Meg Lewis

Founder of Ghostly Ferns & Scouted

Meg Lewis

Founder of Ghostly Ferns & Scouted Episode 06

Episode Notes

Episode Transcript

Gary:
Hello, and welcome to Episode 6 of Design Edu Today, the podcast series discussing topics concerning the state of interactive design education at institutions of higher learning. I’m your host, Gary Rozanc, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Today’s guest is Meg Lewis. Meg is a 2015 Net Magazine Awards Designer of the Year nominee, the founder of Ghostly Ferns, a freelancing family located in Brooklyn, New York, and the co-founder of Scouted, a place to discover and save recommendations from your coolest internet friends. Meg specializes in branding strategy and product design for companies big and small. Meg creates and executes useable, clean, friendly design and has been known to say, “Who says design has to be serious?” All the while putting the fun in functional design. She works with companies founded by happy, hardworking people; her rigorous research-heavy approach to design and usability allows her to create human-centered design with a lot of oomph. When Meg isn’t designing web things and logos, you can find her teaching interaction at Parsons, the new school for design, creating classes for Skillshare and sharing her thoughts on the Pastry Box project.

Welcome, Meg.

Meg:
Hey!
Gary:
Thanks for joining me today. Appreciate the time.
Meg:
Of course.
Gary:
Well, before I get started with the questions, I want to give the listeners a little back story. From fall 2009 through Spring 2013, I was a tenure track professor, teaching in the Art and Design Department at Colombia College, Chicago. So, back in fall 2010, and spring 2011, Meg was in a class I was co-teaching, which I hope you guys don’t hold against her, so some of the questions you hear me asking Meg may come with the benefit of hindsight. So again, don’t hold that against me! All right, so now that the back story is out of the way, Meg, you took very, what I think is a very non-traditional approach to your education. You were combining courses from different Colleges and I almost want to say it was a choose-you-own-adventure inter-disciplinary degree option.
Meg:
Exactly.
Gary:
So, this is accurate and was this intentional?
Meg:
Absolutely. So, I actually went to school in LA for fashion, before I decided I wanted to be an interaction designer, and I sort of didn’t like the fashion industry; it was a little too catty and competitive for me. I sort of like more warm and fuzzy vibes in my life! So, I decided that I actually wanted to become a web designer and I specifically wanted to become a freelance web designer and I looked at schools all over the country and I couldn’t find a school at the time, and this was 2008 when I was looking; couldn’t find a school at the time that offered any sort of graphic design program that mixed in web design or any kind of interaction design at all and I stumbled upon Colombia College, which had a major called Inter Disciplinary Studies which allowed me to kind of mix and match different majors to create my own curriculum and Colombia College didn’t really have many students that were doing this major at the time and so I approached them and said, hey, I want to mix your…it was a web development and game design program with a graphic design program and kind of the end result would be that I would be an interaction designer: that would be, primarily a designer but also familiar with code and they were just really excited to have somebody doing this major, first of all, but then they were also really intrigued by the way that I was combining these degrees and it made complete sense to me, but it seemed like it wasn’t quite making sense to the College yet and so I went through that program and I learned a lot about web development and I learned a lot about graphic design and it worked out pretty well.
Gary:
So, I guess this is, how did you…OK, so what made you know that you wanted to be a freelance web designer? I mean, what sparked you to, this is what I want to do? Was it the previous experience of, because of fashion, you just didn’t realize you liked fashion but you were able to…how can you kind of close dots for me?
Meg:
Yeah, that’s a really good question. So, when I left LA and I had this fashion degree, I decided to open up my own online vintage store, which was called 1918 Vintage. It still has a Facebook page and I keep getting likes, for some reason, but it doesn’t exist any more. So I had this vintage store online and I would sell on Etsy at first and then I decided to open up my own eCommerce site with that shop and in doing so, I kinda had to figure out how to design a website and now as a web designer, it would make me cringe if I thought there was some sad vintage store owner trying to create their own website, I would want to help them. But at the time, I was just trying to piece it together myself and I was having so much fun while I was doing it. So I decided to look up other online shops and research and see what their designs were like and it made me just realize that I was having a lot more fun customizing my website than I was owning the business and doing anything with the vintage clothes. So that’s when I decided to look into other businesses and other freelancers that were designing eCommerce shops and I found that there were a lot of them and they were all having a really good time and having a lot of fun with their jobs and so I think at that time, it finally hit me that hey, you can have a job that you actually really enjoy, which I think that a lot of people don’t realize, and so I had that moment when I had found my calling and so I needed to do whatever it took to learn the skills to be able to become an interaction designer.
Gary:
You just made me change the course of my questioning here! So, I want to touch on…I would say then, you’re an entrepreneur and you’re entrepreneurial through necessity, through being an entrepreneur, you had to pursue design talents or design skills to bring that…your product, your idea, or service or whatever it is, to the forefront. So, do you think then…let’s reverse that. Do you think a lot of designers could be…is design training good if you want to be an entrepreneur?
Meg:
Yeah…I think that’s actually very interesting and potentially true. I think designers kind of fall into two tracks: they either love having a job and love having a boss and love having someone tell them what to do; it keeps them on line, it keeps them on schedule and they really like having that day to day sort of what I think is monotony. And then there’s us who are freelancers who actually never want to have a boss; we never want anybody to tell us what to do and I think people who are freelancers inherently have the mind of an entrepreneur at the same time.
Gary:
OK. Because I’m going to bring up one of your own examples. So, in addition to designing things, you are also creating your own services.
Meg:
Yes.
Gary:
So, for the listeners, Meg was the co-creator of the Scouted…I’m calling it a service; I’ll let you define what it actually is, but in a nutshell, I see it as a city guide that’s propagated by a creative community.
Meg:
Exactly.
Gary:
Suggesting great places to go. So, can you tell me a little bit how Scouted came about?
Meg:
Absolutely.
Gary:
A little bit more about the product; I am stumbling around for words to describe it.
Meg:
Yeah! So, Scouted started actually when I was in school in Chicago. I started to realize that the design community across the country, across the world, was actually really, really friendly and I wasn’t really getting to meet a lot of these designers and kind of actually talk to them face to face; I joined Twitter at the time and I was getting to know them a lot online and just realized how absolutely delightful and supportive the entire, entire design community is and so I really wanted to do something to give back to the design community and to have this little space just for us, so I created what was called City Scout at the time, which was just a guide to a bunch of different cities; I would launch a city at a time and it was a lot of my design friends just giving their advice of their favorite places to go, things to eat and activities around their city. And so it got really popular really fast and everyone was feeling really great about it and I was launching new cities and then I had a friend who’s a developer approach me a couple of years later and say hey, I’d like to help you for free, actually, because he was so excited about it. He say; hey, I want to help you create a website where people can actually log in and create their own guides so you’re not actually having to scout out each person and use HTML to input each guide yourself, because it was a lot of work for me to manage the site, so I said that would be absolutely amazing, so I brought on a partner who’s an amazing developer and we created an actual website with a service so that you can actually log in and create your own guides and you can save guides and then we also are in the process of developing an app as well.
Gary:
Nice! Why go the app route and not just…why native app?
Meg:
Well, living in New York and being an interaction designer, you kinda get involved in the start-up world a lot, so I was actually with my partner, Joe, we were invited into a venture capitalist firm’s designer program. They actually had the idea that designers can make amazing founders of start-ups, so they did a little camp which they invited us to, to work on Scouted, and in the process we did a lot of user testing and a lot of feedback from a lot of different investors and found that everyone wants to use native apps right now, and all that really matters is being able to use this product on the go, so we’re just making the same product a lot easier for people to use while they’re actually on foot traveling around the city that they want these recommendations in.
Gary:
OK, so that was, I guess too also, when did you meet with these investors?
Meg:
That was, I would say, last fall.
Gary:
OK, because that makes sense; just I can think of a lot of the phone features that you can’t access through the web yet, like the camera: with a GPS you can. I think a lot of the native features would really actually help your app.
Meg:
Exactly.
Gary:
That it’s easier to access from the native app.
Meg:
Yeah, we’re trying not to just make another FourSquare or Yelp, so we’re working on ways to make it’s own, unique, special thing.
Gary:
So that’s really exciting.
Meg:
Yeah, definitely.
Gary:
Excited about that. So, how…your education. How did your education help you get to Scouted? How did it help you make that?
Meg:
That’s a great question! A few different ways. I think I ended up taking one class that was really, really beneficial for me and in the class, I had a professor that was a freelancer and she was just an adjunct faculty member at Colombia College and she just taught me everything I was finally waiting to learn. So, she taught me how to design websites and what all of the career paths were for me and all of my options as I left school and I think that was actually the last class that I took, so she kind of taught me everything I needed to know about basically web design and UI design, which allowed me to be able to design an actual product and then also, I think you in your class, you did an amazing job of informing us about who other young, working designers were, so I had this community of people that I looked up to and that I knew and that I loved their work and so that’s when I ended up joining Twitter and interacting with them online and really getting to know them and through that community, which is what led me to start Scouted, I actually made my best friends and today I work alongside of them and it’s really amazing, so I think a combination of just being aware of the design industry, with actual technical skill, is what led me to start Scouted.
Gary:
A more boring question. What were some of those technical skills that you did get or that you didn’t get that you would like to see?
Meg:
Oh, that’s a good question. So, I had this, as I mentioned, I had this one class where it was essentially just a web design class. Rather than just graphic design with conceptual thinking and with web development where you’re following strict rules, web design was something interesting for me because you kind of have a mix of the two, so you are able to think conceptually but also you have to fall in the realm of common patterns so that your users aren’t confused, so I kind of was getting that exact blend of what I was looking for this whole time in that one class and it was really great for me.
Gary:
But let’s even break it down even further, like in HTML, CSS, or do you need to learn to make mock-ups with InVision and Sketch? Drill it down to that nuts and bolts level.
Meg:
So, in that class, all I learned was essentially just designing in Photoshop what a website looks like and in all my other web development classes that I had taken through the Inter Disciplinary major, I knew how to code a website and I knew really advanced back-end development stuff as well, but that wasn’t really going to be useful for me: all I needed to know was HTML and CSS, combined with being able to design a website and today, luckily I know how to code but I don’t like solving problems that much with code so I don’t actually do any development any more; I’m happy to say, but at least I know how to do it and it’s been very valuable for me to be able to communicate with developers and know what is and isn’t do-able, and it’s really also very helpful for me when I’m designing interactions and animations.
Gary:
All right, so…I’m kind of fascinated a little bit with, this is a personal thing, with mock-ups because I guess as an educator, I’m wrestling with…I’ve got one class to teach web design and UI, UX out of the curriculum. Others may have two. So, I’m struggling with what is the most useful to do in those one or two classes; so I sit there and say, my personal take is, no, I’m going to make them learn HTML and CSS; they can build rudimentary things and that’ll get them over the learning hump, the intimidation of HTML and CSS.
Meg:
Exactly.
Gary:
Where I’m like, well, you know, they are going to be working with developers; they’re not going to, unless they’re…they’re not going to be working in this solo…this silo, this vacuum, so maybe just doing, spending tons of times making them perfect the mock-up craft would be a better approach. Do you have a suggestion either way?
Meg:
I do. I think learning HTML and CSS is a must, still, because it helps you build empathy for a developer. Designers and developers have the sort of constant battle where a developer just wants their job to be as easy as possible and the designer just wants everything to be as exciting-looking and fancy as possible. And it’s really important for me that I know how to code, just because I do have empathy for the developer and every design decision I make, I think about what the developer’s going to have to go through to code that piece that I just designed, so I think at least knowing how complicated web development is, is so important for a designer to just be aware and conscious of that, to actually build that empathy for their poor developer. And then I think that the majority of the rest of the time can be spent just purely working on mock-ups and design.
Gary:
OK. Let me see, where is the…oh, so let’s lead that into…so you’re teaching interaction design at the new School. So, what are you teaching. Yeah, let’s start off there: we’ll start off, what are you teaching?
Meg:
All right, yes. So, I teach an Introduction to Interaction course to sophomores. It’s an introductory course; it’s actually their first semester as a design major so they know nothing about design when I’m teaching them and the course is actually divided up into two sections; so, half of the course is the studio, which is the design portion, and half of the course is the lab portion, which is purely learning how to code. So, I teach the studio portion which is two days a week with a partner who teaches the lab portion one day a week and so we try to blend our curriculum together a little bit, just to make it easier on the students, but we’re not required to and so the class is three days a week and it’s really, really amazing and I’m having so much fun teaching.
Gary:
But what are some of the projects you do in that?
Meg:
So, we teach them everything from essentially just what a website is to all the way at the end of the semester they design and code a fully responsive either website, app or installation piece so they learn so much by the end of the semester, it’s incredible and I just can’t believe how far they always come over the course of the semester.
Gary:
So, this is the first time…so this is their first semester, their sophomore year; I don’t know Parsons’ curriculum that well but I think they’re pretty standard, they have a foundations…
Meg:
Exactly.
Gary:
Is it specific to graphic design or is it universal?
Meg:
No, so their foundations program is essentially just for Parsons, which is generally an entire design school, but it’s all kinds of design and mostly as most people probably know, Parsons focuses on fashion, so this graphic design program is actually the only other design program that they have, so their freshman year, they are trying out a bunch of different courses in design, whether it’s fashion design, graphic design or whatnot and then they declare major at the end of their freshman year. So, the sophomore year, the first semester is when I have them, they have just declared their major and the fashion program as you can imagine, is so, so competitive that a lot of these students weren’t able to get into the fashion program, so on the first day of class, I ask them what they want to do and they don’t know because they just ended up in this major and so it’s my responsibility to make them love interaction design by the end of the semester.
Gary:
Yes, part being an educator is being part cheerleader.
Meg:
Exactly!
Gary:
So, the reason I asked that is, at the end of that semester, they’re building a fully responsive website. So, even though they’re getting three days a week of instruction, that’s still not a lot because now you’re also having to teach design fundamentals like typography and layout and do you find that challenging or do you kind of like sacrifice one thing for another?
Meg:
It sure is I’m under the assumption that they get design education pretty well throughout the next few semesters of their life so I am really focusing on making sure that their websites and their apps are usable because I know they’re going to get a heck of a lot of design education and nobody’s really going to be forcing usability on them throughout their education, so I honestly don’t expect too much from them out of design because, you know, they’re new designers, they’re still learning. But I really force that usability down their throats and make sure that they really understand how apps are supposed to work and what conventions are like.
Gary:
So, also I’m going to ask another education-related question and it has to do with skill-share. So, you have some classes on Skillshare.
Meg:
I do.
Gary:
How…you’re far enough removed from being a student that you actually know what the industry is like but you’re close enough that you can kinda like still connect the dots, so how do you see online, the skill-share, Code Academy, Treehouse; I could mention a couple hundred. Would you have liked to have had those more or do resent the fact that you, well no, I’m paying this institution, why are you…I shouldn’t be augmenting.
Meg: Exactly.
That’s a very good question and it’s something I think about a lot. When I tell people that I went to school for web development, they usually laugh at me because they say, why would anyone go to school for web development? You can just pay a small monthly fee on Treehouse and learn that there and that wasn’t available when I was in school, otherwise I would’ve totally done it. But I am also a true believer of the fact that everything I’ve done has led me up to where I am today and I definitely wouldn’t change anything about my education at all, personally. So there’s that constant push and pull. I think design education in institutions is really important because I get to give a hands-on lesson to my students twice a week and it’s really valuable for them to actually know me and I make myself useable to them in the future: at all costs I make sure that they’re well taken care of as they get out into the world, and that’s just not something that you can get on these websites like Skillshare, Code Academy and Treehouse but at the same time, if you’re an adult and you want to become a web designer and you’re too far away to go back to school, then these places are great for you if you’re on a budget especially, and they can be really beneficial, but you’re never going to get that hands-on learning that you would from traditional teaching.
Gary:
So, with the…let me see, let me collect my thoughts. So, OK, you’ve got the experience, you’ve been through the school, you’re now actually teaching. What is one thing that you don’t see being covered that should be covered by design programs?
Meg:
Yeah, it’s a hundred per cent how you should behave in a professional design world. Yeah, I often hire a lot of interns as well and I have this problem when I’m hiring interns, just as I make sure to teach my students, just presenting yourself online, having a beautiful portfolio, these students take portfolio classes which is great and they leave with a portfolio but it’s a portfolio that looks like a student’s portfolio, so I do my hardest to make sure that I teach my students what to do and what not to do when creating your portfolios so just being yourself online is really important to me and these students kind of leave the world all looking the same and making sure that their résumé is at the forefront of their website which is something I always teach my students not to do, a lot of times on their websites they’ll say, hey, I’m a student at this school or I just graduated and that on top of having their résumé on their portfolio just screams that they don’t a hundred per cent know what they’re doing, or that they’re a new designer, an amateur designer, which is not good, because they’re not going to get as good job offers, their salary won’t be as high, so I teach my students, just as I did when I was fresh out of school, to just fake it; make it look like you’re a professional, like you’ve been doing this for a long time. Make your school projects look like actual real projects.
Meg:
I got hired for many jobs right out of school because I redesigned the Yale Institute of Art website which I did for a class project but it looked so real on my portfolio that no one ever questioned it, and I never lied about it, but it was on my portfolio and it looked really impressive so that’s always what I’m trying to teach my students is to craft themselves and look like you’re an actual working professional by the time that you leave school and it’s going to really help them.
Gary:
Wouldn’t that though come back to the educators and the projects they’re assigning? If I’m assigning a project that looks fake, that’s a problem!
Meg:
Yeah, yeah, definitely.
Gary:
I shouldn’t…I understand early on in freshman and your sophomore year yes, there’s going to be exercises that you need to learn those exercises, but come that sophomore, especially your junior and senior year, your projects should no longer be student exercises, but students executing projects as students. Real world projects for students. So I think that would actually kind of solve that problem right there.
Meg:
Exactly. Yeah, and I think a lot of people, I still have this problem today with my own work is that you spend so long working on a project that by the time you’re finished, you’re like, oh thank God that’s over; I’ll move onto the next thing, and you don’t take the time to actually craft a beautiful piece on your portfolio based on that design, so a lot of times people just throw up that project online and they don’t take the time to really, maybe to please print it out and photograph it is it looks like it’s real and really going above and beyond to make sure that the presentation of that piece on your portfolio is executed beautifully and so I think that that will really benefit students and if we could work in some sort of a way to get them to photograph projects for their portfolios and curriculum, that would be absolutely spectacular.
Gary:
Yeah, I do a terrible job of that! Therefore, because I do a bad job of it, everybody else does too.
Meg:
Exactly. Me too!
Gary:
We don’t. I just generally have never spent a ton of time preparing the presentation of the work and actually I’m also the Education Director for AIGA Baltimore and we just h ad a portfolio review and…well not just: it was back in April, but after seeing that two years in a row now, I said come the fall, we need to do a portfolio preparation workshop because I spent more time critiquing the presentation of their work than the work itself and I was like, this is a huge problem, so I’m glad somebody else got confirmation on that.
Meg:
Yeah!
Gary:
So we’re getting close on time, so there’s one other thing that I wanted to talk to you about and I hesitate to call it a trend, because I think it’s actually just what’s going to be the new working model and that’s your design collective, Ghostly Ferns. Can you talk to everybody, I’d like to have you describe what it is.
Meg:
OK, so Ghostly Ferns is a group of freelancers and we are all independent freelancers, we work on projects together all the time for clients but then we also work as individual freelancers one at a time for clients as well, so we get to stay freelancers just how we like it, but we also have this beautiful community that we call ourselves Ghostly Ferns and so it’s sort of like a collective and sort of like a design agency; we’re doing something new and it’s really hard for us to explain it to people now, but our goal is to educate people about what we’re doing and hopefully this will become the norm for design agencies or design studios in the future.
Gary:
Well I think it is because if you just follow all the people in the web industry, they’re scattered; they’re living in Wisconsin; they’re living in Pittsburgh; they’re living in New York; they’re living everywhere and they’re doing…you’ve actually have a space that you guys can go to.
Meg:
Exactly.
Gary:
But I see the other model but it’s the same type of, these virtual teams; they’re one person, whoever lands the contract ends up being the project manager if you will and then they remotely will be working with a group of freelancers that they’re familiar and working with…familiar working with, and then if one of them’s too busy then they just go to the next person in their contact list.
Meg:
Exactly.
Gary:
So, here this leads to one more question then. So, this, I believe, is how firms are going to look in the future, whether it’s a firm or whether it’s just an individual kind of coming across as a firm because of their branching together. How do you…where do you learn to work in teams? Where did you learn to work like that and is that something that design education better be getting involved in and figuring out this working model?
Meg:
I’m actually very glad that you asked this because it’s all about the power, I think, of making friends in the design industry and on the last day of each semester, I sit down with my students and I say, if there’s anything I’ve taught you or any of the guest speakers that I’ve brought in this whole semester, that you should take away it’s just how important it is to be friendly and to make friends in the design community because you’ll never know what will come of it and just being friendly and making all of these amazing friends in this industry is exactly what Ghostly Ferns formed from. So, we all started working together in a shared studio space called Studio Mates and we were all just independent freelancers working on our own stuff and we would kind of collaborate with one another on projects, basically just because we were in the room with each other and we knew that we were all really hard working and very talented, so we would kind of work together sometimes and then eventually we said, let’s make this official and work together almost exclusively as often as possible. And one person at a time just kind of joined our group and then eventually we moved into our own space and now we have this beautiful space together where we work alongside of each other every day. So it’s really all about just being friends with people and putting yourself out there and asking other designers to collaborate with you when possible.
Gary:
Great. So that’s…so that came about, I like that; that this came about organically because of being in the room with so many other designers. Well not just designers, but, I’m not going to use the word creatives, but just different skillsets. Being in a room with people that have so many different skillsets, you just naturally said these skillsets will work together; let’s do something with that.
Meg:
Exactly. Because I do a lot of brand design and often I need a hand-lettered logo for a project and I can’t draw anything with my hands so we have a hand-lettering artist on our team and she’s absolutely amazing, so that comes in handy on a lot of projects and I often work alongside of an illustrator too on our team for start-up websites that need friendly illustration, so it really is very powerful and it’s really helpful to admit the things that you’re not good at so that you can actually partner with people who are expects at that skill.
Gary:
This is going to maybe seem a little bit…I don’t know why I just thought of this right now, but I’m going to ask you what you think. So, if you’re into the history of design and you study it, you go back to before computers, there was somebody doing the stripper, who is doing the paste-ups; there was compositing of type, there was just all these different people specializing that all kind of had to come together. Then when the computer comes around, you kind of see the industry kind of contract and a designer’s expected to do more and more and you start seeing like this specialization kind of go away, but it seems to me now that just after listening to that, that that specialization is coming back.
Meg:
I sure hope so. I think a lot of designers have a hard time admitting that they’re not good at something because when a client hires them and they say hey, do these illustrations, you go oh, OK, I guess I’ll figure out how to be an illustrator now. I think it’s really great to admit when you’re not so good at something and offer that up to someone who is amazing at it. And then it’s just going to make an even better result.
Gary:
Yes. All right well you’ve been really super-generous with your time, so I appreciate that, but before I let you go, is there anything that you are working on that you would like to share, promote or maybe a final piece of advise you’d like to give design educators?
Meg:
Yeah, I think just especially for educators, just teach your students to not be competitive with one another and just embrace all of their other design friends and be friendly with the industry and go out and consciously meet everybody and smile at people and hug people and just get to know your other designers in the industry. I think it’s completely changed my life by just getting to know these other designers and I’m sure it will have a positive impact on any students out there as well.
Gary:
That’s faculty, but that’s also for students too, that they don’t necessarily like to go do that kind of stuff.
Meg:
Exactly. It’s scary to put yourself out there.
Gary:
Right, well do you have any suggestions to them, to the students on that one? I’m being selfish here: I need that!
Meg:
Yeah, I think if there’s someone out there that you admire that is clearly a friendly person, just say hi to them and try to get to know them; don’t be creepy about it but do your best to just be a friendly person and you will be rewarded well.
Gary:
Yeah, I mean for every one person in the design industry that’s a jerk, there’s about a thousand behind that person who are super-genuine and want to help.
Meg:
Especially coming from the fashion industry where the numbers are the exact opposite; the design and the creative industry is just so delightful.
Gary:
Well great. That’s all that we have time for today on Episode 6 of Design Edu Today. I want to thank today’s guest, Meg Lewis, for being so generous with her time. I want to thank the audience for listening and the Design Edu Today web hosting sponsor, Digital Ocean, for making the hosting and distribution of these podcasts possible. I also want to thank the AIGA and the AIGA Design Educators’ Community for their generous support of my research that led to this podcast series.

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