What do you do when you’re dismissed from your job as a digital designer at an advertising agency and have to choose between finding another one in South Africa’s already flooded job market, or taking up the task of setting up your own startup? You could always draw on the similar experiences of 27-year-old Lesego Mathaba to find a way through it.

Mathaba is the founder of Smiles Creative Hood, a creative studio specialising in graphic design, web design, brand development, illustration and marketing.

Mathaba’s passion for art began when he was still a boy, drawing his favourite cartoon characters that he had seen on TV. Although he only launched his startup last year, he showed entrepreneurship skills as far back as high school. “As a teenager art was the only form of making pocket money for myself,” he explains. “I would draw portraits of individuals and design graphics for t-shirts and have them printed.”

Mathaba also got the opportunity to hone his business skills when he attended the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship.

“After getting my diploma in Graphic Design from the University of Johannesburg, I worked for four years for two different companies. I also took part in a few art competitions in the early phase of my career and got my break when I entered the Nokia Street Art competition in 2012 and 2013, where we had to design wall murals, and won the competition in both years. The competition placed me on the map it showed me alot of potential doors that could open.”

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Mural for the Nokia Street Art 2013 competition.

Mathaba’s portfolio boasts some impressive work for the likes of the Kazier Chiefs soccer club and Google South Africa.

Mathaba works from JoziHub’s shared space area – he comes in everyday with just his phone, sketchbook and laptop in hand. After getting an idea of what clients want from him, Mathaba starts off by drawing images on paper, taking a photo with his Nokia Lumia 520 and uploading it onto either Adobe Illustrator, Adobe PhotoShop or Adobe InDesign, where he turns the photo into a digital image.

An ordinary day for Lesego entails creating drawings according to briefs he gets from clients, uploading them onto Adobe Creative Suite and working on turning his drawings into digital illustrations. Some of the more popular drawings he has created are a mural of Nelson Mandela on the wall of the Mandela House Museum on Vilakazi street in Soweto and one on a wall at Constitution Hill in Braamfontein.

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The mural at the Mandela House museum.
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The mural at Constitution Hill.

At the moment, Mathaba is working on a design for Phillips SA’s electric shaving products. He is also creating a series of uniquely South African emojis (the stickers and smileys you see on BBM, Facebook Messenger and WeChat) for a proposal he will submit to Japanese instant messaging app LINE.

“Stickers are a way for people to express themselves on instant messaging apps, but they’re created by Asian designers and are relevant to the Asian market,” Mathaba explains, “so I thought about creating stickers specific to the South African market that expresses how we communicate. I was doing random research and saw that Line is looking to partner with foreign designers for new stickers to be added to the app.”

Mathaba is open to hearing ideas from anyone: “Jozihub is the ideal place to get input and ideas from other young people like me for projects such as this one. That’s the whole point of us sharing this space,” he adds.

If LINE doesn’t pick his stickers to be featured on its app, Mathaba says he’s still looking at pitching the idea to other potential clients to get them out there.

In the long term, he has his sights set on turning Smiles Creative Hood into a visual design agency, and working on converting township games played by kids into mobile games that anybody can have fun with. We can’t wait to see South Africa’s very own version of chess on a phone or tablet in the near future.