SOMETHING ELSE’s Lauren Gallagher on embracing the new and adapting to life’s unexpected hurdles
Lauren Gallagher is a Chicago-based designer and founder of SOMETHING ELSE, her full-service design studio. After several years of working in design and striving for more autonomy, Gallagher launched the practice in February 2020, which she runs from a shared studio space. Alongside a look at the past, Gallagher reflected with us on going solo at the dawn of the pandemic, finding the right working environment for her post-vaccine, and some of the insights she’s gained during these years.
PT Hi Lauren! How have you been?
LG I’ve been good! There’s nothing better than summer in Chicago.
PT Can you recall the moment you decided to launch your own practice? Was it sudden or something simmering over time?
LG I knew it was something I wanted to try at some point, but the timing of it actually happening was pretty sudden. My last job ended rather abruptly, so I spent the following six months freelancing for other small studios. After that, I knew I still wasn’t ready to return to full-time employment, so the alternative was to really commit and try working for myself.
It felt absurd to be anxious about graphic design.
PT Have you found there to be any steep learning curves?
LG For most people, self-employment can be an isolating experience that’s difficult to adjust to after working for a company. I started SOMETHING ELSE a month before the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, so for me, work stopped alongside everyone else. It felt absurd to be anxious about graphic design when I was worrying about the health and safety of my loved ones. There was also an unexpected feeling of solidarity with others trying to navigate their own career changes.
The biggest learning curve has actually been learning how to work for myself post-vaccination. Realising I work better in a shared space, as opposed to working alone in my apartment, was pretty huge. I started sharing a studio with a few friends earlier this year and it’s helped my productivity and overall mood a ton.
PT What advice or tips would you give to creatives considering co-working spaces?
LG Make a list of must-haves vs. nice-to-haves. Things like location and rent are important, but is running water or a meeting room also necessary? Ask the people you want to share a space with about their day-to-day routine. Are they going to be speaking in meetings all day, and would it bother you if they were?
Our studio space is a mix of freelancers and remote designers and developers. Going into it I was the only one who knew everyone, but I also knew everyone had similar ways of working and would probably get along. Something I think we lucked out on is having similar approaches to our jobs and the design industry itself. There’s a baseline level of respect and value for everyone. When I ask for feedback on a project, I know I’ll get an honest response, as opposed to at a company where a co-worker might only be responding in a way that benefits their own job. That honesty is probably the biggest benefit of co-working for me (in addition to seeing my friends every day).
PT Do you have any advice for those looking to launch a practice solo?
LG If you are waiting to feel ready to start your own business, then you are going to be waiting for the rest of your life. So many unpredictable factors are going to cause you to adapt and grow no matter what (new software, new technology, new global pandemics). As long as you’re ready to adapt to sudden changes, and determined to keep trying even when a few projects go south, then I think it’s worth giving a try.
PT When did you know that design was the career path you wanted to pursue?
LG When I was about 11 years old, I found a copy of Photoshop 6 in my parents’ basement and taught myself how to use it. I began making graphics for people on message boards (RIP forum signatures) and seeing how happy complete strangers were to receive them felt very gratifying. At one point my dad was watching me make one and explained that this service is called graphic design, and that I could even go to college for it and make a career out of it. So I did!
Having such a high-profile job also helped me get a lot of the clients I have today.
PT What job or role do you think has shaped your design career the most?
LG Unsurprisingly, it was working at Cards Against Humanity. It was my first full-time design job and I started two weeks after I graduated college. The company was still relatively small then, so wearing a lot of hats and working collaboratively under pressure was important. Having such a high-profile job also helped me get a lot of the clients I have today, so I’m very grateful for that.
One of the biggest reasons why I applied to work there was because I knew their Chicago office also functioned as a co-working space for independent workers in game and design-adjacent fields. Spending every day alongside them helped show me that working for yourself, on your own terms, is possible.
PT Can you tell us a bit about living in Chicago as a creative? What led you to set up your business there?
LG I grew up in the suburbs and always wanted to live in the city, so I went to college here and simply never left. It’s very common for creatives to spend the first few years of their careers here, then move to NYC or LA. Chicago’s individual design, music, art and comedy scenes are obviously much smaller, but because of that, they all intersect more frequently. Everyone eventually becomes a friend of a friend. The collective solidarity around living through Chicago winters helps too.
Try to pursue new experiences that may appear challenging.
PT Is there a lesson or experience that has stuck with you, since you first began?
LG For both work and life, try to pursue new experiences that may appear challenging, but you know will help you grow, and share what you learn with those around you (co-workers, friends, the local design community, a Discord server, etc.). During lockdown, I realised that despite having a wide range of interests, graphic design was pretty much the only skill I had. This year I’ve been making an effort to get out and try new things, from listening to new music to signing up for fencing lessons. On a professional level, this helps me learn new ways of thinking, and thus different ways of approaching work.
While I was at Cards Against Humanity, my friends and I would host free Risograph workshops for anyone interested in learning how to print. We met a lot of local designers and musicians, and they have all gone on to purchase Risograph printers for their own practices. It’s a rewarding feeling!
PT Whilst working on a project, what do you think is the best skill to have that isn’t design itself?
LG The common answer, which I’m going to repeat here, is communication. Specifically with the client, and recognising that they know their business better than I do. No level of transparency during an intro call will get me to their level of expertise in their industry. Once I acknowledge this with the client, they begin to think of me in the same way regarding design. Meetings turn into meaningful conversations instead of one-sided presentations. There’s a mutual level of respect.
PT What stage of a project do you wish you could just fast-forward through?
LG If it’s a project I’m working on from beginning to end, then it’s the end. For me, the excitement comes from creating a concept to design. That said, if I’m brought on to execute someone else’s concept that I find exciting, it’s usually a joy to do so, because it gives me a peek into someone else’s process.
PT Are there any specific goals that you would like to achieve before the end of the year?
LG I’m in the middle of working on a SOMETHING ELSE portfolio site that will hopefully be up before the end of the year. I also want to revisit Real Fantasy, a magazine project I started in 2019 about interpersonal connections formed in virtual worlds.
PT And to end on a lighter note, what are your top three typefaces?
LG Berthold Wolpe’s Albertus, Self Modern by Lucas Le Bihan, and every Grilli Type release.