Little Silver Linings of 2020
This week on Overtime, we look back at 2020 and think: has it really been as bad as it feels? How has it affected design?
Plus, dig into the meaning of diverse creative content, and why it’ll be more important than ever in 2021. Then, writer Kelly Small stops by to share their secrets on creating a more ethical and conscious creative career, so you don’t have to sell your dang soul, am I right? Let’s go.
This episode was sponsored by:
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Meg: Well, hello, my buddy, my best friend, my lover. You’re my co-host, I’ll just tell you that, you’ve been here with me since the beginning. I don’t know how long you’ve been listening, but at least since the beginning of this episode, you’ve been here with me, and I’m just going to consider you my co-host from now on. Welcome back to Overtime. This is Dribbble’s weekly podcast where I deliver design news and give you tips to create your very best work. And I’m your host, Meg “[Turkey Sound] – that’s a turkey sound” Lewis, and you know what? My time hosting this 2020 season of Overtime is almost coming to an end. This is our very last month together and I just want to make sure that the rest of these episodes are as special as they can be.
This week on Overtime, I look back at 2020 and think: has it really been as bad as it feels? Probably. But maybe, I don’t know. How has it affected design? Plus, how creating diverse creative content is my focus for 2021 and maybe it should be yours too. And writer Kelly Small stops by to share their secrets on creating a more ethical and conscious creative career, so you don’t have to sell your dang soul, am I right? Let’s go.
Meg: As a creator, it can feel like you’re making stuff for practically everyone but yourself. Now, Patreon is a creator founded membership platform where the people who love your work can directly support it with paid subscriptions. No advertisers, no algorithms, no mainstream gatekeepers holding your paycheck. Just steady, reliable income and the freedom to make what you love. So, start by creating on your own terms. Sign up today at patreon.com. That’s patreon.com.
Meg: When perusing through a bunch of articles and stuff, I really have a fun time exploring people that are looking back at 2020, and noticing what’s changed, what has happened, what’s been bad, what’s been good, has anybody been thriving right now, because it seems like everybody’s struggling. And Fast Company has an article titled, “2020 Was a Terrible Year for Everything Except Gaming,” which feels right. Yeah, I don’t know about you, but definitely at the beginning of the pandemic, I played a lot of Animal Crossing, I think I had an episode about why it was so great at the time, because we really needed it. We needed something fun and lighthearted to focus on for just a little bit of time, and it really worked for me. And now with the launch of the new PlayStation, we’ve got the Xbox Series X or S, or A or B or C or D, other letters. There’s the Oculus too with Animal Crossing, it’s like the gaming industry, of course, there [are] a lot of games that have come out recently as well that are, you know, very important. And now I’m getting into territory where I don’t know what I’m talking about because I don’t do those. But as we know that industry is booming because everybody’s looking to escape and looking to stay at home.
But I also wonder what other industries are really thriving right now. Obviously home gym stuff, Peloton, that mirror, whatever all those other exercise equipment tech companies are that make the actual hardware, those seem to be thriving. I think definitely any kind of home interior contracting, home design, accessories, furniture, those kinds of brands are absolutely thriving right now. I have a friend of mine who has a small business, a design business, where she creates baskets, and her business has been having its best year ever for baskets because everybody’s looking around their home environment like, “I gotta shake some stuff up.” So, things are definitely – some industries are booming. But what’s happening largely to the design industry? I don’t know, I’d be really curious to know. I definitely have talked to some friends that are freelancers [who] have different answers. For me, I’ve not kept it a secret, I have struggled greatly with my client work this year. I think part of that is to blame, because I’ve kind of changed the work that I do this year from being less problem solving, brand and marketing design and communications design, and more designing as an artist or small one off pieces, that kind of thing, or doing performance based work for brands, kind of like hosting this podcast. So, my shift in my career this year happened at a weird time, during a pandemic, so it’s hard to know if the pandemic is to blame, or if it’s the career shift to blame, or if I’m to blame. Who should I be blaming? I’d love to blame everybody but myself. Let’s blame it on a pandemic.
But I’ve definitely noticed that client work hasn’t been going so well for me. It’s been pretty terrible in the client aspect. I’ve gotten a lot of no’s, more no’s this year than I’ve ever gotten in my career, I’ve gotten a lot of things that just fell through – that has never happened before in my career. A lot of weird stuff with clients is going on this year, and I think that’s kind of common. I also noticed with other freelancers and other creatives that there was kind of a roller coaster effect happening. At the beginning of the pandemic, everybody freaked out and there was no work to be had. and then over the summer, it slowly started to build its way back up, and now people think it’s relatively back to, you know, feeling in a good place, which I’m not sure if I can agree with necessarily. I feel that has happened with the design industry but not necessarily with my work, just because I’ve struggled so much with client stuff throughout the year and it really hasn’t necessarily regulated as much. Although I think I found my stride more, which is through creating streams of passive income or diverse creative content, as last week’s co-host Ryan Appleton calls it. But I just can’t wait until all of the think pieces and all of the data comes back to [show] how this year has affected our industry as creatives and as designers, because I really would love to know. I can’t wait to find out the long-term effects that this pandemic [and] wacky landscape of this year has had on the industry and so many other industries, which I think our industry affects, and vice versa, because design touches all industries. So, I’m so interested to see what happens. I don’t think we have too many answers yet, but I think we all have our own personal opinion about how it’s been for our careers this year.
For me, it seems like, looking back on this year, it was terrible. It was bad, it was difficult, and I had to figure things out and I had to fight for myself in a way that I’m used to doing but have never had to fight this hard before, and it feels bad. But then once I looked at my finances, last week, I noticed that I’m on track to make just as much as I had before. And I think that things have just shifted for me, and I’m wondering if the same is true for you. Have things just shifted for you where you’ve had to put your focus into new areas? Like, in the past, all of my focus, or most of my focus was on client work, that’s where the bulk of my income came from, and now I’m finding that the bulk of my income is coming from all the things that I can control outside of client work. So, it’s been confusing, but looking back on the year, it’s not necessarily as bad as I thought it was. It feels terrible every day because we’re going through a pandemic and all of this stuff is happening in the world and our lives are changing so much and everything seems very desperate, because it is, but actually taking the time to slow down and realize what I have accomplished this year is actually quite incredible.
And additionally, I’ve just had more time to create things, to make things for fun, to play, and to just have a good time with my work, rather than in the past, I was just cranking things out, acting as a machine for my clients, which is all in line with what we talked about last week.
So, it’s been really fascinating for me to look back on 2020, realistically, and kind of mark a lot of my achievements and take the time to slow down and realize that 2020 hasn’t necessarily been that terrible of a year for my career, even though it has felt like it the whole time. It’s felt like – just what a wild ride it’s felt like? So, I’d love for you to also take some time to slow down and try and figure out what those good and positive side effects have been for you, because there’s at least going to be a few, right? Even though this year has been absolutely awful and such a struggle, there are definitely some things that have happened that have been wonderful and beautiful to for you, I’m sure. And it’s easy to get [down] and wallow in the negative, I know, of this year, so take some time and allow yourself to focus on those things that you’re really grateful for that happened this year, because I think it’s worth the exercise.
Meg: Now, on the note of having to shift my career and fight for myself outside of client work, I think it goes a lot in line with what we were talking about last week in the realm of passive income/creating diverse creative content. And that’s the name of the game when it comes to my career. As you know, I do a lot of things that are beyond just client service design, between classes that I teach, other podcasts that I host, this podcast, for example, and you know, the books I write, the products I sell, all of the things that I do are forms of income and I’ve really had to focus and fight for myself to make money off of everything that I do, because as a freelancer, you kind of have to in order to survive. You’ve got to get really creative with how you make your money.
So, Ryan [made] a really great point of thinking of your career: if you’re a freelancer like me, or if you’re just looking to make some additional money on the side so that you have a better, stronger, sturdier safety net, then thinking about your career as creating diverse creative content is important. So, I want to kind of outline some of the things that I’ve been thinking about focusing on in 2021 for myself, and I’m trying to take the rest of this year lighter and not do these things, but it’s really hard for me to not actually start thinking about them now. So, in order to do that, I’m cheating a little bit, I’m going to talk to you about it, which I think will be really fun.
So, the first thing that I’m really curious about is this concept of taking dead designs, rejected designs, disapproved of designs, all the corpse designs you have lying around, and doing something with them, possibly repackaging them and selling them. And I know a few people who actually have creative market accounts under pseudonyms where they sell unused designs and things that they’re not necessarily that proud of, and they make a good amount of money that way. And when I found that out, my mind was completely blown because I didn’t even think that you could do that. Like, the idea of creating a pseudonym, a fake brand, or a fake name and going by that, and selling stuff I’m not necessarily proud of, I don’t know, is that good? Is that healthy? So, that’s one thing to think about. But also, just creating assets and things and selling them on platforms like creative market or taking control and selling them on your own website is great. Like if you can make fonts or texture packs or brushes or icon packs, illustration packs, other packs, ice packs, six packs, you know, as long as you can repackage those things, you don’t necessarily need to be embarrassed or create a pseudonym to keep them behind. I think that’s a great way to just get some money coming in on the side.
Something that I’m doing, I’ve been working on it very actively, is taking a lot of this stuff, whether it’s, repackaging and reworking old designs that never ended up going anywhere or creating new collections, I’m working right now to create a licensing library of patterns and illustrations. And now, this licensing library will live behind a password protected wall, and I will start pitching brands and anyone who might need patterns to take a look see and see if they like anything that they see, so that way, it’s kind of a portfolio, but it’s also an easy place where people can just pick one and say, “I’d like to license that.” And honestly, licensing deals are probably a little bit higher paying than if I popped something up on my website, and I was like, “20 bucks for this pattern.” So, it’s interesting to try different things. I might try a little bit of everything and see which one works best for me or see which one I like the most.
But also, I’m going to keep in mind the fact that teaching is a really great way to create diverse creative content. Teaching is a great avenue for that, it’s a great way to make passive income or not even passive income, just active, great, wonderful cash income. Whether it’s teaching evergreen content that stays up always and people just register and the money trickles in for me, or whether it’s teaching short-running classes that happen one time, or offering programs, it’s very exciting for me to do that. And it’s also been really hard for me to know what to teach, what I can offer the world that seems unique that people actually would want to pay to learn from me, and I think a lot of times we can’t articulate what that is on our own, so we have to ask. So, if you’re not really sure what you could possibly teach, I definitely recommend asking people in your life who know you, whether it’s other people in the industry that know your work that would like to learn from you, ask your audience, ask those people what they would like to learn from you, what you can offer them, what they would pay to learn about from you.
But also, if you don’t want to put together an entire course curriculum, you could at least start by consulting or coaching people about those things. So, start charging a little bit here and there to offer your advice and to work with people one on one on the in those areas. You know, if you don’t know what to offer people advice, again, ask your audience, ask the people that know your work the best. Because these are the things that I’m focusing on in 2021, is to just take charge of my money and how much I’m making finally, and stop relying on clients to give that to me, because this year has taught me that it’s not necessarily the safest to always rely on somebody else to determine how much money I can make or how far I can go. And if there’s a way that I can keep that in my control, and if next year is as at all as volatile as 2020 has been, I need to definitely take control of that.
So, I don’t want to do a fearmongering thing with you right now. No way. If you have steady client work and you’re not struggling there or if you have a full time jobby job and you’re not struggling there and you have the stability you need, great. You don’t need to you don’t necessarily need to change anything. But for me, I don’t have any stability when it comes to client work; this year has taught me that. So, diverse creative content, creating passive income and all of that, is so important for me now, definitely more than ever, and I am going to work my little, cute, sort of flat, sort of round butt off in 2021 to take things in my own control. Okay, let’s move on.
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Meg: I’m really excited about the next segment here because I have a guest and it’s the incredible Kelly Small. Kelly is an award-winning creative director, designer, and writer with roots in communication, design, marketing, and advertising and has a special focus on ethical and inclusive creative practice, which, heck yes. The reason why Kelly is here with us today is to talk about their book, which I actually do own and I’m a huge fan of. It’s called the conscious creative, practical ethics for purposeful work. And what is it? It’s a collection of over 100 actions for ethical creative practice, and it’s the culmination of all of Kelly’s research in their pursuit of a more humane, values-driven, and inclusive creative industry. Hi, Kelly, welcome!
Kelly: Thank you for having me!
Meg: So, let’s get into it, because I have some questions that I think everyone can benefit from because you know so much about something that I know very little about, but I care about a lot, so I’m very excited to ask you. And I think, generally, a lot of us this year, since our brains are feeling extra chaotic, or at least mine is and I’m constantly questioning everything because I have so much free time now and less distractions, so I think that’s a good thing. And what I’ve learned over the course of my life, the last few years, and especially this year, is that, unfortunately, I don’t think that anything is 100%, quote/unquote good, which is really sad. But everything that is even good causes harm a little bit. And as a person who tries my hardest to not cause any harm, it’s just heartbreaking for me. But as a creative person, I feel like every decision that I make, there’s something a little bit wrong about it. And it feels very chaotic, and it feels like I can’t move, because I’ve tried to become more ethical and more conscious about all the decisions I make, especially my creative career, but I feel very overwhelmed. What would you say your beginner’s advice is for someone who just feels overwhelmed by everything like me?
Kelly: Yeah, listen, it’s my favorite question that I’ve been asked in a while because it’s exactly the reason why I started this research in the first place, to be honest with you. When I started researching about ethical design and creative work, I was at this career crisis, I was absolutely destroyed by the weight of the systemic issues that I was facing, [it] was like I didn’t even know where to start. So, you know, fast forward, I start researching into ethical design and creative work, and what I found with a lot of the ethicists who are looking at design ethics at the time was they were, you know, and fair enough, really vilifying capitalism, there was a lot of talk of completely extricating design from the marketplace in favor of this utopian creative sector that is in service almost exclusively to social impact and environmental stewardship, but what I was asking the whole time while I was reading all of those papers in the books is, you know, what about those of us, like me, who are not independently wealthy, who my whole career has been built in the industry, my career is not going to be extricated from the industry, and there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of us in the same boat. So, I was really looking for how I can actually affect change within this system while understanding that not everything is going to be perfect.
And so, you know, to answer your question, my advice is to start small, be gentle with yourself, this is a practice. Becoming an ethical creative, or an ethical designer, I don’t believe is a place that any of us arrive at this place of expertise. I think it’s like doing yoga, I think it’s like meditating, you wake up in the morning, you sort of set your intention, and then you go about your career and you look for those little cracks where the light comes through, and you’re like, “Okay, that looks like an area that I can affect some change.” And I think the more we do that, and the more we practice, and the more mindful we are about those little opportunities in everyday life, to either do less harm, or even affect a little bit of incremental change, is really meaningful. And I always say to people to be so compassionate with yourself and just start small, because it’s really the only way. Like, what is it? Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour, right? Like, just keep working, and my hope is that, you know, collectively, at the end of all of this, we are going to hit a critical mass of folks who are mindfully moving through their careers and making these changes incrementally as we go towards something much larger. But you’re one person, be kind to yourself.
Meg: That’s good. So, I think another thing that whenever I think largely about this topic in the design industry, for example, I come back to a use case that keeps popping up into my brain. And I’m going to use Facebook as this example, and I apologize for using Facebook, I just think that it’s the perfect example. I mean, we all know that Facebook is harmful in many ways, but like everything, there’s a duality there. They’ve done a lot of good in the design community, they have a lot of money, I hear the perspective a lot of like, “I mean, I’m working for Facebook because I’m just trying to survive, and they pay really well.” And I can’t argue with that. If you’re just trying to survive, and Facebook is paying you well, you do what you need to do. So, what is your advice? And I get this question a lot from people too is from somebody who’s saying, “Hey, I’m just trying to survive here, and I need it. I need the work.” What do you say to somebody who’s just trying to be ethical, but they’re also just trying to survive?
Kelly: Yeah, I would say, “Likewise, absolutely, in the same boat.” And I mean, I think Facebook is an amazing example, and I think everyone’s going to have a different opinion about this, but I work right now, I’ve worked for a few of the big agencies, the globals, working for profit. Now, I’ve been [working in] non-profit exclusively. And you know what, and I will certainly not name names, but there are tons of organizations in that sector that are really deeply problematic on a lot of different levels. So, perhaps they don’t have the same reach as Facebook, some might, but I think the reality of all of this is, from my perspective anyway, is that we’re all operating within a system that in itself is really problematic. You know, we’re in a system where growth and where profit is prioritized over human need over the planet’s needs over all life, right? And so, kind of no matter where we’re operating, we are going to inevitably run into problems, and that’s none of our fault.
But we are, as I say, going to incrementally do our best to make these changes within the systems. And so, I would say for, you know, somebody working at, you know, a place like Facebook and big tech, again, look for those little areas where you can subvert from within your own system. If you have the emotional and mental sort of fortitude, and capacity to engage in that uphill climb of working toward more ethical work in systems that might be a little bit more bureaucratic or might be a little bit harder to really affect change within, I say, go for it. There’s no, in my opinion, there’s no industry that is more or less worthy of the work of a conscious creative person. It’s all beneficial. I think we should be in every industry, in every company, otherwise, how are we going to make the change? So, you know, show up where you show up and live your values to the best of your ability. And in the situations where you come against a system that simply says, ‘This is not going to work right now,” be kind to yourself, and find the next place that can.
Meg: I really appreciate that because I’m constantly asking myself the question of, “Is it worth fighting for?” Like, injecting myself in there on purpose to fight really hard. And sometimes, if you have the energy to do that, that’s hard, excellent work. But a lot of times, I think, it’s easier to take that easy route of just kind of blocking, cancelling, boycotting, and just ignoring. And I think that your point is helpful that both are valid, but if you’re ready for the fight, then you might as well do the fighting, if you can.
Kelly: Yeah, and listen, at different points in my life, I’ve been super ready for the fight. And at other points, I haven’t been. Like, I fought for a long time, and then I got, I’m always really honest about this, really real deal depressed and really anxious from pushing myself, I would say, outside of my values and my comfort zone on the daily for far too long. And I was burnt out for a period of time, and now I’d say I’m sort of back and I’ve really taken better care of myself, and I’m ready to go at it again. And so, again, I always say to folks, I really don’t think it’s a place where we arrive, I think it’s a place that everything else in life is fluid and will flux and change. And sometimes you are going to go hard, and other times, all you’re going to be able to do is say, “You know what, I just can’t do this right now and I have to take care of myself.” And that’s also entirely okay, you know, if you don’t put on your own oxygen mask first, you’re not going to be able to help anybody else. So, take that space, take that time that you need to be okay, and then re-engage when you can.
Meg: Yes, thank you. Thank you for the permission. The book also recommends something that I found to be really interesting. It says that you recommend releasing unnecessary judgment and becoming more action oriented. And I don’t know about the listeners out there, but releasing unnecessary judgment sounds so delightful to me. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Kelly: So, I found, over the course of my research, that a lot of, as I mentioned, ethicists and ethics books, and folks whose work is really centered around progressive intentions can be, sadly, sometimes a little bit judgey or a little bit finger waggy. And I think those of us who do what we do in the design realm, we know enough about behavioral design to understand that, you know, judging or admonishing folks for doing something wrong is not going to result in the behavior that we want. So, I think it’s really, really important that we stop judging each other. And maybe most importantly, stop judging ourselves when we can’t achieve ethical perfection, which I don’t think exists anyway in our day to day jobs, and just really celebrate that every day, like renewing, having the intentionality to make change and, you know, bring that mindfulness to your work and practice that role every day.
And, it’s about acting. You know, design has been really preoccupied by manifestos for years and years, and so, I think manifestos are fantastic, and also, they conclude without having a lot of actionable advice to sort of realize those incredible tenants that are within them. And so, that’s why I wanted to write a book that was just about acting, giving us these little, bite sized actions that we can take on the daily, and I think when judgment is withdrawn, and we allow ourselves to just go out into the world and just try, and understand that, you know, sometimes it’s going to work, sometimes it’s not, sometimes it’s totally out of our control. Sometimes it’s within our control, and we still fuck it up, and that’s also okay. We’re human. I think that that lack of judgment combined with the actions is really going to be the only way that we make this change happen and become that critical mass or that collective that, over time, is going to make the industry itself different.
Meg: I completely agree. Thank you so much for taking the time to explain all of this to me and answer my questions because you really have a gift of making such a scary and intimidating topic really digestible and fun. And it feels welcoming and exciting for me to start doing and I know that everybody else will agree. So, where can everybody find you and your book on the internet?
Kelly: Sure, so my book is available everywhere. I would suggest going to Bookshop.org, I love [it] of course because it’s going to support your indies. Go to your local to get it, but of course it’s on Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Indigo, you know, all the places. You can hit me up on Twitter @Kelly_Small because there’s another Kelly Small that took the actual @KellySmall and then blocked me when I asked her for it, even though she doesn’t use it, but we’re not going to talk about that right now. It’s very sad for me. Kellysmall.ca, because I am Canadian, is my website if you want to check out some of the work that I’ve done. [That’s] also up there and a little more information about the book, so check it out.
Meg: Thanks so much for being here today, Kelly.
Kelly: Yeah, my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
Meg: Doodly doo, that’s it for this episode of Overtime. If you want to continue the conversation on the internet, use #DribbbleOvertime, or tweet me, tag me, call me, beep me, boop me, bop me, twist me, pull me, shake me, squeeze me. Don’t do any of those. Don’t touch me IRL because it’s not safe. Touch me only on the internet, my handle is @yourbuddymeg. Okay, bye-bye. Hear me next week!