This isn’t the first time Mustaali Raj has won a Student Award from Applied Arts magazine, but it is the first time he’s won three! Every year, students in Capilano University’s IDEA School of Design join new designers around the world (18 countries this year) in submitting their best assignments to the popular communication arts magazine’s Student Awards competition. Winning is not uncommon among IDEA students at Cap, who generally bring home a handful of awards each year, all of which are featured in the magazine’s November/December edition (on newsstands now). For Mustaali, however, this year’s triple victory marked the perfect end to his studies, as well as an exciting new direction for a career that started out looking very different indeed.

“It’s not about pretty pictures anymore,” says Mustaali, of how technology has really raised the level of competition in recent years. “When was the last time a billboard really inspired you to buy something?” According to Mustaali, a successful design is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also must now incorporate a strong concept and communicate a message effectively.

Sound complicated? That’s because it is! But a good designer will never make it feel that way. Just take a look at Mustaali’s award-winning creations—all inspired by some very diverse life experiences—and it all somehow just starts to makes sense.

Winner: Complete Design Program – Complete

When you’re born in India, raised in the Middle East and spend your teen years in Canada, according to Mustaali, it’s kind of hard to call one particular place “home.” He says he identifies closest with the term “third culture kid,” meaning someone who holds relationships with parts of many different cultures, but has created a unique sense of belonging in the process. In terms of his design sense, Mustaali says his many hometowns have left him with a love of bold, bright colours, multicultural themes and the ability to design for an international audience.

Winner: Design – Single

Moving from the Middle East to Calgary is no small feat, but for a smart kid like Mustaali, surrounded by family, he survived the transition relatively well, despite a change in climate that was about as extreme as can be on planet Earth. “I’m not a big fan of the cold!” he says today, admitting it was one of many reasons he chose Vancouver to study design.

A creative career wasn’t always in Mustaali’s sights, however. Coming from a family of successful engineers and doctors, and especially attending high school in Calgary (which he calls “energy central”), Mustaali always considered art as something to do as a hobby, never a profession. Even when a high school teacher strongly encouraged Mustaali to apply to art school, he remembers his reaction: “I was like, art school? Who goes to art school?”

And so, Mustaali ended up following in his family’s footsteps by earning a degree in engineering and eventually working as an environmental advisor in Calgary’s energy sector. All the while, however, he never gave up his art, dabbling in freelance design on the side by doing posters for friends and school organizations. Gradually, Mustaali says he learned that he actually hated engineering, and as he continued with his side projects, he realized, “You know what? This is what I want to do!”

Winner: Design – Series (with Aaron Campbell)

Having slowly but surely brought his family on board (they’re now super proud of him), Mustaali then faced a whole new challenge: which art school to attend? After looking into institutions across the country form Alberta’s prominent ACAD to schools in Ontario and others in Vancouver, Mustaali says he was struck by the quality of graduate work by Capilano University alumni, and also noticed that IDEA grads held many key positions in the industry. He even contacted some of them directly, receiving quick responses and helpful advice.

Entering the IDEA program, Mustaali still wasn’t quite sure how he’d fit in, but soon discovered an interesting and diverse mix of students. Mustaali says that studying with everyone from high school grads to degree holders like himself to scientists and other professionals (even a plumber) was a big change from his undergraduate experience, but something that he really enjoyed. “We all helped each other see things in different ways, which is really valuable for a designer,” he says.

Having graduated from Cap in the spring of 2014, Mustaali now works as an art director and designer at Vancouver advertising firm Rethink. “I even look forward to Mondays now,” says Mustaali, describing how his office is a true creative zone, with everything from AstroTurf carpet to a Ping-Pong boardroom table to a Lego room (yes, an actual room filled with Lego). He also works side by side with fellow IDEA graduate Alex Bakker, also a heavy-hitter in this year’s Applied Arts Student Awards.

Finally in a profession he enjoys, Mustaali says he was tempted at first to consider his engineering career a waste of time, but soon learned to value all his experiences as professional building blocks. “I realize that the more diverse background you have, the better it is,” he says. For any students or professionals out there considering a career in design, Mustaali offers some simple advice. “Get out there and be confident in your work,” he says. “And don’t be afraid to reach out to people in the industry. Send them an email, say I want to learn more, ask can we meet up for coffee? People will help you out because they themselves were there at one point or another.”

Submitted by Marketing & Communications