We’re excited to kick off Overtime, Season 2 with Meg Robichaud. Meg is currently the Illustration Lead at Shopify, but she also has a ton of experience in freelance illustration. In this episode, we discuss how Meg manages illustration work at a large company, whether or not you should do unpaid work for friends, and why she started writing about her illustration process on Medium.
This episode of Overtime is brought to you by Hired. Hired makes your job search faster, focused, and stress-free—plus you get paid to get hired. Overtime listeners can earn an extra $2,000 bucks (that’s double the normal hiring bonus) by signing up today at hired.com/dribbble.
Dan also asks Meg about a few of her Dribbble shots. Hear the stories behind Notifications give me anxiety, Kool Koala, and How to Work With an Illustrator Pt. 1.
Links Mentioned in Overtime
- Meg Robichaud on Dribbble
- Over Easy Mornings
- How to Effectively Initiate an Illustration Project
- Meg on Medium
- Meg on Twitter
Dan: Hey, everyone, and welcome to Overtime, our official podcast that goes behind the shots of your favorite designers. This is episode 8. Today we’re talking with Meg Robichaud. Meg draws for money and sometimes just for fun, as we’ll hear more about later.
She’s currently designing at Shopify in Canada. And we’re going to hear about what it’s like managing illustration work for a large company like Shopify as well as keeping a balance of work just for you, just for fun, or just for friends or whatnot. It was really fun talking with her, and it’s going to be a great episode.
This episode is also brought to you by Hired, and we’re thrilled to have Hired on as the first sponsor of what we’re calling season 2 of this podcast. So as many of you know, searching for a new job can feel stressful, scary, or just too time consuming. Sometimes you get all the way through the interview process and find out at the end that the salary wasn’t what you thought it was, or the company culture doesn’t match what you’re looking for.
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It’s pretty cool. The best part is it’s free to find your next job on Hired, without exceptions. In fact, Hired pays you to get hired, which sounds crazy, but it’s true. Over time, listeners can earn 2,000 bucks, double the normal hiring bonus, by signing up today at hired.com/ Dribbble. So a huge thanks to Hired for sponsoring this episode. We love those folks.
Now let’s move on to our chat with Meg Robichaud. So welcome, Meg Robichaud to Overtime.
Meg: Thank you.
Dan: Thanks for being here on what we’re calling season 2, which is really just year 2 we’ve done these interviews. We’re really happy to have you. I’ve been a really huge fan of your work. I think your personality comes through in your illustration so much, and those are the kinds of illustrators I love to talk to and hear more about what makes them tick. Super glad to have you here.
Can I ask right off the bat; you mentioned recently I think on Twitter and then started uploading some shots around this. You were saying screw it, I’m going to start drawing for fun and see what happens. It seemed like that really energized you, and you went on to create some stuff around that. I was wondering if you could shed some light on that. The illustrations are fantastic and fun.
Meg: I guess those started I had been working a fulltime job, then going home, and I had some freelance projects aside. I freelanced for years so I’m no stranger to it. But there was something the number of notifications and those little red bubbles everywhere, they were going through the room, more than I was used to. It kind of felt like this weight was on top of me. They’re not in the right order on my Dribbble. The first one is being this shadow woman of those red bubbles. The anxiety that all my notifications were giving me, and I felt this weight on top of me. I went home and had to get this feeling out.
I’ve always said illustration is a technical skill. I’m not an artist. I’m a technician. Anyone can learn it. This is just the way that I apply my skill. But when I went home and drew that thing that was giving me all this anxiety, I felt so much better.
Dan: I’m looking at it right now. It’s great and sad actually, like we’ve all felt that way at one point, with the red notification dots pushing your head down.
Meg: Exactly. It felt like this cloud that was following me around, and every time I looked at my phone, there it was. And then I kind of felt free after I drew it. I thought I would chase that feeling and go after I think the next one I drew was the girl diving into a bowl of noodles. It was really cold out and that’s what I wanted to do. I felt like crawling in a bowl of soup.
Dan: That’s another one, I read your description of it and was like yeah, absolutely. Then I started thinking there’s not really a good noodle place around here. I’d have to make my own.
Meg: It’s not the same. You have to get someone else to make it for you.
Dan: Totally, like a proper Ramen is important.
Meg: Exactly, with the egg.
Dan: Yes. We’re pre-lunchtime here.
Meg: It’s getting tricky.
Dan: That’s cool. You had client work fulltime going on, and then you’re like feeling stressed out and started drawing in this specific style. That was cathartic.
Meg: Yeah. It’s a pretty good allegory to my kind of relationship with the internet and being myself on the internet. I think when I first started publishing to Dribbble or anywhere really, I was trying to map to what I thought other people were looking for. As I got more comfortable with myself and my voice, I started writing more. I’ve found more of my personality through these kinds of sharing myself on the internet, that drawing for myself is just that all coming together where I’ve been able to draw for a long time technically, and I’ve been able to write through my own voice. This is kind of the first time that my voice and my illustration kind of came together.
Dan: That makes sense. You’re not doing this for a client or to solve a problem. You actually are kind of solving a problem in a way, your own problem. That’s really interesting. I guess it goes back to confidence building too, right? You can build confidence not just through working with other people, but in this case just build confidence by sharing you, and what you’re going through now, and the style that you currently want to create in.
Meg: Totally. Anytime you let yourself be a bit naked, and let yourself show through, and people come back and tell you it’s wonderful, it’s a really nice feeling.
Dan: I love that. I think that’s totally right on the money with a lot of things. In fact, I’m trying to think any time I’ve shared something personal, or I’ve heard someone else share something personal, there’s rarely a negative response to that. You feel like you get to know the person better. If you’re sharing the same sort of experience then, obviously, you feel like you’re not on an island alone, like other people are doing this too.
Dan: I think that’s why those illustrations really spoke to me personally. I was like this is great. It’s kind of how I feel a lot of times, just beaten down. I just want to make stuff. You’ve got all these deadlines and just news in general going on, alerts, emails, Slack and all that stuff. Then you’re just like how did I get here, and what do I really want to do? It’s make stuff. And I feel like that’s what you were kind of saying with these.
Meg: Yeah. There’s something about blocking off your time. It’s like meditating, when you’re just making stuff for yourself, especially if it’s with your hands or drawing. That’s where I find my peace, I guess. There’s something about it being for yourself. I can draw all day and I’m still aware of what’s happening in the world, and I’m aware of all the notifications coming in, and deadlines I should be thinking about. But then I go home, and I’ve given myself permission to ignore the rest of the world. And so I’m literally doing the same thing I’m doing all day, drawing, but because it comes with ‘this is for you, your time, and just to make you feel better,’ it’s a totally different act.
Dan: I love it. It comes through too. My favorite is the “Over Easy Mornings.” There are so many good things happening here. We’ll link to these shots in the show notes. “Over Easy Mornings” is like a woman curled up on a piece of toast, pulling up an egg blanket around her. It’s just brilliant.
Meg: If I could start and end every day that way I’m not sure which.
Dan: I try. I’ll get the sandwich, at least part of it. But the style is wonderful. What are you up to these days in terms of non-personal projects?
Meg: Non-personal projects, I’m not really freelancing that much now. I’m working at Shopify as the illustration lead. It’s really fun.
Dan: We love Shopify.
Meg: Oh, cool. Me too.
Dan: Seems like a great company to work for too.
Meg: Yeah. It is.
Dan: This is not a commercial, by the way, honestly.
Meg: So far, from what we can tell, great company. I went straight from freelancing to Shopify, having never worked anywhere except maybe my high school job. It was big wide-eyed, oh, my God; is this what everyone does? I’m not sure. Part of this is just unique to Shopify. Part of this is what everyone is doing. I can’t tell.
Dan: I was going to say being that you said illustration lead for a company that creates software and a lot of things they’re a gigantic company now, but that must be an interesting position. To be creating art, even though you say maybe you don’t think of illustration as art versus solving a problem for a specific need they’d have, but I wonder what your thought is on that.
Meg: I think going into this job I really identified a lot as a designer. I went to school for design. I kind of was just a designer who happened to illustrate, so it felt like a natural fit. Kind of over the past year working here, I still do feel like a technician more than an artist, but I think I align myself a lot more with content. I would consider us part of the team that helps craft the messages that are delivered. Maybe that speaks more to the fact that design is getting a new definition, and it’s more about the experience and guiding you through the page. I find illustration getting allocated more to content.
Dan: I think you’re right across the board; it’s doing that. So as an illustrator on a team, how does it typically come? Does a brief come in and there’s a certain theme you need to tackle, or is it your job to be coming up with the message as well?
Meg: A bit of both. We look at our projects we have an illustration request form. There’s small projects where you say you have an announcement you want to make, and maybe this is how you want people to feel about it, or this is why people should care. That’s a big one we usually ask; why does the merchant care. Then we try to highlight that with an illustration.
But if it’s a bigger project, say you are all of Shopify.com. You’re not just going to come to us with a brief. We’re going to sit with your team for a long time, kind of volleying the pages back and forth, and it’s a lot more I need you to give me a white background so I can draw on this. Okay, well you need to give me a reports illustration, something more like that.
Dan: So it’s a mixture. I think it’s interesting because illustration for those who aren’t illustrators, they might have the assumption that illustration is just drawing pretty pictures and then dropping them in. I think in your case and a lot of cases, if you’re creating illustration for a specific thing, it’s part of the design and message and supporting the way you’re communicating something, which I think is important for people who aren’t illustrators to understand. It’s not like we need a cat. Go draw a cat for us, and we’ll put it in here.
Meg: Totally, and that’s been a slow, uphill battle trying to tell people that we’re designers, and don’t come to us with I need a cat. Come to us with our users keep leaving this page and we don’t understand why. We are still pretty new to using illustration in product design, and we’re all kind of system designers, so we really like just some hard-fast rules around when to use illustration, when to use photographs. We have rules. If you want to relate to a specific person you’re probably better off using photographs if you want to tell a story. But if you want something more conceptual, to show not a feature but how good your life could be, you probably want to use an illustration. But we make a rule and then we’re like oh, no, we were kind of wrong. It’s hard to convince people with all these rules we have that aren’t quite settled on yet.
Dan: But they probably help, like constraints do for design in general, to get things moving.
Meg: And consistency across such a big company too, rules and systems, it’s all we want.
Dan: Are there several illustrators, a team of illustrators at Shopify?
Meg: There are. There’s three of us right now who work just on product, and then we have two other illustrator/designers embedded on smaller teams. We’re hoping to get another one and an animator maybe. Could be, we’ll see.
Dan: So moving cats.
Meg: Maybe a cat playing with yarn. That could be a good loader.
Dan: That would be awesome, a little ball of yarn spinning around.
Meg: Batting it back and forth.
Dan: Yeah, I like that.
Meg: And then it unravels when it’s all completely loaded.
Dan: The 404 page could be yarn everywhere and some person scratched to hell.
Meg: I’m leaving Shopify. Let’s make a cat website.
Dan: Let’s do it. I know this is my fault for this conversation, but it always does come back to cats a lot.
Meg: It does come back to cats.
Dan: I apologize to everybody.
Meg: Our illustration intern now loves cat. A cat has made it into every illustration.
Dan: That’s the thing, cats are funny. Whether you hate them or love them, they are funny, especially in drawn form. For me, then they won’t scratch me.
Meg: No one’s allergic to a drawn cat.
Dan: Right, so it’s kind of universal. Speaking of animals, koalas are cool too. I’m going to stop and say that was maybe one of the best segues I’ve had as a podcast host.
Meg: That was perfect.
Dan: I’m getting better at this to be determined. Speaking of animals, “Kool Koala” is another shot from Dribbble a month ago. I love the illustration because it’s awesome colors. I’ve never seen a koala look like this before. He has sunglasses on. He’s wearing a shirt with bananas on it. Everything about it is cool.
But reading why you made it is even cooler. You’re like I’m working on a beer label for a friend, and I’m going to do it for free. You’re saying you love to do free work for friends, even though it’s kind of like free work as a designer is maybe a taboo in the community. But this is for a friend. You wanted to do it, and it’s awesome. People love it. Let’s hear more about that specific project and how you feel about making stuff for free for friends.
Meg: The internet made me really nervous, and I would be almost embarrassed—worse than embarrassed, like a bit scared if the internet were ever to find out that I did something for free. So much that that was the main reason I wouldn’t do something for free. Nothing to do with my friend, or whether or not I wanted to do it. It was just if the internet ever catches me doing something for free, I won’t be able to face them.
Dan: The spec police will come.
Meg: Exactly, someone’s going to come after me and say what a terrible designer I am. I’m ruining the community.
Meg: Free work doesn’t come up that often. It’s kind of something that my opinion has changed on a long time ago, but I never really saw a project I felt like doing. Then my friend has this awesome brewery someone near Vancouver. He had been drawing his own labels. I was like “Dave, you can’t be doing that. You’re friends with an illustrator. You’ve got to let me help you with this.” That’s the story of that. I just realized I don’t care if the design community is going to get mad at me. If I want to do it, I want to do it.
Dan: I love it. Especially if you’re doing it for a friend. That’s what it’s all about. I remember seeing Aaron Draplin speak a while back. He was talking about a similar thing. He did a lot of stuff for free for his friends. There’s this Cobra Dogs whole thing that he designed, a system he designed for his friend’s hotdog cart. You look at it, and it’s amazing work. He put all his effort into this. He said design can really elevate something that wouldn’t have been if someone didn’t donate their time to it. It was just a friend that wanted to start something. I feel this is a similar story for you here with the koala. Even if the friend was like I’m going to hire somebody to do this, you also might not get the same vibe. The koala might not have ever come up. I don’t know the story about the way the artwork
Meg: I didn’t get to name it, but I agree. I think
Dan: Or that style of koala.
Meg: Exactly. I think if someone had hired me to make Kool Koala beer and I wasn’t doing it for free, I would have made them—one of six illustration styles available in my portfolio. Please pick one. This one’s the fastest. This one’s the most expensive. Let me know what you want. This one was I don’t know, I’ve been watching a lot of BoJack Horseman, and I was like I kind of want him to look gross. You might hate it, but it might be great.
Dan: That’s funny. He is a little gross, in an I’m like an older koala, from Miami Beach or something.
Meg: He’s seen some stuff.
Dan: Yeah, exactly. Like he buys nips a lot.
Meg: Yeah. He’s always got a pack of smokes on him.
Dan: Maybe he vapes.
Meg: Yeah, he might vape.
Dan: But he’s so awesome, so people listening to this, you’ve got to see these shots. Obviously, we’ll link to them. I think that’s cool. The pressure is sort of off when you’re creating something for free for friends. I’ve found I’ve done this a few times too, with logos. The pressure is really off, so you might have a different approach than you would if it was a paying client, like you were just saying.
Honestly, with the spec work thing, it’s such a dynamite powder keg topic. Sometimes it’s not black and white. It’s like I want to do this for my friend and do it for free. It’s not like you’re trying to undercut some other designer that would have done it for money. It’s different.
Meg: Even when you get into the kind of more complicated spec work for your friend I don’t think anyone has the grounds to argue with me. But when I start thinking about spec work, if you can justify it, if it makes sense for you, I’m kind of on the side of just doing it. Don’t go to Coca Cola and say I’m going to take your project, send this out to 50 designers. But I would go to Burton and ask if I can make them a top sheet, because that’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I might do it for free because it makes me feel good, and that’s a good enough reason for me.
Dan: I want to do that too. Do they allow that? I love Burton.
Meg: I’m pretty sure most top sheets are made that way. I haven’t done any research whatsoever.
Dan: For those who don’t know what a top sheet is.
Meg: It’s the graphic on a snowboard, or skis.
Dan: Oh, the actual graphics. I asked like I knew but no one else did, because that’s a good way of hiding it.
Meg: You got your new koala segue. Now you’ve got your sneaking question.
Dan: I’m telling you season 2 is going to be amazing. It’s off to a great start.
Meg: You’ve got this all figured out.
Dan: Yeah, totally. This podcasting is easy. I hope that the recording is working. So top sheet, a snowboard graphic—obviously that would be a big deal. If you’re a fan of Burton and you snowboard or whatever, or you would want to see that in the world, then it doesn’t feel like you’re doing work for free.
Meg: It’s a gray area. I think it’s always going to be case by case, but if a designer wants to do something for free, and they’re not being taken advantage of, they know what is happening, they know what the other person gets out of it, and they’ve had a conversation with themselves and understand what they get out of it; I say go do it.
Dan: I’m there with you. I think it’s great. I think it’s good advice. It also gives you a chance to play around with different styles and do something maybe you wouldn’t have done before.
Meg: Yeah, exactly. You’re going to get paid for that next time. Just go have fun with this one.
Dan: That could lead to other great things. I’m not the only one that liked this koala shot. 300 people liked it.
Meg: That’s a style I have that I can send to people now that I feel confident in. I never would have done a style like that brand new for a client. I would feel like I’m taking advantage of their time.
Dan: This is gold, people. You’re getting some great advice. Not only am I doing really well, but Meg is doing really well too in delivering these nuggets of truth. Speaking of nuggets of truth; I thought it was really cool you started writing for Shopify about hiring illustrators and how that process works. There’s a few Medium posts out that are really great. This one, “How to Effectively Initiate an Illustration Project,” I think you talk a lot about the process of that. Did you enjoy writing about the process? It’s almost like a teaching angle on it.
Dan: Educating people that don’t know how this process works.
Meg: The thing about my Medium account is I only start writing an article when I have this feeling that I know how to do something, but if anybody ever asked me I wouldn’t be able to tell you how to do it. That’s the reason I write. It’s totally for me to figure out if I knew how to do this thing or not. Each of those articles is kind of having gone through the process of initiating a massive project within Shopify. Maybe it not having gone so smoothly, and then the next time I want to know exactly how I should do it. So I just write an article of what’s the advice I wish I’d had when I started this. That’s how all of those articles came about.
Dan: That’s awesome. That’s like a gift that you’ve given everybody. I think I was the same way, writing books about CSS. It helped me learn. I didn’t know a lot of it before I wrote it. It sort of helps you codify those skills.
Meg: It’s like a gut check too. I can assert something as an opinion as what I think is true in a conversation but I’m kind of iffy and uncomfortable saying it. Then I write it down and then Google the shit out of it. Then I’m like okay, no one disagrees with me. I am now confident.
Dan: That’s a good method, actually. I’m grateful you’ve written these articles because—maybe I’m speaking for myself here, but I wish I could illustrate better. I often think of it as I’m just not as good an artist as I should be. But you’ve clarified a lot of things about illustration for me too, anyway, about there’s a very clear process to illustration in terms of how it interfaces with product design. That’s something that’s really helpful. Hopefully, for people that are illustrators, too, that don’t realize I’m making prints and shirts and stuff, but I could do this as design work too for a company. My hat’s off to you.
Meg: Thank you.
Dan: It’s really cool. I love it. Meg, this was fantastic. Thank you so much for being on here with us. One of the greatest things about Dribbble for me is actually getting to know the designers, members. We see the work, and the work is great, but there’s always stories behind the work. It was really cool for you to share some of those today with us. So thank you.
Meg: Thank you.