Episode 102

What Lizzo Can Teach Us About Design

Get ready to channel your inner Lizzo, designers. This week on Overtime, we’re talking about how to create with confidence, break the boundaries of what’s normal, and build a more fulfilling, authentic creative career.

The reason why I love Lizzo so much is not only her confidence, but the fact that she has truly created a career that nobody else possibly could.

Plus, are you more of a generalist or a specialist? We explore the different types of designers and where they fit into today’s landscape. Then, get some tips and advice for building a meaningful and productive relationship with your design mentor, and why you should get one!

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Meg: [Rapping] Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. It’s me. It’s me. Your buddy Meg “Please Talk Normally” Lewis L-Lewis, L- L- L-Lewis, and welcome back to Overtime. This is Dribbble’s weekly podcast where I give you design news and tips to create your very best work. That cheeky little middle name there came from a negative podcast review we recently got where the reviewer begged me to stop ending sentences with question marks, and to stop doing all the [in forced inflection] forced inflections and asked me to please talk normally. Well, you asked for it, you’re going to get it, here comes Meg talking normally. [In sad monotone] This week on Overtime, I asked why most designers are working like an assembly line and if there’s actually room for multidisciplinary designers to succeed. Oh, plus, have you have a mentor? Are you a mentor? Maybe you want to be someone’s mentee? Even though I’ve never had a mentor, I’m outlining how to create a successful mentorship relationship. Oh, and I look to Lizzo to study what it feels like to be completely free, and how we can apply what Lizzo teaches us to our design careers. Okay, normal Meg done, let’s go!

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Hahaha, I’m having way too much fun with this episode already. So, let’s start with the first news story I want to cover today, and it was in a piece from AIGA Eye on Design that was titled “When Did Design Stop Being ‘Multi-disciplinary?’” And I clicked on that article immediately because I’m fascinated by the subject. Combing through the article, it’s a very similar argument to designers as specialists versus generalists, because if you think about it, and Eye on Design points out that design has become kind of like an assembly line type system, where you are sort of part of a larger system, you as the designer, you get passed on something that maybe has been worked on already, and then you work on your little piece of it, and then you pass it on to the next person. And a lot of times as designers, we get siloed into working on specific features full-time, or we work on large teams that have separate branded communication design departments as they do product design departments, so we often, maybe if we’re a product designer, never touch any kind of communication is a design or print design, and vice versa, of course.

So, when did that happen? And why did it happen? I think if we’re going to argue at all about specializing versus generalizing, the same arguments apply. Whenever you specialize in something, if you are a designer working on a very niche feature, it’s going to help you to focus all of your time on that one problem, right? And hypothetically, you can solve that problem a lot better if you’re not distracted by a bunch of other problems, or, you know, blowing it out of proportion and having to solve just so many problems at once. As a generalist, you have to get really good at change and bonking around from one thing to the next and solving all kinds of problems at one time. And so, if you are specializing in becoming this assembly line designer, then it allows you to focus more of your attention on perfecting that one piece that you’re in charge of, which I think is probably the basis of why companies have moved in this direction.

But what the AIGA Eye on Design piece is asking is the question that I want to know the answer to as well: is there room for multi-disciplinary designers at all in the world? What happened to design as experimentation in this, you know, general creativity? Can we still play? Can we still bonk around between departments and between styles of design and types of design and all of that? Is that possible? I think the answer is yes. I think the answer is that there’s room for both types, and there are wonderful opportunities for both types. And I don’t think that one is correct or incorrect.

I think as a designer, you should ask yourself the question of which one do you want to be, because there are a lot of people that are not interested in being a multi-disciplinary designer. They like their little niche or their little specialty, they’re very good at it, they enjoy it, it’s fulfilling for them, and if that’s the case, then heck yes, do that. But for some of us, and I’m speaking very personally here, because it me, is maybe you like change a lot, you like all kinds of different types of design, you like being able to bounce around and have to solve all kinds of different problems throughout your day. And so, maybe multi-disciplinary design is for you.

And I think that, yes, there is room for both, but asking the question and being a little bit critical, and, you know, thinking about this a little bit harder beyond the surface and allowing yourself to know what’s best for you and which direction is right for you, will also help you to inform yourself of what kind of career you want to have and what kind of company you want to work for. And absolutely-frickin-tutely, you should, whenever you’re interviewing at a company, ask them about this. Ask them about their process. Why do they work this way? Is there room for multi-disciplinary design? And this will help inform your decision whenever you’re interviewing as well, these are all great questions to be asking.

So, there is definitely room for both types. I personally do not think that one is wrong and the other one is right. I don’t think one is good, one is bad, yada, yada, yada. Maybe you do and that’s okay too. But I really wonder if there are any companies out there that are allowing for multi-disciplinary designers. I know, as someone who has been hired to, as a contractor, to work on a lot of early stage tech companies and startups and small businesses, that’s definitely when I get to do the most multi-disciplinary design work, is when I’m the only designer, because they can’t necessarily afford, they don’t have the team or maybe the budget to hire different designers that are specializing in different areas, so I’ve got to do all of it. And that’s why I like working with those types of teams the most. So, I think there is room for everybody, you just have to ask yourself which kind of design style you like to have. Do you want to be a part of the assembly line so you can really, really focus on one little thing here and there at a time? Or, do you like to bounce around? Either or.

Oh, but one [point] I want to make before I wrap up on this topic is that when it comes to being sort of a cog in the machine, being a part of this assembly line system, I wonder if those opportunities are the greatest opportunities to automate and for automation? And is that something that could eventually be taken over by computers? As we know, computers are taking our jobs to a certain capacity. I’m not one of those people that’s scared of computers taking my job, and I don’t think you should be either. What I’m saying is that a lot of these things, if it’s an assembly line kind of situation, then that’s the opportunity for computers to take over just a tad, just a little trickle. A trickle? Is a trickle a measurement? I don’t think it is. But I think that that’s the opportunity for automation, which I think, often, is a good thing. It’s like thinking about the pros of design systems, right? Having a design system in place allows you to be creative more and do all the things you wouldn’t have had time to do otherwise with the brand. And this is the same situation where, possibly, if you’re working in an assembly line type of situation, part of your job might end up getting automated, which is great, because then maybe, and I’m just thinking here and being curious, is that maybe then that would free up the opportunity for designers to become more multi-disciplinary. So, interesting, interesting stuff.

Now, as I was searching for news topics and news stories to cover on this episode, I came across one piece from the Dribbble blog, actually, that was about mentorship relationships, and I was really interested in it because I have never had a mentor. I’ve always been kind of wondering how you get one. Do you have to ask this question? Is it like asking somebody out on a date where you say, “Will you be my mentor?” And then you get worried about rejection? I, like anybody, am so afraid of rejection. I don’t like it, it’s not a great feeling. So, I’ve never asked anybody to be my mentor. I also generally have this issue where I can’t find anybody that’s doing what I want to be doing, so there wasn’t a person to pinpoint.

Anyway, Dribbble’s blog has outlined six tips to make the most out of your design mentor-mentee relationship, and I, just for my own personal interest, clicked that and looked at it and found it to be fascinating. And first of all, this is at the top of my mind because something happened to me recently, where I had made a new friend and was really excited about this relationship, really getting along with this person, and then they intro’d me on an email to someone else, and they intro’d me as their mentor. And I thought we were friends, and apparently, I had been mentor zoned. I didn’t know that was a thing, but it is, and it happened to Meg Lewis one time. So, the first tip that Dribbble mentions is to be clear about your goals and expectations, because this person was clearly not clear with me. I thought we were becoming great friends, and maybe we are, maybe we are, but they don’t see me as a friend as much as a mentor, which makes me a little sad, because I thought we were just friends here just chillin’ together, being cool and being buddies, but apparently not. So, the first tip is just to be clear about your expectations, which means actually ask your mentor out, say, “Will you be my mentor?” And be clear about what your goals are with the mentorship, why [you’re] asking them to be your mentor, what [you’re] hoping to get out of it, what you expect out of the relationship, if you decide to meet regularly, make sure you set a schedule for that, and kind of create some clear guidelines for yourselves in this relationship.

The second tip they have to offer is to just keep it professional, which normally I would disagree with because I’m not professional or a fan of being quote unquote professional, I think that’s a label that holds a lot of people back, because we have a lot of preconceived notions about what being professional means, and a lot of prescribed notions of that label, and many people naturally do not fit into that prescribed quality of professionalism, and so it holds other people back. Well, some people succeed. Anyway, I could go on about this for hours, but I will not. So normally, I don’t like to say be professional. But in this Dribbble blog article, the definition of being professional is just to be respectful of the time of the mentor, which I agree with. I think you should be respectful of anybody’s time, especially if they’re providing a service and helping you. So, that just means be aware of not taking up too much of their time, make sure that you don’t flake out on them, that kind of thing. That’s simple, simple stuff. I feel like I’m giving advice to a child right now, because it’s just so obvious. But you would be surprised by how many people are not respectful of other people’s time. Actually, you wouldn’t be surprised because you’re a human. You’re a human in this world and it probably happens to you all of the dang time.

So, the third thing that they mentioned in this blog post is to just be prepared for each meeting. Again, this sounds like advice you’d give for a child. I remember teachers in middle school telling us stuff like this, like write your name at the top, make sure to put the date on it, actually do your homework, turn it in on time. But of course, a great percentage of students wouldn’t do any of it correctly, and they wouldn’t follow instructions, and they would not be prepared. This is just a part of humans, not just children. So, be prepared for each meeting, if you do have clear goals and all that, they are doing their part of the engagement, hopefully by showing up, so you should do your part of engagement by being prepared.

And the fourth point here is just to embrace honest feedback. As a mentee, you’re basically opening yourself up to be mentored, which means that you’re going to be receiving advice and feedback that’s honest and constructive about your career. So, being able to accept that is good, being able to take that feedback, and at least not get offended and defensive about it, and reactionary, is the best that you can do. I think if you have a problem with the feedback you’re receiving, digest it, give it some time, and come back to the relationship and come back to the conversation and have some already formulated thoughts so you can have the most productive conversation going forward. Again, we want to respond and not react, which is something I’m actively working on, for sure. I’m not perfect, neither are you.

Point number five, we have two more, hang in there, is to make the relationship a win-win, which means that if you’re a mentee, to make sure that this relationship is valuable to the mentor, and that’s why I, personally, rather than mentor-mentee relationships, I prefer friendships. If I think back to all of the relationships in my career that I have learned the most from, they’ve all been friendships, friendships with other designers that have a lot to offer to teach me and vice versa. So, a friendship is more like a win-win for me, and that’s why I like thinking of all relationships as friendships, especially if you can make friends that are also creatives are in the same industry as you. Heck, yes.

So, the last tip here is to just express gratitude. Tell them you’re thankful for their time, tell them that you’re really thankful and grateful for everything they’ve done for you, and make sure that you keep giving back to them and crediting them for their help along the way throughout your career. And please just remember that it is 100% okay to mix friendships with mentorships too, right? It’s totally fine. I totally, totally encourage that you make more friends with other creatives that are in your line of work, that do similar things to you, and you can both be friends and help each other out and give each other advice at the same time and both learn from one another. It doesn’t have to be so dang transactional.

I’m sure this will not come to you as a surprise, but I’m a huge fan of Lizzo. Lizzo makes great music, a brilliant artist, and I think the thing that I love the most about Lizzo is that she is Lizzo. There is no one else like her in the world. And her confidence and her freedom [are] just so inspiring to me. And I’m going to get into a lot of all of that and unpack what all of that means in a moment, but I want to first start with the basics of explaining why Lizzo is so magical. And I think the magic, for me, is contained in one tiny little horizontal metal tube. What does this mean? I’m talking about Lizzo’s flute. The reason why I love Lizzo so much is, not only just her confidence, but the fact that she has truly created a career that [nobody] else possibly could. And a lot of that is through her dancing and through her flute playing. The musical talent that she has is obvious. As a musician, she’s just brilliant. But the fact that she brought her flute, she’s classically trained as a flautist – I can say flautist because I also used to play the flute, I used to teach flute lessons, it was one of my first jobs in high school. Lizzo is an extraordinary flute player, she’s definitely better than I was, I will say that for sure. But also, the fact that she has worked the flute into her career is pretty amazing to me. And she even says herself that nobody asked for that. Most people said, “Don’t bring that, it’s nerdy.” And she, at the time, knew nothing different, you know, playing a musical instrument is quote unquote nerdy to a lot of people, and so she thought, you know, nobody else is playing the flute while twerking, so [she] probably shouldn’t either. But then as she, I think, got more and more confident with who she is, she realized, “Wait, I have something that I can offer that I can put into my music that nobody else can, and I can really be unlike anybody else here if I utilize that.” And if you listen to this podcast or hear me for more than 30 seconds at any time, you’ll know that this is my thing, that’s the hill I will always die on, that if you just utilize all of these things that make you interesting and unique and different from other people and you smush them all together, then you can create something and do something that nobody else can, and Lizzo is such a great example of that. And her flute playing really puts her on the map as being an original, memorable, magnetic person.

And now also, the other piece is Lizzo’s confidence, her way of just being so comfortable with who she is and with loving herself and with using that as a positive part of her platform and voice and music. And whenever I say that, it sounds horrible, because who should be applauded that much for just being themselves? And Lizzo said that herself, you know, it’s so frustrating, because people constantly are telling her she’s being brave, or she’s being unapologetic, and yeah, that’s a horrible thing for someone to say to her because what is so brave about Lizzo being Lizzo? What does she have to apologize for? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

So, whenever we think about this argument, it’s really frustrating to me, because this is the world we’ve created. We’ve created a world for ourselves where we are not encouraged, even though there are so many inspirational posters that disagree, we are not encouraged to be ourselves. We are given, you know, preconceived notions of what beauty and attractiveness and every single quality of our personality and physical body should look and act and sound and be like, and if we go against that in any way, which spoiler alert, we all do, we are made fun of, we get it pointed out [to] us, and we get cast aside. And it is so sad that this is the world that we live in, but Lizzo is doing absolutely incredible work for all of us that she is not caring about that and she’s just going to be herself anyway, and that hopefully inspires a lot of other people to be confident about who they are even if that goes against what’s quote unquote normal. And as someone, me, who spent a great deal of my life just trying to pass as normal, I am all for this. This is why this platform is so huge for me in talking about this message.

So, Lizzo’s confidence is one of the most amazing things about her, and the fact that she is so celebrated is so well deserved, because she’s a proven example that if you can just mix all of the amazing things that make you who you are together, and push that forward and create things with that information, you will inspire other people to do the same, and I think that’s absolutely amazing. So, while Lizzo does get criticized every so often, it’s usually people that have an issue with these labels of what a rapper should be, what a black woman should be, what a pop artist should be, you know, what her body should look like, what her personality should look like, and I hate that. But as we criticize other people, I think it all comes from those places too of have these notions that society creates of what’s normal. And whenever somebody goes against that, then that’s when they start getting criticized.

So anyway, on David Letterman’s Netflix show, he had Lizzo on as a guest, and I entirely encourage you watch it, because she says something absolutely magical, and the quote is, when she’s responding to David Letterman about some of the criticism she gets about these things, she says, quote, “When people see somebody who is free, they like to label them as an ‘other.’” And that’s so powerful to me, because that’s exactly what Lizzo is. She’s completely free of all these labels, of all these prescribed qualities that she’s supposed to have, and she’s just being who she needs to be, because that’s who she is. And the fact that she continues to get cast aside and labeled by other people is really frustrating to me, but let her be an example to you that even though people are always going to criticize, even Lizzo, for being who she is, they’re going to criticize you too if you bonk against those boundaries of what’s normal. And if you try to create a career that’s made just for you, you’re always going to receive some criticism and some people that see you as being free from boundaries. And then of course, they’ll be jealous of you and label you as another.

So, I think all of this is to say that in your career, if you want to start adding more of yourself, these things that you can do, these interests that you have that don’t seem related to what you do professionally, add them into your career. Be Lizzo. Add that flute in there if you want to. Yes, because that’s what’s going to set you apart. And that’s what’s going to give you that freedom. Because none of us are, quote unquote, “normal.” You’re not. I’m definitely not. Clearly. But it’s scary. It is scary. And it’s the world’s most impossible task. Most humans go their whole lives without being able to do any of this stuff because it’s too scary, right? Going against labels and what the world wants you to be is terrifying. But as I say often, and I’ll say it again, please let that fear not prevent you, but push you forward, [to] propel you forward to making change, to be yourself, to stop trying to pass as normal. And truly, I hate saying to be yourself because that sounds so lofty and unattainable, but to start injecting your career and who you are, your public persona, as being more of who you truly are inside, because you’re doing a larger and greater mission here, right? You’re encouraging other people to do the same, which is really what the world needs. Okay? Yeah. So, don’t let the fear prevent you, let it push you forward.

Well okay, my beautiful baby, that’s it for this episode of Overtime. I had a great time, did you? I’ll leave a blank here so you can respond. Did you have a good time? Say yeah! Say oh, oh, oh! Say ooh ah ah! Say bibaty boop bop ba doo bop ba. Did you respond to all of those? I hope so. If you want to take this conversation onto the internet, use #DribbbleOvertime or tweet me [or] tag me. My handle is @yourbuddymeg. Okay, Bye-bye. Hear me next week!