Visually Telling Your Own Story with Laughter
Updated: Sep 24, 2022
From window displays, to the comedy stage—her gestures, facial expressions and her natural theatrical personality can give a room what it needs most. No doubt anywhere Amy Meadows chooses to set her stage, you can bet it will be a space meant to be enjoyed. I once saw a comedy skit of hers in a local open mic night in Chicago, and immediately saw how comfortable she is in the presence of strangers. She knows how to blend her knowledge and experience with a physical presence to provide a visual image for the optics. After teaching in academia for almost 30 years, Amy is typically the one person in our school meetings who will speak up about challenges in the classroom, and how she overcomes them simply by being a constant learner herself. What inspires me about Amy is that her humble approach to teaching is to literally be on the other side of the classroom so that she can observe, and understand how to respect someone's valuable time and money. This is especially evident with the rising costs of higher education, and at a place like Columbia College where we both teach. Amy and I meet over Zoom to discuss our new normal in teaching, her theater education and how she believes that inspiration is everywhere.
How do you describe your role as a teacher, and how did you get into it?
Teaching is great because the students bring knowledge to me in the classroom about many different things. New advancements in technology or even topics pertaining to class, which I value because they are experiencing the retail world and following trends on social media that I would never have known about. So it's as if I do this really aggressive ease-dropping with them (as she gestures with her hands and face for her ears and eyes to be wide open). I can't just follow the CEO's at these big retailers who are making the decisions because most of them are 50 year-old-men. The students are the key to new trends.
I got a call one day from Columbia College Chicago to be the first visual merchandising teacher in the fashion program, and I thought hey why not? The job appealed to me because my job was developing and nurturing talent and teaching, and I really enjoy demonstrating, or critiquing but hated managing people. I love collaboration and enhancing all of those things that can happen in a creative workplace as well as a classroom. Things that challenge me are instructional design, because I am not trained in academia, rather my creativity sparks for the sake of sales. I use #inspirationiseverywhere in my social channels because I really believe it is everywhere, especially when you get to work on many things as I do. I think it is also all about engagement and the experiential moment, that this space you are in, is the design and that is true creative problem solving.
I am now learning how to prepare for our new normal in delivering content and learning expectations in technology. I just finished taking a class and it had to take place over Zoom which wasn't the most ideal place, but I learned a great deal about teaching a class using technology. I can tell that if the teacher is not prepared or spending time on technical stuff, then they are not focused on us—thus wasting my time and money. As a parent of kids who just graduated, I am sensitive around the idea of getting what they paid for. When I look at what I have to deal with in online instruction, it is a challenge to think about how the fall will go. I saw my students for seven weeks, and we were on a certain path and that path exploded and we had to figure out how to balance.
"It's about the crowd work and the thing that is still difficult but is essential is to allow silence, and be comfortable with it so that they can either get the joke, laugh or just not miss what you said. So silence is important so that they can think. If you are are too focused on other things, you miss all of that."
You went to school for theater at Northwestern University with classmates like Julia Louis Dreyfus..amazing! Love her. Can you talk about what that type of education does for you as a human, or even the way you tell your story surrounded by people and laughter? How does that translate to your work or the classroom?
I remember people used to ask, "Are your parents upset with this decision?" or "What are you going to do when you get out of college?" We are actually using our theater education in all aspects of life and work. Public speaking, teaching and comedy all share the critical need of the ability to read the room. You need to not get strapped behind that podium, and rather you should wander and pay attention. I have students who are so distracted that if I am able to look at them, and see that they might have a question or look puzzled, I will be aware of that. It is about the crowd work and the thing that is still difficult but is essential is to allow silence, and be comfortable with it so that they can either get the joke, laugh or just not miss what you said. So silence is important so that they can think. If you are are too focused on other things, you miss all of that.
I had gone to Northwestern planning to be on stage but found out quickly that I sucked, and that I was the worst! I was punching above my weight, but what they did to keep the acting students humble and grounded was to assign us on crews to work on other aspects of the industry. I thought that this was more my jam, to do the lighting and other behind the scenes things, and rather enjoyed more of that technical stuff. This is how I was able to transfer into visual merchandising so easily while taking important skills away from the acting part.
Can you talk about the emotional element of teaching that you attach to?
Emotional is important because whether its theater, retail, entertainment, or window displays, you are looking for that connection, and that storytelling aspect. You want to make sure that you are having fun, that you like where you are, and that you can analyze it from all those different data aspects. I fell in love with windows because I fell in love with a window display. I said to myself, I WANT TO DO THAT. It's something about the passion in certain courses that gets it moving, even in something you may think of as non-emotional like an Introduction to the Fashion Industry course. There could be a lot of emotion in that course because we are dealing with ethical and climate issues, which people feel strongly about. That particular connection to what they believe is what will drive their actions in class and beyond. Yes, we are going to see a difference in the way patterns are sourced for instance, but emotionally, designers have to feel who they are designing for, how they are selling it, and how you can stand behind all of that. I have had students stand up with one step shy of holding up a Greenpeace sign with the emotional response to what the standard needs to be in the fashion industry.
Think about when you get dressed. How do you feel, and do you feel proud when you say where you got it, and are you ok with that? It may just be where you are in life, but there is that emotion you feel when you talk about the choices you make when purchasing clothing—your choice might be a luxury or it might not be. Emotion is now showing up in masks. Those masks are billboards, and communicates something whether it is medical, high fashion, or with sayings across them. Who would ever thought that a year ago?
What is your role like as an independent consultant?
I consider the type of consulting I do as instruction—I work with distressed businesses and help them figure out how to work out issues on their own. I am not looking to run around Chicago dressing windows, rather I want to work with people and what they already have. I was working with someone from Arkansas, and one woman was shocked to see that I wasn't trying to sell them something. What they pay me to do is role play, such as if I was their customer, I can provide an objective about what I see as the customer and provide some different ways to help their business. I remind people that we are not going to do what you might see in the TV shows where you are crying after not recognizing a place. If you don't recognize your place after I am finished, then I have screwed up because it is only my job to help the space become the best version of itself. I'm the type of consultant that figures out the problem, then works together with the client. You want to invite the customer in, tell a story, and not to wander around or even tell them a specific path to go. Everything has changed now though. I not only have to change the way I'm teaching, I have to change the way I am consulting, and it's different every single day. It has been a challenge right now, because I have kind of stayed out of the way until some of these larger businesses gain the time and resources to want my services. So I am just sitting back and learning and listening as much as I can. I was on a Webinar on the future of a downtown—specifically the Chicago Loop and identifying the things that work really well in our favor, such as moderate and off-price retailers, a mix of residents, and tourists who will be back at some level. One guy on the webinar said that e-commerce cannot run your business because it is a margin buster, and it's actually cheaper for a retailer to establish a presence where they can be discovered physically vs. just digital advertising. The independent bookstores are now thriving. Think about Amazon who is actually opening up physical stores. The players are changing, and the priorities are changing along with it.
As an independent consultant, Amy helps businesses explore and leverage tools to attract customers and drive sales. From her website:
As a DESIGNER, Amy uses her background in theatrical Set Design to bring a sense of whimsy and drama to her installations, maximize visual stimulation and develop cost-saving display strategies.
As a CONSULTANT, she creates best practices, methodologies and practical strategies for a wide range of visual initiatives and outcomes. Those might include pop-up stores/galleries, special events, re-branding—even boutique “boot camps”.
As an EDUCATOR, Amy has created course content to inform and inspire the next generation of designers with emphasis on relevance in a changing retail landscape.
As a PUBLIC SPEAKER, she conducts seminars specializing in time and cost-effective display solutions for independent retailers and business districts. Play to your strengths, reach your customers! With over 25 years in Window Display, Visual Merchandising and Event Planning, Amy and her Windows Matter team are ready to help you to EDUCATE, ENTICE and ENGAGE your customers.
You can learn more about Amy's work by visiting her website, Windows Matter.