Sarah is the Creative Director at Pilot PMR, a strategy and design agency in Toronto.
What is your morning routine?
I wake up at 6:10 and drink a huge glass of water.
I do twenty minutes of yoga followed by ten minutes of meditation. If my son wakes up early, I meditate while he runs around me, singing at the top of his lungs. Total mindfulness unlocked.
If my kids are still asleep, I check my email and try to write one note I’ve been meaning to get around to – super dorky but it makes me feel productive to have signed up for a class or paid a bill before 7 AM. The day is already a success!
If my son is up and jumping on my head, I make him three breakfasts, watch as he refuses to eat any of them, and then scramble to get us ready and out the door. This often entails braiding and unbraiding my daughter’s hair 36 times and making four lunches and snacks (some of which include sandwiches with the crust cut off, which we all know is a crime against humanity).
Luckily, my bike ride to work is 7 km, and it’s a lovely opportunity to just take some deep breaths and get ready for the workday. It’s my personal challenge to try to bike every day of the year, snow or shine, and last year I only missed two days. It’s very fun to come into work in head-to-toe rain gear and peel it all off to reveal a jumpsuit underneath. I cannot recommend this dramatic flourish enough.
Tell us about your career path
I’m currently creative director of a 15-person strategy and design agency, Pilot PMR, but my path was anything but linear.
I worked as a journalist/illustrator/artist person for a dozen years, mostly freelance, before finding my way here. I was an editorial cartoonist for the Vancouver Sun and Ottawa Citizen. I wrote strange quizzes for Elle Magazine (what’s your Fall style?). I founded the city blog, Torontoist.com. I wrote an episode of a kids cartoon. I directed a few films. I wrote a book about not shopping. I make charts about slow fashion and saving the planet. I did a yearlong fellowship at the University of Toronto to study behavioural science and environmental sustainability.
I spent most of my twenties trying different things. After years of freelance work as a designer/illustrator/strategist/artist, I realized I wanted to take on larger projects, but wasn’t comfortable starting my own company. I was looking for a creative agency that made thoughtful, meaningful work for good clients. I met a really cool person (my current boss, David Doze) whose agency ideals were totally aligned with mine. I’ve been at Pilot for two point five years now, and I love the variety and scale of the work. I also really love having colleagues that aren’t plants. It was getting really bad. I was talking to my plants. A lot.
The throughline in all of my work is visual storytelling, whether it’s chronicling a Rob Ford speech or designing the new brand for Toronto Public Library’s Kids Spaces. Over the past few years, I’ve made behavioural design a huge part of my practice, with my personal goal being to use economics and psychology to create work that changes minds and behaviours when it comes to environmental activism.
I run the Toronto chapter of the Action Design network, where I organize free meetups for designers, academics, marketers, anyone to come learn about applying behavioural design to change the world. You should come!
What challenges do you or women face in your industry?
People respond to people who look and sound like them. In my behavioural science work I read a lot about this. White men in nice suits respond to white men in nice suits. Or at least more than they do to weird, arty ladies with frazzly hair and chipped green nail polish. I try to come at this fact with measured calm and work to make my idea resonate without compromising who I am. It’s frustrating to think that someone else can pitch my work and get a better response than I can on occasion, but this is a much larger systemic challenge; I do what I can to make sure I am speaking up, and that my female designers are getting a chance to speak up. It’s certainly not Mad Men around here, but there are really subtle biases that pervade, and I’m constantly trying to figure out how to confound them.
Years ago I wrote a visual essay called Womentorship about the women who have helped me, and how I want to help other women, not just in the workplace but in general.
What advice would you give to young girls who want to be the NEXT you?
I’ve often wished that I had a well-trodden path to follow, where career goals were clearly delineated and success more easily identifiable. If you like a field that has a path, I would say go that way…it’s easier. I know that sounds deeply uncreative and uninspiring but you can still be super creative on the edges of a path.
I think ‘Do What You Love And The Rest Will Follow‘ is the shittiest advice of all time. I didn’t get here by doing what I love. And I was always doing work that I did not love (writing business blog posts, taking any assignment) to subsidize the things I did love, but people never see that stuff. I feel really fortunate to have found a career that unites all my passions, but I feel that it was the result of luck and a crapload of hard, tedious, meandering work. And ultimately I think that’s the equation. TEDIUM + HARD WORK + FORTUITY + GOOD SANDWICHES = SUCCESS.
I also think I’ve gotten where I am by never doing anything in a conventional way. Not being different for the sake of different, mostly by being bored doing things the rote way, and by being a little bit nuts. So if you can stand on your head and make everyone stand on their head, too, I think you’ll get where you want to go. You will also get a headrush.
Finally, I think one of the most important things is to not self-deprecate. It took me years to get the subtle self-diminution out of my system. Be confident! Your ideas are just as awesome if not more awesome as the man next to you, who probably isn’t apologizing for his work. Sorry!
How do you separate work life from your personal life?
Physically, biking back and forth does really keep my worlds separate – I never find myself in my work neighbourhood on the weekends. That is a nice thing.
What inspires you?
David Byrne, jumpsuits, Balkan music, the Women’s March, young people caring about stuff, my kids’ 20 year-old babysitter, Freya, who is just confident and smart and awesome, the DAPL protesters, DACA protests, environmental hope, Jode Roberts of the David Suzuki Foundation, Lady Bird Johnson, teal, mint green, my sisters, my kiddos and the zany stuff they say/think/do, my husband, the Toronto Tool Library, my grandmothers, all the women who have given me advice and love over the years, Michelle Obama, Fran Lebowitz, Pinterest fails, Patagonia, Tversky and Kahneman, Hadiya Roderique.
When you’re off the clock, what are your indulgences?
It’s only lately that I’ve realized that I have tons of indulgences that I just pretend aren’t indulgences. I’m fond of saying, ‘cookies aren’t that bad for you.’ And I guess I actually believe that. If you can mostly be chill about the things you love and not crush them to death with your consuming passion. The only things I can’t do that with are dance parties and Hawkins’ cheezies and Oreo thins. I can go hard on those.