Episode 94

Great Design Takes Time

This week on Overtime… is your brand actually a bland ? It might be! Plus, we talk about how to stretch those (socially awkward) muscles during the pandemic. Last but not least, we’re sharing an important lesson learned from teaching new designers: Design takes a heck of a lot more time than you think it does—and that’s okay!

It’s just a bunch of shapes on a page and some letters typed out. This shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes... But it does!

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Meg: Hello my beautiful shiny baby. It’s me, your host, Meg “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble” Lewis! Welcome back to Overtime, this is Dribbble’s very, very weekly podcast where I, me, Meg Lewis, give you design news and some tips to create your very best work. This week on Overtime, is your brand actually a bland? It might be, plus we’re all socially awkward now. And an important lesson I’ve learned from teaching new designers, which is design takes a heck of a lot more time than you think it does. You ready? Let’s go.

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Okay, let’s dive right into the news today because I have two stories this week that I am so excited to talk to you about. The first one is the best because it puts a lot of verbiage, and well, one noun in particular, to something that I’ve been thinking about so much lately. And really this article, this piece, it’s titled, “Welcome to Your Bland New World.” This is a Bloomberg opinion piece by Ben Schott. And what this article is about is basically modern-day brand strategy when it comes to all those direct-to-consumer brands. So, we’re going to mention a lot of them today, but direct-to-consumer brands are those usually physical products that you order from their website, normally this company sells basically one thing that they’ve perfected, whether it’s a razor blade or a toothbrush or a pillow or a pair of glasses, you know, they sell a single pair of underwear, they sell tech enabled toe rings, you know, that kind of thing. That’s a direct-to-consumer brand.

And what this piece is about is what’s happening trend-wise with all of those. Because if you’re a human that’s on the internet, and you’re in a certain age range that you’re being marketed towards, you’re probably seeing a lot of these and maybe you even find them attractive. Maybe you’re buying them. I just bought a quip toothbrush a couple days ago, so I’m totally buying into it, for sure. And I think it was really interesting at first when it first started happening, because it was like, “Oh, yeah, they’re perfecting this object that I have to use my whole life in a way that speaks to me finally.” And so, I’m all into it sometimes. But I think as time has gone on, and we’re startup-izing every single physical product that we use, I’ve realized sort of as a designer and somebody who works on brands a lot of the time, I’ve noticed that they’re all really looking the same visually with the design strategy and the aesthetic for the brand voice and tone and all of that.

So, this particular Bloomberg opinion piece is about just that. But my favorite part is that Ben Schott, the author, the writer, gives these brands a name. Ben refers to these brands as “blands,” which is just beautiful. So, Ben goes on to list the characteristics of what a bland is, saying, quote, “It’s a startup brand claiming simultaneously to be a unique product, groundbreaking in purpose and singular in delivery, while slavishly obeying an identikit formula of business model, look and feel, and tone of voice.” So, thinking back to all those single products that we see marketed towards us that are sort of created in this startup landscape, you know exactly what we’re talking about here, right? So, going into some more characteristics of how these all feel is that they always come across as looking like an underdog because they’re not a corporation, they’re not a huge, you know, it’s not Colgate saying here’s this toothbrush, it’s a tiny little toothbrush company is what they want you to think. And usually they are, they have a smaller team than Colgate would. They’re a small little brand, but then you know, they’re not a corporation so it makes you want to buy from them more and that’s kind of part of their brand voice. Now, part of this issue is that Colgate recently released their own bland called Hum, which is a direct-to-consumer toothbrush that looks and feels and sounds exactly like all of these other blands. So, uh-oh, that’s an issue, right? Because we loved these blands before because they were an underdog. And now, are they? They all have so many millions of dollars of VC money, and so I don’t know.

But also, another characteristic is that they always are quite humble in their brand voice, and in their values, they kind of appear as, quote, “…a calm Oasis amidst the chaos of commerce,” which I agree [with] because they sell one product, they’re doing that product, there’s a lot more breathing room in the design. There’s a lot more breathing room as far as all the things that they sell. So, of course, it’s nice and calm because it’s not like you’re scrolling on Amazon, where you’re getting thousands of toothbrushes, you’re just on a very beautiful clean website that sells you one toothbrush that claims to be the best, the newest, the most innovative toothbrush of all time. I’ll take five.

So, they also usually have kind of a forward-facing purpose, right? They have a larger mission statement that makes them appear as though they are making the world a better place. And a lot of these companies are B corporations, which means that B corporations are special because they kind of combine purpose with profit. They usually have a larger mission that they’re behind. And that’s great, because these brands often appear liberal, they’re working to make the environment better, they usually have environmental and sustainable packaging, they kind of have this no judgement vibe about, you know, gender or race or ethnicity or your age or your faith or your looks or your ability, all of that. So, they kind of have that vibe to them. Except the article goes on to talk about how MyPillow, you know, that brand, that pillow, it’s a quite lumpy pillow, I’ve felt on before, that brand is not the same. That’s the only one that they can think of that really breaks the mold and goes off bland, as far as politics and design goes, because by all other methods, they fit the definition of a bland. But if you look at their website and see the design, they’re not following those trends and they also are not following the same sort of liberal, accepting of everybody sort of vibe. As we know, MyPillow is a supporter of Donald Trump, the founder is for sure, and it’s a substantial part of their business. He spoke at the Republican National Convention and all that. So, whatever, moving on from that.

So, blands also have a trend in the way that they name themselves. So, there’s the ones that remove all the vowels from their name, like if it’s Trnk, it’s just t-r-n-k. There’s the kind that are based on characters or people, like Warby Parker or that razor brand Billy, or the furniture brand Floyd. Then they do that thing where there’s a color and noun combination like Purple Carrot or Blue Apron. There’s a bunch of characteristic lists. There are the ones that use the ampersand where it’s one word and ampersand another word. We know all of this, right? But another interesting thing that the article goes into is fact that most of them are usually in it to exit, meaning that they get all this VC money, they’ve got all the millions of dollars, they have all the employees, and usually the goal and the hope is that they’ll go public and hit it big, or they’ll just get acquired by that corporate competitor, the big company like the Colgate’s, right? And many of them do. They do either/or of those plans, and it works. It makes them a lot of money and they get rich quick. I don’t know what a get rich quick timeline is, I think it’s probably not as quick as most people would like to get rich in. But I don’t know.

But in my Meg Lewis tiny little brain, I was trying to think critically and with a nuanced lens about these blands, because as a designer, I have worked with just dozens and dozens of these brands. I love them. I’m a huge fan of startups because they’re usually extremely passionate, especially early stage startups, they’re very passionate about what they make and what they do. They’re just so excited about the product, and the joy and just tenacity in the vibe with those brands is great. But then what happens is shareholders get involved, VC’s get involved, and everybody kind of loses sight of that excitement because then it becomes a business and it’s very stressful. So, a lot of times those passionate founders end up getting swayed by all of that, that feeling, and I’ve had my own business before in an accelerator where I pitched to VC’s and did all of that, decided it was not for me because I started to lose that magic and that passion for what I was doing.

So, I think the issue here is what happens always with trends, where this sort of direction, this bland strategy landscape, started as authenticity. It started as something that was fairly pure and optimistic. And then people latched onto it and realize that it worked, so when that happens, then you get these people that are doing it in authentically. So, they have the blanket appearance of authenticity, but it’s very fake. It’s a curated appearance of authenticity. And that’s what always happens with trends. You start with one person or a small group of people or a community that’s really doing something out of passion and heart and originality and it truly is authentic. And then all these other people say, “Wow, I’m just going to study what they’re doing because that’s working, and I’ll do it too for myself.” But because they’re studying it from the outside, they don’t understand the heart and soul behind it because they’re just looking at it. So, if you’re going to try to recreate that, of course you’re not going to do as good of a job and it’s going to be sort of this veil of authenticity that the original people didn’t quite have. You’re not doing it as [well]. So, that’s what happens with every trend and that’s definitely what’s happening here.

And how do we break free of this as designers, as people who are sort of in charge of molding this? How do we break free from that? How do we work with these brands to make sure that they truly are doing what they say they are doing, providing something to the world that no other company can? No other product can? Then how do you translate that to an actual brand marketing and design strategy in a way that truly looks and feels unlike anything that exists? Because truly, if they are what they believe, then their product or their brand is unlike anything that exists. So, that’s when we do the strategy and the brand work to make sure that it’s a reflection of that. And I think a lot of this probably has to do with the same, you know, design agencies doing all of these brands, because we know there are like two or three agencies that are doing [a lot] of their brand work for all of these, and so then it just kind of becomes homogenous. Can you imagine if you had Meg Lewis design most of the brands and the product landscape? They would all look the same because my brain is unique to me and my brain can only create the things my brain can create. So, we need diversity in our design languages and the way that we hire and who we’re hiring so that way we can have just a rich design and product landscape, which we all truly deserve.

I’m skirting around the topic of capitalism with this conversation because we’re going on too far with this topic. So, let’s move on.

Okie dokie. There is a New York Times piece titled, “We’re All Socially Awkward Now,” by Kate Murphy, that I really want to talk about because while it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with design, it does absolutely 100% have something to do with everything we’re all dealing with right now. So, clearly from the title, you can tell that this is about the fact that we’re all inside and socializing a heck of a lot less than we usually are because of this gosh darn pandemic. So, this piece and what Kate is talking about kind of briefly, very briefly, explains the evolutionary history of humans and how when we’re cut off from others, our brains generally interpret it as a threat. And that’s kind of a dramatic statement to make, but that’s kind of what’s happening to us today.

So, even if you’re somebody who doesn’t live alone, or say you’ve formed a pod with others, maybe you’re with your friends or your family or your partner and you’re not completely alone, you know, you will still get this problem. You will still get lonely through this time because normally we kind of have a full range of human interactions throughout a week, like casual conversations with strangers passing on the street, or getting a coffee and having that interaction with the person that works there. We’re not meeting new people anymore, we’re just kind of with the same people all the time.

So, they kind of liken it to a balanced diet. We’re normally used to having a sort of collage of types of human interactions on a given day or week, and we don’t have that collage anymore. Our collage is looking really sad, we’re kind of just, you know, a few cutout letters that are not forming a full sentence and then a picture of a stiletto heel that’s glued down sort of on the corner of the board away from those letters. And then maybe just a piece of faux fur that we’ve put some hot glue on and then we’ve slapped it sort of somewhere else not touching anything. That’s how I collage. Just letters, stiletto heels, and faux fur. That’s me. Clearly, you can tell I have not collaged since I was a child. I should collage.

Anyway, so it’s very fascinating to me, and this article is quite validating. I even looked at the comments, which I don’t normally do because the comments always break my heart, I’m a fragile little baby girl, but I looked at the comments because I was interested to see if there were any takes that I should be considering when talking about this article. And all of the comments were just people that were like, “I’m so lonely,” and telling their story. And I think people were excited about this article because they were finally seen and felt validated, which is exactly how I felt.

So, Kate also goes very, very briefly into the parallel to inmates and isolation. And I will admit, and Kate admits that this is not the same at all, and this is a dangerous parallel to make because obviously, this is not as extreme. But if you break down and you talk to the people that know more about this than I do, or than Kate does, and you ask them about which inmates are the most successful through that time, they always say it’s the people who write letters, continue to see guests occasionally, and find ways to keep in contact and communication in whatever way they can. And so, even though our situation isn’t nearly that extreme and terrible, I think there’s a lot that we can glean from that because we absolutely need to curb this sort of not doing anything, not talking to anybody, only seeing the same people all time as much as possible, which just means to carve out time in your daily schedule to keep in contact with people in whatever way you want. I know we’re getting a lot of Zoom fatigue, I hear about that a lot, so if you have zoom fatigue, don’t do that then. Give yourself a break and start texting people instead. Maybe write people actual letters, go outside from a distance, talk to your neighbor, do whatever you can in a safe way to keep that social skill of yours as nimble as possible. Because otherwise, you’re going to end up with long term effects, and that’s terrifying, right? We want to make sure that we’re kind of keeping that social muscle lean and working it out baby, right? Workout that social muscle. Yeah.

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Now, to make this a little bit more about design specifically, because this episode hasn’t been particularly design-heavy – we talked about strategy a little bit – I want to talk about actual design. And something that I’ve noticed, because I used to teach college classes in New York, and then I’ve had a selection of interns and junior designers that have worked with me, and there’s something that really stuck out to me when I was learning how to design that I didn’t really realize until I started having to teach other designers that were early in their career, and it’s all about this notion of design, just taking time. So, I’ve noticed something: whenever I was in school, or just early in my career, I would do this thing where I would study work that I liked and get really frustrated that I couldn’t make work that looked as good. But I was also against deadlines, or I was just kind of assuming that it would only take me a couple hours to do, and so I would get frustrated every time I would try to design something because it just didn’t look as good as what I wanted it to look like.

And now that I’m on the other side of it, having done this for over 10 years now as a freelancer, I’ve now realized that every piece of design that I make takes significantly longer than I thought it did when I was younger. It takes so long to make things look good. So, what I’ve definitely noticed is that students, they don’t care as much because this is a class project, but they’re usually rushing to get things done quickly, just because they don’t want to take up too much of their time with homework, who would? Also, you know, interns and junior designers that are on the job, I find they’re just trying to please. They think that, and I thought this too, that if you get things done and turn them around quickly, then people will be more satisfied with you because you did it quickly. You did what they asked in a very fast time. But what I find is that whenever people have that attitude, they give it to me quickly and I’m like, “Oh no, what is this? Oh, this is awful.” So, normally I give it back to them and I’m like, “Okay, this is great. Spend more time on it, spend an entire day on just this, keep going.” And they’ll give it back to me and I’m like, “Okay, cool, but keep going.” And then eventually, once they keep going and keep going, it looks great. Because great design takes time, and I think the frustrating part about it is that many of the best designs look like they don’t take very much time. So, you’re like, “I don’t know, it’s just a bunch of shapes on a page and some letters typed out. This shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes.” But it does.

If you are familiar with my work, I design all of the episode art for this podcast, so you’ve seen some of it, my work is, as people have told me, it looks really easy to make. Yeah, that’s the critique I get about my work is that, “Meg, that looks so easy to make, like, I could do that.” And I invite you to try, because it takes a long time, the design work that I do specifically, and the reason why I get this critique from people that have clearly never worked in this style before, is my work is extremely clean and it packs a lot of personality and a clean format. And most people don’t have the eye for that. It’s very hard. Often for certain people, it’s easier to make things that are really busy and packing a lot of design into something than to make them look clean and simple. And we know this; we know that it’s very hard to make something look clean and easy to make. So, I find that what happens for me, because I think the critique of my work is usually like, “You’re just adding other people’s fonts, you’re just adding shape and color and some easy to make design elements onto a canvas,” which is true. These are the things I’m good at. I’m great at using other people’s type, I’m great at color, I’m great at a clean design with minimal distraction, if you will.

So, the thing about that though, is that say I was making the episode art for this week. Don’t look at last week’s episode art, that was the one about non-designers designing. That one only took me 15 minutes because I was intentionally trying to make it look not refined anyway. But most of the work that I do is type-based, sort of expressive type if you will, and [if you] take that expressive type, other people’s typefaces, and you were creating a composition, a typographic composition, you just type out the letters and put them in some Meg Lewis colors, you’ll notice it doesn’t look very good when you just type the letters out. Because it takes time. I typed the letters out, and that’s just the first step of a multi-hour process for me, because it’s all about rearranging the type, breaking a lot of rules, applying effects to the type, manipulating the type, changing certain letters, it’s all about tweaking very finitely, finit-ly? No. (Laughs) infinitely, finitly. I’m going to start saying finit instead of finite, cool? Okay.

So, it’s all about being careful and taking a lot of time, [and] it’s very frustrating because a lot of times, I know that what I’m going to make is going to look quite simple, but it will take me hours, if not days, to make it and that’s so frustrating, but it’s part of the process. And as you do this for longer, the longer I’ve been designing for, especially in this style, the more intuitive I get about knowing what will look best. So, that has saved me a significant amount of time over the years. Now, I know, I can kind of tell ahead of time how to arrange letters and what to apply to them and exactly where to place them that’s going to look the best to me.

So, that saves me time for sure but it always takes a heck of a lot longer than I think it will, and if you’re a designer that’s been doing this for any amount of time, you know the same is true for you. So, if for anything, I would hope that this is just the validation you were looking for to know that this stuff takes time, design takes a long time. And this is exactly why I don’t illustrate complex scenes very often, because illustration takes so much time too and I’m not as intuitive there so I kind of avoid it at all costs. But you know, I illustrate quite often so it’s all it’s all good. I love it. I love designing.

Ahhh, what a refreshing moment we’ve just had together? Two individuals, my mouth reaching your ear holes, one human to another. This has been great. And I got weird at the end, I’m so sorry about that, but that’s it for this episode of Overtime. I had a great time. Did you have a great time? I sure did. Your company is impeccable. We’re supposed to be utilizing and flexing our social muscles, and I think this counts. I was talking to a microphone, but I’m pretending as though I’m really talking to you, because that’s all I want. I just want to talk to you, like your actual self, that would be ideal for me, but I can’t do that. Maybe someday.

But if you have time, go on Apple Podcasts and give this podcast a review. It would be much appreciated by me and the team at Dribbble because reviews help us, you know, it helps me feel validated for sure, or terrible about myself, depending on your review. Honestly, you have a lot of control over how I feel, unfortunately, I’m working on that right now. And now I’m rambling on too long about my feelings. So, if you want to continue the conversation on the internet, use #DribbbleOvertime, or tweet or tag me. My handle is @yourbuddymeg. Okay, bye-bye. Hear me next week!