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Gabby Lord / Independent Designer and Art Director
AGDA was lucky enough to chat with the Berlin-based independent designer, art director, and writer Gabby Lord this month. We spoke at 8 am Berlin time, bright and early, about perceptions of success and failure, the importance of becoming an active part of your local design community, the differences between the design community in Germany (specifically Berlin) and Australia, existential anxiety, and her direction for the future.
Gabby Lord studied at Billy Blue (2010-2012), and Billy Blue runs the BB Hatch internship program that they organise with a bunch of local studios. Students need to apply for positions, and if successful, interview for those positions, and then over the summer break they’ll work there, picking up course credit for the following year. Gabby was successful in getting an internship with The Distillery Letterpress & Design, starting in October 2011.
“I was there for maybe four months all up but then I went back to full-time study. In Europe, it’s the same [internships being built into university courses]. There have been interns at the studios I’ve worked at, but it’s always paid and part of their course,” says Gabby.
Gabby also won a two-week scholarship with the world-famous Fabrica in Treviso, Italy. This experience was one of the most challenging of her young career. It wasn’t a complete loss, though; Gabby shared her tale (see here for the full, harrowing story of personal growth and mental toughness) while getting to experience the famous — at least within AGDA circles — feeling of emancipation that comes with presenting at Shot down, in March 2016.
“Fabrica was a story I had been wanting to tell for a really long time. Close friends obviously knew what happened, but the internet is a misleading place. It’s easy to see the highlights of someone else’s experiences, but the reality was very different,” explains Gabby.
“I’m often conflicted by this: on one hand I really enjoy curated content, but there are so many young designers and young people in general who are looking at this stuff and are not fully aware of how much effort or retouching has gone into it.”
After the debacle at Fabrica, you may wonder what possessed Gabby (apart from a large dose of courage) to go back to Europe, into the lion’s den. And why Berlin?
“It was a very organic series of events, really. My first job out of Uni was at Houston Group in Sydney, and the senior designer there was Maggie Tang, who quickly became a mentor and very good friend of mine. When I won the trip to Italy, it was a no-brainer to visit her as well,” recalls Gabby.
“During that week I met a lot of creative people in Berlin — really, just hanging out with Maggie’s friends who also happened to work in the industry. Lots of these people were expats and that’s when it kind of hit me: I realised that I didn’t need Fabrica to live abroad. I could do this.”
“I went back to Sydney, quit my job and about a year later I moved overseas. It felt natural to start in Berlin, not necessarily to stay, but once I booked the flight and started telling people I was coming, I ended up having a job [in Berlin] a week before I left Australia.”
Both still in Berlin, Maggie and Gabby are collaborating again. “I’m freelancing with her right now actually. She’s Head of Brand Design at Ableton so we still work together a lot, which is really nice. I’ve been lucky to work at some great places in Berlin, and even more importantly with some great people. Not just at Ableton and A Color Bright, but also smaller, independent jobs and collaborations. My friend Zoë Noble is an excellent photographer, for example, and we skill-swap rather than exchange payment. She shoots for me, I design for her, and it’s great having a supportive network of people who value and believe in what you do.”
“I’d say the design industry is quite small, especially the expat community within it. All the studios I’ve worked at are very much international, and the main language is English. The thing is, there are not only native-speaking expats who live here like me, there are people from loads of other countries where they learn English as a second language and not German.”
“It’s a very different kind of industry in Australia, I would say the designer is the hero, and you don’t see many programmers giving design talks, which I think is because the two disciplines aren’t as intertwined yet. Whereas here the programmers and developers almost always outweigh the designers, and they have a lot of say in the design and how things are built.”
“When I got to Berlin I was a bit like ‘oh god, what have I done?’ because I didn’t know what my next goal was. That was a good wake up call for me, to realise that I can’t always know my next step, and sometimes I have to ride out the decisions that I’ve made so far and see what life throws at me.”
“Berlin has affected me in a lot of ways, but probably the least in terms of design. I’ve definitely become a better designer while I’ve been here, but I think that would have happened no matter where I was, as long as I kept working. So while I’m definitely more competent, I would say that in other areas of my life I’ve had a lot more clarity, in terms of being away from family and that kind of thing, it puts a lot in perspective. Also, just navigating a new city with a foreign language, learning about other cultures, and realising how much I still don’t know about the world. I think that’s why there are all these very close-knit expat communities here, because you are all going through the same thing and all your experiences are so universal; it doesn’t matter if you’re from Australia, Belgium or Brazil, you have a lot of common ground. There are some really amazing people here in the wider creative community outside of design, like my flatmate who performs aerial silks and used to be in the circus. She’s always been a muse of mine in terms of moving overseas, pursuing unconventional paths and life in general really.”
“It takes time though, to settle in and find your people when you move somewhere. You can barely scratch the surface in the first year, and for each one I’m still here I feel like I’m unlocking a new part of the city. People made a really big deal about me moving overseas, and I guess it was, but I wonder if that’s purely based on distance. It didn’t really feel that different from when I moved to Sydney from Tamworth, because both times I was ready. Going somewhere and starting your life again can be scary, but it’s also a super exciting opportunity to completely reinvent yourself because no one knows who you are. You get to decide who you want to be, and I’ve always found that liberating. You certainly learn a lot about yourself in unknown and uncomfortable situations, but someone once told me anywhere can feel like home if you have enough people around you to reflect who you are back onto yourself. I think that’s so important to have people in your life that act as a mirror to show the strengths and qualities that make you, well, you.”