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Meg Robichaud

Illustrator and Designer at Shopify

Meg Robichaud is a designer and illustrator at Shopify. I began following her work via Twitter when she was still working freelance and wanted to ask her about the transition working in-house with a team. We talked about why she was drawn to the team at Shopify, some of her best habits and routines as an illustrator, the transition to leading a team and why she wishes illustration was seen as a more accessible career.

Special thanks to Igloo and InVision for sponsoring Ways We Work for the month of September and making these interviews possible!

Tell me a little bit about your current role and what that looks like.

I’m a designer and illustrator at Shopify. Originally I came in under UX, leading the illustration team. I've since added the culture design team as well as a bit of work with the brand team. I would say that half of my time is spent managing versus being in the thick of it. Both teams are so full of talented people that they're largely self-sufficient, I only really get into the pixels with branding projects.

What were you doing previously? What was your path to your current role like?

Before Shopify, I was working freelance full-time. I’d work closely with new start-ups and focus on the product and marketing side with them. I’d do big explainers for the marketing side and then corresponding empty states for the product side.

When Shopify originally contacted me, they were just beginning to scrap their whole illustration style. I came in for a week-long sprint to help kick off the new illustration style and get some fresh eyes in there to help them make decisions. At the time, I was pretty stoked on freelance and had no interest in doing any sort of full-time thing. But, I came in for a week and everyone on the team was wonderful, they were fantastic to work with. Kyle messaged me after that week to ask if I wanted to finish what I had started. I really did. Even though I wasn’t looking for a full-time gig, just coming into the office and working with everyone won me over.

What were some of the biggest lessons that you took from working freelance that you bring into what you do now?

A large part of being a good freelancer is being able to get in and get caught up to speed as quickly as possible—deliver something and then get out. I think that’s a big thing that I bring to working project-based. It can be a double-edged sword though. It’s a great skill to have to be able to get caught up to speed and get out quickly, but it’s also not always the best way to work on every project.

Because I have six years of freelance projects I’ve also developed really good habits around how I approach a project and how I organize and name all my files. I know I always start with a certain four files, I always have my source files in there and exports—that systematic stuff came in handy.

With Shopify, I started by making a lot of guides, like our illustration guide. I had practice with those types of guides because when I was freelancing it would help define how a team should continue on once I was gone. So I know how to work so that anyone could pick up a file I’ve done and continue working on it if I go away on vacation or whatever it may be. Those habits have really carried over.

“It’s a big change going from freelancing to working in a big company and it’s been super challenging moving into a managing role. I worked by myself all day, every day—I barely even interacted with the barista at my coffee shop. ”

Product vs. Marketing Illustration: https://medium.com/shopify-ux/product-vs-marketing-illustration-7ac474dfe2ed#.99ge7q2oe

What are some other habits or routines that make you the most efficient?

I think just having a systematic approach every time I’m starting a new project or a new illustration. For example, with every new illustration the first thing I do is open up an Illustrator file to start a mood board and source files. It’s not necessarily the exact right way to approach everything but it’s mostly just important to have a default way to start a project. It allows you to go on autopilot until you’re excited about the project and it gives you something to do when you’re frustrated or stuck.

One other thing that I’m always encouraging my reports to do is to sketch out a lot of ideas. It doesn’t matter exactly how you do it, but the point is to set an arbitrary number of ideas that you’re going to come up with. Usually, you sketch out your third idea and think, “Cool, that’s the one I’m going to do.” But, you still have to fill up the rest of the page. So you spit out some shittier ones and by the last sketch, the one you were sure you weren’t going to use because number three was the best one—that last one always turns out to be the best.

What are some of the main challenges you face in your role now?

It’s a big change going from freelancing to working in a big company and it’s been super challenging moving into a managing role. I worked by myself all day, every day—I barely even interacted with the barista at my coffee shop [laughs]. Now I work with all these people and spend time making sure everyone’s excited about the projects we're working on, making sure everything’s moving forward and getting sign off.

Part of me also worried I would be become stifled and start drawing in this one style forever, but, now being on the other side I’ve realized you can do whatever you want. If you’re excited about a project, all you have to do is tell someone that you’re excited and they usually get excited about it too. It leaves you with so many options and so many people who want to work on it with you that you can get a little crippled by choice. Prioritization is actually what I’ve found most challenging.

What are the main tools that make up your workflow?

Slack

Google Hangouts - I work remote so I catch up with a lot of people via Hangouts and Slack.

Github - I did not expect that Github would be the best tool to organize design projects, but it has turned out to be hands down the best option. If we organize our projects in a place that everyone else can come follow up and see everything we’re working on at the same time, it’s super helpful.

Illustrator & InDesign - I mostly work in Illustrator, but sometimes InDesign as well.

“I think the biggest thing is to forgive yourself for not getting anything done. If you get to the end of the day and don’t feel like you got enough done—that's okay. Learn to let that go. Just close your computer and go do something that makes you feel good.”

Do you ever have periods where you are less excited about your work or where you feel burnt out? How do you get yourself back into an energized state?

I feel like everyone says this but, going for a walk and taking a day off goes a really long way. I try to take a couple of days off every now and then to recharge. I think the biggest thing is to forgive yourself for not getting anything done. If you get to the end of the day and don’t feel like you got enough done—that's okay. Learn to let that go. Just close your computer and go do something that makes you feel good. You did your best, try again tomorrow. I find that goes a really long way.

The second part to that is that in order to give yourself that break you have to actually get up the next day and go to work. You have to actually try again. Be confident that you did your best. If you just played on Facebook most of the day, then that’s not doing your best and you know it.

What’s a major aspect of what you do that you think people might not realize?

So many people think that all illustrators are just pulling ideas out of their brain and writing them down. If you look at any illustrator’s art board, they have other illustrations and other people’s work there. They have reference photos, and if they’re trying to draw a person and get the right angle, they’re probably tracing—I trace things sometimes. It’s okay. It really frustrates me that so many people are afraid to become an illustrator because they think they have to pull these ideas out of their head. They don’t realize that we have all kinds of reference images for all the work we do.

Specifically related to my role at Shopify, I think there’s a lot of mentorship that comes with a role like mine, which might surprise some people. There’s also a lot of coordination with product teams. It’s not as if we just get assigned a bunch of illustrations. We work with the other designers to help decide when illustration is the right tool for what they’re trying to accomplish. It’s about asking what they’re trying to communicate and determining what we can do for them. It’s never like, “Hey, can you draw us a car?” So that means it involves lots of working and meeting with other teams. That’s most of what I do.

“It really frustrates me that so many people are afraid to become an illustrator because they think they have to pull these ideas out of their head. They don’t realize that we have all kinds of reference images for all the work we do.”

What is it that you find the most meaningful about working in design and illustration?

I’ve been thinking about this and talking to other people about what makes you happy and I think it’s a combination of the community of people that fit your life, a lifestyle that fits your life and something that you’re good at. There are all different combinations that any person could find—I could have very well found another one.

I’m just very happy to have found myself in the middle of a lifestyle that fits me. The design community, for example, is very open to remote, we’re very passionate about taking care of yourself, and work-life balance—although a buzzword—is something that’s very important to me. Anytime I go to a design conference, I find people that I fit with. That doesn’t happen to me everywhere. And then, something I’m good at. I think I just happen to have found a place that I can exist between those things.

As it applies to Shopify, it’s kind of the same thing. They really value work-life balance and taking care of yourself. That was one of the things that drew me to working with them in the first place. When I was there for the sprint and it hit 5 o’clock, everyone said, “No, seriously just go home. Take care of yourself. Whatever you’re working on you can work on it tomorrow. Go be outside for a little bit.” I really respected that. It’s not something you see in every company. It’s also very open-ended, if you want to work on something that you think is important and worth doing, you just need to explain why you think it’s worth doing and then go do it. That can be intimidating but also very exciting.

Who is someone that you would want to see interviewed on Ways We Work?

Justin Mezzell, Rogie King, and Dann Petty would be good ones. Any of the people from Ueno. I love what they're doing. I'd love any insight into what they're working on next. It's always exciting.