Interview with Graphic Designer, Illustrator, and Activist, Harkiran Kalsi
Meet the extraordinary Harkiran Kalsi, a London-based freelance graphic designer and illustrator who blends graphic design, murals, illustration and freehand typography to create her eye-catching designs. She began her career in Leamington Spa working for Coventry City Council and Warwickshire College before landing a job with BBC Children in Need which led her to work on campaigns for organizations, brands and events including the London Marathon, Comic Relief, Virgin Sport, British Gas, Carabao, Footlocker and NBA and Lululemon, amongst others. She was named by art and design magazine Creative Boom as one the ’25 most exciting graphic designers and illustrators’ to follow during International Women’s Day. Her work has also appeared on campaigns highlighting issues around racism and inequality.
We had a chance to chat with Harky about her background as a graphic designer and her fight for equality. She’s a true inspiration whose art is uniting the world.
Tell us about your background and the road that led you to become a freelance graphic designer and illustrator.
I have been freelancing for four years but before this I was working full time as a graphic designer. I have always loved art since I was a child and continued this through my life. However, I spent many years working in design for the public sector and just before I turned 30 I moved to London to work for a large charity BBC Children in Need. This really escalated my career and for a while I thought I would work my way up to working for bigger agencies and becoming an Art Director. This plan went out the window when I met people pursuing freelance careers. I was scared at first because I had bills to pay etc but in 2017 I was made redundant from Comic Relief, this gave me a small window to pursue freelance. I had a month to get this right or I was back in full time employment. I made it work and here I am now. I absolutely love it and the projects have been amazing.
Do you sketch your designs by hand first, or do you design all digitally?
I used to design everything by hand and then scan it into Photoshop and adjust it, but now I create everything digitally using an iPad Pro and an app called Procreate. This has made my workflow so much easier and much quicker.
Has art always been an outlet for expressing yourself?
Art plays a huge role in how I express myself it is a great way to share how I feel, share my beliefs and values. For me it is a form of therapy and has helped me become the strongest version of myself. It is something I am great at and no one in the world can take that away from me. It allows me to say what I need to say. I have confidence speaking up on world issues through it. Nina Simone said it best ‘An artist’s duty is to reflect the times’. I am hugely empathetic and take on a lot of the pain felt across the world so for me art saves me every day. It reminds me of what I need to do, I must be a voice for those that are suffering, I must make sure my work makes people feel seen. It is huge outlet for the pain I feel in my life but also the joy I feel too.
Who were your women role models growing up? And whom do you admire today?
My mum has always been my biggest role model. Her journey was very difficult and as a single mum she put everything into me and my siblings. Everything I do is for her, and I want her to have a happy life as she gets older and older. As well as her there are so many women I admire from well-known names such as AOC, Malala Yousafzai, Rupi Kaur, Rihanna, Michelle Obama, to so many of my friends. I am drawn to women who stand up against the norm or who fight for causes that matter, the ones who have the courage to speak up even when the world will hate you for it.
The renewed discussion of feminism is playing a major role in today’s society. What is your personal advice for women on how to work less competitively and more collaboratively in their respective field?
It is knowing that there is room for everyone to succeed. It is powerful when you make space for others and help them grow. It always comes down to being of service to others. Give more than you take. When you live in this mindset, you will always feel abundant, you will always feel successful. You are not competing but co-creating which is how this entire universe works. Humans still don’t understand this. We lack nothing but we act like we do. It is a very simple attitude shift which can help us as women come together and own the rooms, make the big moves, change this patriarchal society. But we MUST work together. We are not each other’s enemies.
Thank you for your continued work as an activist fighting racism and inequality. Do you believe art can change the world?
I believe art plays a big part in how it shapes the world. It can make people feel, think, see things differently. It also helps so many people in the forms of therapy. Art comes in many forms, music, writing, movies, so yes what we put out there has the potential to make the world better. To help and to even heal people. People resonate to a feeling, something that emotionally sparks something in them, art has the power to do this. Here people say that song saved me, or that poem healed me so we know what it can do. It is not just a hobby for us artists, but it is our lifeline, we are healing ourselves whilst healing others through what we do. We share our being with whoever sees our work.
When you create art that’s close to your heart and put it in a space where you know someone who looks up will feel something from it. There’s no feeling quite like it. For some it will just be a poster but for me it’s looking at billboards and thinking “wouldn’t it be so dope the day my work is up there on one of those. Not for a client job but my own work which I thought of from beginning to end. Work that really matters.”
Tell us about some of your past work and collaborations. Are there any projects that you feel are your biggest accomplishments?
There are a few personal projects that happened in 2020. One was the BLM Power Fist artwork which was a very important piece for me to create. I needed to channel the pain I felt after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It was not just to show solidarity with the Black community but most of all how we cannot and will not tolerate any form of racism across the world. To see people from the UK and in the USA share it showed me how connected we are. World issues impact all of us, it doesn’t matter where you call home, we are in this together.
The other was the ‘I am Thankful for our NHS’ mural created in London. It was to honour our amazing healthcare workers during the pandemic, to show them how grateful we are for their service. In the UK we are very lucky that it is all free so I never take them for granted.
Both the above are very personal and meaningful projects to me and hold a very close place in my heart regarding accomplishing something. It is having the courage to speak up and not be afraid, it is using my platform to stand on the right side of history.
Do you have any future projects that you can share with us?
Yes, I have just painted my first sculpture for a national public art installation in the UK. It is lead by a public art producer Wild in Art, and it will be unveiled in July 2021 to coincide with the birthday of the NHS. The piece which is based around ‘Gratitude’ will then be doing a UK tour across four major cities.
What is your interpretation of a Raw Femme?
A Raw Femme is bold, someone who isn’t afraid to speak up and protect others. A voice for those who are silenced. She is her most authentic self and leaves a trail of fire behind her.