #HIinkblots  - inkblots
  • #HappinessLoveHearts - watercolour love hearts with custom phrases, like the love hearts sweets
  • #FancyFebDoodle - daily giveaway of "fancy" hand lettered alphabets (giveaways always in February to "spread the love")
  • #HappyJanDoodles - hand lettered and illustrated words related to something in my day, created onto a specific paper format
  • #DecemberDoodles - the very first daily doodle project (December 2014), unfortunately not with a very unique hashtag so I've linked to the first one of that series. Hand lettered phrases provided by my followers in the comments.

[*"hi" = Happiness Is... (my blog and account name pre-rebrand) and "fs" = fathima's studio]

Claire: It seems to me that you’ve used these challenges as a tool for creative growth, and perhaps even the growth of your business - would you say that is accurate? If so, how do you think creative challenges can help grow/stretch you as a person?

Fathima: That’s totally accurate. When done strategically they can be incredibly helpful for growth in many areas. In terms of your work or craft, choosing something that you specifically want to improve upon or be known for will help you do those things. It becomes an exercise in deliberate practice - regularly practicing something that you want to improve, as opposed to willy nilly selecting a fun topic and creating great stuff but not necessarily improving or growing. In terms of personal growth, doing something like this can be very difficult, especially for someone like me who battles to do anything with this level of consistency and regularity. So it can help you to flex that muscle and build that habit into your day, then potentially allowing you to continue daily practices in other areas of your life even when not doing a challenge.

Claire: In what ways can they help your business (if at all!)?

Fathima: They can help establish you in people’s minds as the expert or go-to person in your field. It can demonstrate skill in one specific area, or versatility, and ideally attract the clients and customers who appreciate your work and are well suited to working with you.

Claire: What were some of the factors that led you to commit to the challenges? Why did you want to do this?

Fathima: I think the first time I wanted to do it because I felt a bit creatively stuck, busy with client work and not doing anything creative for myself, either because of perceived lack of time or ideas. So committing to a daily practice with a theme where I know what I need to do each day and that it should be quick, helped me to make sure I did some creative every day.

Claire: What were your goals in undertaking these challenges?

Fathima: My goals were to:

  • To improve in areas of my work
  • To establish a daily creativity practice
  • To build a nice bank of creative work that could potentially have other uses
  • To grow a following that was a good fit for my business and excited about what I was doing
  • To gain clients and customers who wanted what I was doing for themselves
  • To get into a creative habit and routine and grow some discipline in that regard
  • To overcome not-good-enough-itis and just put the work out, even when I felt it wasn’t my best

Claire: How did you start each challenge? This is a bit of a technical question - did you have to sign up somewhere, enroll in a class, join a group?

Fathima: Nope, these were all completely self initiated. So I sat down one day and brainstormed ideas for themes that I wanted to work on and that I thought might work well as a series or collection. And I continued to add to that list of themes as I came up with ideas. So in that way, as soon as one ended I could move swiftly onto the next one without breaking momentum by trying to come up with the next concept, etc. When I thought of each theme I automatically also included restrictions based on how I wanted it to look or be photographed, etc, which also helped with consistency and not having to think about that daily. If there were words or phrases or styles that needed to be used, I tried to collect as much of that beforehand as possible, and then added to it as I came up with ideas.

Claire: How would you describe your emotions on starting out?

Fathima: I think mostly excited… Excited to see what I produce, and to see how people react to it. It also caused a lot of stress, I’m not going to lie. Not being the most organised person, I sometimes was doing my drawing for the day at like 2am just to make sure not to miss a day. Like I’ve mentioned, not being the most organised routine-based person makes it difficult to do something like this. Ideally you should set aside a certain time that you’re going to just sit down and do it everyday regardless or whatever else is going on… but I’m not so good at that, so 2am’s happened a lot for some of them.

Claire: Were you worried at all about not having the commitment to stick to the challenge and see it through? If so, how did you deal with that?

Fathima: Definitely… but that’s part of why I chose to do it, because I know that’s something I struggle with and wanted to improve on that. I dealt with it by having the mindset that I’m just going to do this… I need to do it. And also focussing on the potential positive outcomes. The feeling of failure when I didn’t manage to get one done and having to make excuses to my audience was painful and embarrassing for me, so I wanted to avoid that as far as possible, which was also motivation.

Claire: Was there anything you did for ‘accountability’ sake - something to help you stick to your plan?

Fathima: Running these projects on Instagram was partly for accountability, especially for the ones that were giveaways! Normally people may not be anxiously awaiting your next post, but if there’s a daily giveaway where the first comment wins, then they are! Which is a lot of pressure, haha :) But also kind of exciting and fun.

Claire: Tell us a bit about the challenges on a daily level. What did they entail? What was it that you did every day, and how did that process feel on a daily basis?

Fathima: Well they were all kind of different, but it pretty much meant sitting down and getting it done, and also getting it done in time to be able to photograph it in natural light. Some of them required the use of thoughts or words or something from my actual day, so that required some awareness and mindfulness during the day or reflection on the day later, which was part of the goal for those ones.

The process, while stressful, was often quite rewarding and also emotional. Because it’s a daily thing and time is limited etc, if you create something that you don’t feel is great or instagram-worthy, it still needs to get put out there, so there’s mentally and emotionally overcoming that hurdle. With one or two of the projects the restrictions or themes were a bit too narrow and so they became a bit repetitive and boring for me. Depending on how hectic my schedule was with other work at the time, I did manage to find a nice routine with some of them where I’d use a lunch break to to do it, or first thing in the morning.

Claire: Where did you draw your inspiration from for each challenge?

Fathima: Hmm… It’s hard to say. I think it’s the same kind of inspiration you get for any creative work really. From seeing things around me, taking in bits and pieces and making my own thing out of it. And from just wanting to do a create certain types of things so then using this as an opportunity to do that.

Claire: How was your experience of the flow of ideas? Did you ever hit a ‘dead end’ or feel stuck? If so, how did you respond in those moments?

Fathima: I don’t recall having a real dead end as such… but that was because of the nature of the projects and also part of their purpose, to get my brain thinking in that way all the time. There were some instances where I had to spend some time online looking for inspiration, but I wouldn’t call that really being stuck. But of course there were other times when ideas were more free flowing without me having to spend too much time looking for them.  

Claire: Did you struggle at all with procrastination?

Fathima: Old Procrasty and I are bosom buddies, so yeah definitely! But I think maybe to a lesser degree than usual. I think the main thing that helped with that is having such a clear plan for each day - you know exactly what you need to do and how you need to do it and it needs to get posted, often at a specific time, so I think having it so almost automated did help.

Claire: Was there any sort of community aspect to your challenge - an online forum for people to share their experience and progress etc? A meet up? If so, how did that impact on your progress (or not)?

Fathima: No, my projects were all solo personal vibes apart from the giveaways which were more interactive, and the ones where I requested words/quotes from people to hand letter. I hadn’t really considered adding in a community aspect, mainly just because I knew how much of an undertaking it was going to be for me just to maintain this daily practice, I wouldn’t have wanted to take on the added admin of facilitating a community along with that. It would have detracted from my purpose somewhat. I think adding in the community aspect would be great, but would add in different goals as well, which weren’t my goals at the time. Maybe I’ll add that in in the future.

Claire: How much did you choose to share with your family and friends about this challenge? How did they respond to your involvement in this challenge?

Fathima: I don’t think I did really share it with family and friends much at all, now that I think of it. It was really a purely personal and Instagram thing for me.

Claire: What was the most exciting part of this process for you?

Fathima: I think probably the accomplishment of it. Knowing that I have done it, and managed to do so many, is a good feeling for me because  I know how difficult it was for me to keep that up. And then also having these collections to show and look back on is also great.

Claire: What was the most daunting or challenging aspect of the process?

Fathima: Simply the effort of carving out time and discipline to do it daily and make it as good as I could in short spaces of time.

Claire: What would you say to someone who wanted to sign up for a creative challenge?

Fathima: DO IT! It’s so good for you on so many levels. Make sure to plan your topics or mediums, and preferably time slot, ahead of time and take as much decision making out of it as possible, so that you can just sit down and do it at the time you’ve allocated and not be able to waste time and make excuses not to do it.

You heard her - if you're thinking about starting a creative challenge of some sort - just do it!

Places you can find Fathima online

Fathima's website
On Instagram
On Facebook

Fathima also wrote a really great blog post on 5 reasons to start a daily project. Its a great read!