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Female Disruptors: Liz Yam of Keithcity Group On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

There’s a chapter in Michael Bierut’s 79 Short Essays on Design where he retells a story of Massimo Vignelli when he had a client that kept rejecting a design because the typeface “wasn’t French enough.” At their next meeting, Vignelli presented the same type choice, but said the name of the font with a French accent. After that, the client loved it. This anecdote has always stuck with me, reminding me that design is subjective. Oftentimes, it’s more about intuition or presentation than a design at face value.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Liz Yam.

Liz began her career art directing for clients from several industries, including fashion, music, and SaaS companies. Before joining Keithcity Group, she spent several years at Peter Arnell Agency as the Head of Digital Products. Currently, as Head of Strategy at Keithcity Group, Liz focuses on strategic ideation, content development, copywriting, project management, and art direction. She holds a BFA in Communication Design from Pratt Institute.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve always been creative and artistic. When I was younger, I wanted to be a fashion designer because I enjoyed the idea of being able to transcend someone’s mood with apparel. During high school I would travel to NYC to attend FIT’s Saturday Live and Summer programs where I took classes in fashion sketching, draping, pattern making, etc for a few years. But being surrounded by the elitist culture of fashion turned me off from the field. Around the same time, I had a moment of clarity where I realized what graphic design was. It was something I never knew the term for — I think because, growing up, I didn’t have exposure to things like museums or other cultural touchstones. That is largely due to my parents being immigrants, constantly working to give us a better life. “Graphic design” as a term, let alone as a potential profession, was simply not a part of my vocabulary. But then, when I realized it was something that surrounded me my entire life, I wanted to be a part of creating it. I love that it is simply a visual exercise in problem solving. To me, good graphic design is effortless; it’s just there.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Over the past several years, when I attended board meetings, I was often the youngest person in the room, the only female, and the only person of color. My presence alone disrupted the norm.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Not funny, but more so embarrassing: I cried during my first job offer because I was told by my boss that my salary would be a certain amount, but when I met with HR, my offer letter was for far less. I took it as a personal jab to my livelihood. The HR person told me it was an honest mistake and soon fixed it. I learned that in some environments, there are A LOT of politics involved.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

My biggest designer mentor was one of my professors at Pratt, Frank DeRose. He was known to be a super tough professor — either you’d crack under pressure in his class or you’d let that drive you. He pushed me to approach problems differently and that really opened up my creative mind. I ended up interning with him at his graphic design studio, Zut Alors!, for a bit.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I think even well-established brands can benefit from shaking up their repertoire. I remember vividly when Louis Vuitton launched a collab with Stephen Sprouse. An iconic fashion house had adorned neon graffiti on its handbags at a time when streetart wasn’t widespread. The collection was disruptive to Louis Vuitton’s style and within the industry as a whole. It was bought by people who likely never had an affinity for graffiti, which helped normalize street art in addition to paving the way for more artistic LV collabs (like Rei Kawakubo’s “Bag with Holes”). This is a great example of a disruption done well that maintained the brand’s classic identity while offering a well-received fresh perspective.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

There’s a chapter in Michael Bierut’s 79 Short Essays on Design where he retells a story of Massimo Vignelli when he had a client that kept rejecting a design because the typeface “wasn’t French enough.” At their next meeting, Vignelli presented the same type choice, but said the name of the font with a French accent. After that, the client loved it. This anecdote has always stuck with me, reminding me that design is subjective. Oftentimes, it’s more about intuition or presentation than a design at face value.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I don’t see a limit to the mediums to which I can apply my skills. I hope to work within tech, interior design, film, and fashion to some capacity in the future.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

It’s great to have so many opportunities for self-expression but it feels like choices in appearance are often looked at under a microscope. For example, your nail color, shape, and length can be scrutinized: If you’re due for a manicure, your neatness is questioned. If you’re too bold, your professionalism is questioned. If you’re freshly polished, your work ethic is questioned. Breaking through perceptions like these is the first hurdle before you’re even on a level playing field with your male counterparts.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Tibor Kalman’s Perverse Optimist opened my eyes to a new way of thinking, while Stefan Sagmeister’s Made You Look opened my eyes to a new way of seeing.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

As an agency leader, I find it important to create a comfortable and positive workplace culture where people can work autonomously, but understand when working as a team to utilize other people’s complementary skill sets is needed. Maintaining my team’s wellbeing means that sometimes, if I notice that somebody is a little “off,” I try to ask questions to understand or help. If workplaces operate with more empathy, it makes for a happier team, which, in turn, produces better projects.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My mom always reminded me, “Hard work pays off.” And it has.

How can our readers follow you online?

@liz_yam

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.

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