Meg Robichad, a.k.a. @megdraws, gives tips on running a successful freelance career and a successful career working within a large-scale design team. She shares how she has overcome the fear of sharing work in progress online. This prolific artist has lot’s of wonderful hidden wisdom for beginners to advanced creatives.
Interview by Cesar Contreras
Cesar: Pencil or pixel?
Meg: I don’t even own a sketch book. I am all Wacom, All stylus.
Cesar: From initial idea to all the way through?
Meg: All the way. Sometimes I wish I had a pencil just for writing couple words down. May be if I had a grocery list and I want to cross it out. Is that satisfying? Other than that all pixels specifically vectors.
Cesar: Even better.
Meg: I don’t wanna mess around just your pixels.
Cesar: No. We’ll get into what you do but before we get there, I’m curious, who is Meg?
Meg: I’m an illustrator and designer. I work for Shopify running the illustration team there. I also help out with the culture team and a little bit with brand.
Cesar: Right on. Shopify as of how recent?
Meg: it’s actually bin a while now. I guess 7 or 8 months. Feels like a while. I don’t know if that counts in tech as a long time or short time.
Cesar: I recognize your work and I know a lot of the freelance work that you’ve been doing a long time. Can you talk a bit about that? Your trajectory?
Meg: Sure. I started off when I graduated from art school. No one would hire me. I went to an incubator nearby in Vancouver and said, “I don’t know how to do this, but I’m pretty cheap.” [Laughs]
Cesar: Let’s go back a little bit. Which art school did you go to?
Meg: The Art Institute of Vancouver.
Cesar: Cool. Then you just started hitting up this incubator?
Meg: Well, I took print design and I didn’t really know how to make icons but we had to make our résumé at the art school and they helped us – we had a whole class where we were making our résumés. My résumé was… my teacher loved it. He thought it was so unique and he loved it. It got featured on greatresumes.com or uniqueresumes.com. I thought, “Wow. I’m really good at this.”
It had an octopus on the top, full color. It had the little water line at the top and the octopus was putting its hand out of the water with, like, a sock puppet on it. It was so bad. I also did the bar graph of skills. It was all the things that were wrong with résumés was on my résumé. Then I’m like, “Oh, no one will hire me.”
No one would hire me and I know why. I went to an incubator and said, “Hey I’m cheap.” I ended up working for 4 of the 5 companies there. Not doing very much illustration. Just kind of a catch all, “What do you guys need?” I did a lot of iOS design. A little bit of icon design.
Cesar: Apps were already a thing at the time?
Meg: Yeah, I guess I freelanced for 5 years, so, whenever that was. I was doing iPhone design, iOS design for a really long time but I always illustrate the footers or illustrate the default photos and a little be of the home screen icon and things like that. I only posted those so it’d look like I was an illustrator for a lot longer than I was but I actually only had a few tiny illustration projects. I was mostly doing iOS.
Cesar: That kind of explains where I’ve seen your work. I’ve seen your work in tech-oriented – the tech space. Did that lead to more work in the same space?
Meg: Yeah, definitely. I don’t think I can claim to say that it was a conscious decision. I think I definitely went to school for print design and found myself in tech because there was no one designing for iPhone. And then pivoted more to specialized in illustration for products and found myself doing a lot of infographics, a lot of product illustration or empty states. As I got further along in my freelance career, I very actively sought out companies that wanted a big hero explainer for their marketing page and then I would pair it with something on the other side for their empty states, for pages to help make them more cohesive and that’s what brought me to Shopify.
Cesar: Nice, and we’ll definitely get to Shopify. You have a prolific body of work. To me it seems like your hustling every single day. Is that true?
Cesar: Do you have your tablet with you at all times?
Meg: Yes. Sometimes I just get in the zone. It’s like I run hot and cold. It’s not like I’m just always working, it’s just that when I’m working, I get a lot out and then I feel guilty spamming you guys, mostly. That’s why it looks like I’m always posting. I mostly don’t want to spam you. I don’t know, it’s kind of my favorite thing to do so I end up working a lot more than nine to five but it doesn’t feel that way, I’m just doing whatever I feel like and I feel like drawing a lot.
Cesar: I’ve noticed that you’d share the process of your work. You would start maybe with an idea and then you’ll ask questions. You’ll ask the community, like, “Hey guys I’m trying this thing out. What do you think?” First of all, it’s kind of scary for a designer to be like, “Hey, look what I’m doing, isn’t it great,” but it’s also very productive because it gives you another perspective from friends and people. When did you begin doing that?
Meg: I think there are two sides to this answer. One of them is when I was freelancing, it was a pretty lonely experience. Not not just, “Ugh. I’m sad and alone,” but to try and get confidence in your work and feel good about handing something off and also to push yourself because if you’re handing work off then you play safe if you don’t have anyone to tell you that it’s good sometimes. You have an iffy feeling about it. I did work hard to cultivate that resource and consider that my responsibility as a freelancer, not just to myself but to help make my job easier but also to my clients. If I want to give them the best work then it would be a bad move to say that I can do it all by myself so I did work really hard to start cultivating that comfort on the internet.
The other side of that, which I think is probably way more influential, is I just started to get to know the design community a lot better and part of that is in person going to design conferences and meeting all these people who I’ve known on the internet for years. Part of that is just having a willingness to be a little bit more myself and a little bit more vulnerable on the internet. There was a shift where I stopped looking at Twitter, Dribbble and Instagram and all that as a platform to elevate myself and started looking at them as hanging out at a bar with my friends. If you picture that booth in How I met Your Mother, that’s the internet. When I made that shift it just made it so easy to ask for help and to make my crappy jokes and be okay with them. When I post something and it flops, it’s okay because I do that all the time in person so what’s the difference here? We’re all just hanging out and having fun. I think it came back and it made me more comfortable with myself. More comfortable with my work and it’s just been a give and take relationship ever since.
Cesar: I’m glad you brought that up. You said, “What difference does it make if I show this online?” There can be folks who are afraid of that because of the possibility of rejection at a larger scale, whereas, if you’re in a small group where you’re showing your crappy work and it’s like, “Bah! This is terrible.” It doesn’t affect you as badly. Would you suggest that others post out there and ask questions?
Meg: Absolutely. I know it’s a lot easier said than done. Man, the design community… we’re a little mean. We got some lynch mobs out there. It’s really scary to post your work and new designers, the best advice we can give you is to copy as many things as you can and you also don’t realize that senior designers recognize other people’s style and you won’t. Totally honest mistake that you ripped something off. We’re so sensitive about it and we get so mean so quick without talking about it I totally understand why it’s so scary. I think the best thing I can say about is is do it anyway. You don’t have to get up and post everything. Every naked thought that you have. I’ve found it’s been a process for me and the stuff I’m willing to post is so far out there compared to what I’d post a year ago or two years ago and the only way that I got there is by feeling a little bit naked on the internet and everyone coming back and saying, “We really like you. That’s definitely you. That’s a Meg thing to say, and we like it.” It’s like, “Ah cool! That was kind of weird what I just did but you guys… alright, okay I’ll do it again.”
Cesar: That’s encouraging. You also said, “Do it anyway.” My followup question to that is how often and how public do you think… We’re talking about copying work but copying work to learn how things are made. Behind the scenes and getting better in the craft and all. Should I even share that stuff online where I’m like, “Hey I love what Meg does. I’m gonna do just that and I’m gonna share it.”
Meg: Probably not. You should definitely be doing that. Look at something and try and make it identical. You’ll get a new tool in your toolbox when you do that. Maybe if you’re extremely explicit about the fact that it is not your work, but even then I don’t think I’d suggest that. I think practice a lot intentionally ripping people off, know what you’re doing. Save your reference work. I think a lot of people also try and hide it from themselves. They see it and they hide it right away and then they go make something and go, “Well that probably came from my head,” but they kind of know. Be true to yourself with what your sources are. When you can look at your sources and you could look at the work you’ve made and you’re honestly proud about what you’ve made and that it came from you then start posting it. It might not be that good because you’re new and this is the first thing you made. That’s the part you should post anyway.
Cesar: What do you consider the line of work that you do, is it design, is it illustration, is it a little bit of both? This is a big grey area and I’m always curious to know what the reaction is.
Meg: I’m so back and forth on this. I think I’m really, really happy standing one foot in each camp and I definitely feel either the pains or the gains of each of it. I find I’m either a technician amongst artists in some conferences like Creative South or Creative Works. It’s all the typographers and the gig posters and screen printers. It’s a very interesting dynamic there. Then I go to conferences like Epicurrence where it’s mostly web designers and they talk about front-end dev. Our common ground is icons there and maybe I come in and do a little bit of work for empty states. There I feel like an artist among technicians.
I like shifting gears there a little bit and floating back and forth. It just depends where I’m at and what I’m working on with which one I identify more with.
Cesar: Now you have both perspectives. You’ve done the freelance. Right now you’re at Shopify. What are the pros and cons of freelance and the pros and cons of working with an in-house team?
Meg: I think the scale is the biggest con with freelance. I was very content, like, I can draw a cat every day. I could give you a one-off illustration and it’ll be super fun and I’m gonna love it and having the best time of my life. I had a lot of really content days which is great. Moving to Shopify, just working on that scale, is really cool and exciting and you’re like, “Wow, this decision affects this many people.”
That decision affects a huge number of people and I need to be working with a lot of people in the same room to make sure that we’re all moving forward in the same direction, which is a lot more challenging. I had no idea how hard it is to get so many people on the same page moving forward in the same direction but when you pull it off, it feels so good. I think your wins are just so much higher but when it’s hard it’s really hard for full time. Freelance, I find very consistently good.
Cesar: Did you have a rhythm when you were a freelancer?
Meg: I didn’t tell people about this but I don’t freelance that much anymore so I’ll say it now. I just consistently anyone who says I don’t have a deadline can have a discount. Then I’d just stack up all my projects, I’d finish ’em when I’d feel like it. I stopped doing deadlines like two years before I joined Shopify. Part of not doing deadlines comes with the like but I respect that you are also trying to manage a schedule and are trying to move things forward, “Thank you for letting me get this done whenever I feel like it. Promise I’m gonna try and get it done soon,” kind of thing. It made for a very chill pace.
Cesar: I don’t know if you could talk about any of the challenges that you experience working in a design team?
Meg: Yeah, definitely. You’re working with people. If I could sink it down to anything, there’s a lot of people…
Cesar: Different personalities…
Meg: There’s a lot of different personalities. Communication is hard. That’s a thing that you need to just acknowledge and work hard to always be better at and understand that sometimes communication is just gonna fall through and people communicate in different ways. This can be in communicating expectations or giving or receiving feedback, how you’re going to structure a project or team, all that stuff does come down to communication and it’s hard if you go into it thinking that it’s not hard which I think we do a lot. We expect that we can just work together and talk to each other. That just isn’t always the case. You do have to be really proactive.
Cesar: Awesome. Epicurrence, you did the iconography for that, right?
Meg: I did the one for Park City. The Park City badge. Yeah, Dann always gets a different illustrator/designer to help him with it. It’s kind of in the spirit of the community, I think. Everyone’s there, they’re friends, we all help out each other. I think Matt Scribner did the last one. I’m not sure who else has done them. Nick Slater did one of them, I think.
Cesar: Full disclosure, we’re at a conference right now. Much larger conference than Epicurrence. Epiccurence is what, 200-300 people?
Meg: Epiccurence is pretty intimate. They vary in size. I think Montues is the really big one. I think that was 400 people but otherwise, maybe 70. I think he aims for 50, usually ends up bumping it up. I haven’t really counted but that’s my guess.
I’ve been to all of them except for the second one.
Cesar: Nice, the experience there is really intimate…
Cesar: It’s almost like a campfire…
Meg: I mean, the last one was a campfire.
Cesar: Oh, literally?
Meg: Yeah, literally. It was in Moab in Utah. There was a lot of sitting around campfires, a lot of hiking and biking. It’s a really special experience. Bringing designers together to rally around something else and use their spare time to talk about design is such a perfect model. You get something to talk about to begin with. Then you inevitably fill in the blanks with the design talk while you’re waiting to go on your dirt bike.
Cesar: That’s a pretty neat experience. I’m curious to ask, do you have any personal projects you’re working on?
Meg: I wish I had a side project I’m working on. I like to write a lot. I do focus a lot of my free time on writing. I guess lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how design teams can work together. Not just Shopify but maybe if there was some sort of knowledge sharing between Shopify and another design team of the same size facing the same problems. I guess that’s what I’ve been spending my spare time thinking about but I’m all talk right now.
Cesar: What are some artists where you’re like, “Man, that’s what I wanna do,” or, “I love what they’re doing”?
Meg: Anyone who finds the time to make a good side project that’s good for the world. Every time I even say, “What are you doing with yourself? They made the time, you could make the time.” Jessica Walsh does that a lot with Timothy Goodman. Every time they come out with anything I wanna be them.
Also anyone who’s organized in anything that’s totally outside of their skill set. Watching Dann put Epiccurence together I find very inspiring just because it wasn’t something he knew how to do and he did it anyway. It makes me think I could do something I have no idea how to do too. Has definitely opened me up to imagining different kinds of possibilities.
Cesar: Cool, before we wrap it up, if there is one parting piece of advice that you would give to someone who’s struggling with their art career…
Meg: I would say don’t be so intimidated by the design community. They definitely look really big and scary and everybody knows each other, they’re all best friends and how are you going to do that too?
It doesn’t take that long and everyone is pretty wonderful and friendly. If you just make yourself available, put yourself in a place that people can find you. They usually do. I think before you know it, you’ll be friends with everyone too.
Cesar: Meg, thank you so much for being here!
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