Gabby Lord In Conversation With Christopher Doyle.

Christopher Doyle
16 min readJul 13, 2023
Nothing I Know Belongs To Me. Published by Formist, 2023.

The following interview between Gabby and I was taken from Nothing I Know Belongs To Me, the book we published with Formist in 2023, celebrating 10 years of Christopher Doyle & Co. I’ll be sharing the rest of the written content from the book over the next few weeks.

Gabby Lord (she/her) has had a number of fancy-sounding titles over the years but is ultimately a designer. She creates story-led brand systems that are based on a strategic foundation and co-founded a branding studio Super Keen in 2021. Prior to Super Keen, Gabby worked at design studios in Sydney, Berlin, and NYC. She has worked on global brands including Apple, Ableton, Netflix, RBMA, and multiple founder-led start-ups. Gabby is currently based in Brooklyn, NY, and curates a directory called OMGLORD that shares thoughts on design, creativity, and handy resources. Gabby was Christopher Doyle & Co.’s first employee, working for the studio from 2012–2013.

GL Let’s start with the title of the book. I have a sneaking suspicion I know the inspiration, but could you tell me where it came from?

CD It was a quote that made its way into talks I’ve given over the years. Early in my career, I was given a brilliant book by Paul Arden that contained a wonderful passage on generosity. He wrote ‘give all your ideas away, they don’t belong to you anyway’. I thought it was so powerful. The idea of being unselfish and generous with what you learn, but also the idea that everything is just being passed along. Design can be such a secretive, competitive process. But this was about not hoarding your ideas. And about being secure enough to hand it all over to someone else. And then hopefully, that person will do the same thing. And it becomes a cycle of generosity. I thought it was something to aspire to.

GL You grew up in Canberra. How did growing up in a city like that lead you to your career? Whenever I see kids in New York going to the Guggenheim for school art trips, my mind is blown because I personally can’t imagine growing up with that kind of access to international art and culture.

CD Well in terms of specifically being in Canberra, I don’t think it did. At that time, in a city like that, it was incredibly limiting and difficult to get exposed to design. And I’d fumbled my way into studying design via failing to get into art school, so I barely knew what design was for the first couple of years. The internet was in its infancy. So we didn’t have blogs, social feeds or anything like that.

The most amazing thing I received or saw was when my girlfriend at the time went overseas and brought back two David Carson books for me.

I thought they were incredible. You could barely find a book like that in Canberra, let alone afford one. We were borrowing books from the university library, or someone was buying them and we’d pass them around.

GL I think about that when I work with junior designers now. They’ve been using Photoshop since they were kids and have such a headstart on the tools.

CD Right? Stephen (Grace, Senior Designer at CD&Co.) was using After Effects in high school, which is a way to understand the generational differences, in terms of tech, what you have access to and what you’re exposed to now. It didn’t even exist when I was in high school. I did an accredited graphic design course in high school that wasn’t even tertiary, meaning it wasn’t even really considered part of the curriculum in high school. It was like art’s poor cousin. It just got tacked onto the curriculum.

GL I honestly think I was halfway through my second year of university when I discovered an actual design blog. It wasn’t really a thing when I was studying, at least not like it is now where everything exists on the internet. I often forget how far it’s all come even in the last decade or so.

CD I also feel it was simpler. I don’t know about you, but I genuinely feel like everything is so overwhelming now. The amount of stuff you’re meant to keep up with. It’s something we talk about in the studio a lot. We encourage everybody to take in as much as they can manage. But it’s a lot. There are so many ways to consume work every day, and again, it’s back to the title of the book. Whatever you take in, share it with everyone. If you see something cool, send it around. We can’t all be consuming everything all the time. You’ll drown and you won’t get anything done.

I always end up looking at too much and then panicking about my own output. In some ways, I have a lot of nostalgia for my first year or two at work. It was so simple. You just had to learn about doing the work from your creative directors and by reading. It was like an apprenticeship.

GL You just mentioned panicking. Is that something that still happens to you? You’ve been out on your own and calling the shots for the last decade.
At this stage, are there ever projects that scare the shit out of you?

CD Absolutely. I think all projects still scare me to a degree. It used to be about worrying ‘How do I do this?’ That and wanting the work to be great. It’s changed over the last few years though. I feel like I know how to do it, or at least I know how to start, which is the hardest part. I panic less about that aspect. Not that I ever know the answer right away or it’s easy, but it weighs on me less because I know I will get there eventually. But the panic and the fear I have around the work being great is still there, which I don’t think will ever go away. Is it good enough? That’s what I worry about. I never feel relaxed about the process. And I am not sure I want that feeling to go away.

I used to finish talks with a slide that said ‘Once it feels easy, we’re dead’. It’s dramatic and was used for effect but it’s how I feel. And I think that has worked against me. I think mentally it’s something that really weighs me down. But also I don’t know any other way to work.

GL And when you ask ‘Is it good enough?’ do you mean for you or for the client or for both?

CD For everyone involved. First and foremost it’s for the client. For us, that’s the purpose of the work. But we all get sucked into what our peers think about our work, what blogs post, what gets awarded etc. But that’s a whole other conversation.

GL It’s tough to separate yourself from the work when everything feels like a direct reflection of you.

CD Absolutely. If a project is received poorly or it’s not successful, of course, it feels personal. For designers, these ideas and processes come from our heads, our bodies and our hearts. It’s our creative output. To put hours and hours of work into something and for it to not go well, or for somebody to tear it down, I just don’t see how you can’t take that personally. We’re sitting in a room, meant to be absorbing all this information and then meant to be coming up with unique ideas that solve problems. I take it really seriously. And if it doesn’t go well, then, yes, I’m going to take it personally.

GL Something that people ask me all the time is why I started a studio and my response always comes back to being able to do it with Lauren. It wasn’t a grand vision I saw for myself, but an opportunity that arose during a pretty grim time in my life. What was the motivation for you? Was it a very active decision at the time?

CD Well it wasn’t something I always wanted to do, but I think I just had to. I had a realisation that there were a couple of things happening. Firstly, I was getting to an age where I felt time was running out for me to try that path. I was at an age where I felt I needed to do it soon so that I would still feel creatively young enough to do it. Like I still had the energy to do it. Also, the studio I was in at the time was very top-heavy, with excellent people, but very top-heavy. And I remember looking at it thinking, the paths here are that either I work my way into those roles, or I leave and go to another agency and try and level up into a more senior role. And at the time, looking at Sydney, I didn’t really see any agencies or roles that I was really interested in or studios that I was really excited about. Not that they weren’t good studios, but there was not a lot of them in Sydney at the time. So really my only other option then was to go and make my own version of it.

But it was terrifying. I had no real plan for it other than it felt instinctively like the right thing to do, and that it was the time to do it.

GL That is wild because you already had two kids at that point! I had no real plan either but I didn’t have any dependents or responsibilities if it all went wrong.

CD Yeah I guess looking back it’s pretty wild to think that I had that much going on personally and thought that was the right time to do it. And I don’t really know how I reconciled that. I think there was just no other option. And it was a healthy industry. I guess I just thought, if it doesn’t work I’ll get a job. It was also having a level of privilege, living in an economically healthy country and thinking I’ll have something to fall back on. But I was really determined to make it work. Because once you get a sense of the freedom of it, in terms of having kids and the autonomy to just build your life around it, it’s very attractive if you can make it work. Suddenly you are making your own routine and setting your own standards and expectations.

I’m not sure I could ever go back to a structured routine working for someone else. It’s incredible to think about going back sometimes and not having that freedom, right?

GL Yes, definitely! I think especially so when you have young children but I really love the flexibility even just for myself. I think a lot of people struggle with it though and thrive in a more structured environment which I can also appreciate.

CD I remember leaving that agency at the end of every day right on time because I had to. I had to be home because I had two young kids, one of which was still a baby. I couldn’t work nights or weekends and that’s what was going on at the time. So I felt very disconnected from that studio because I couldn’t work those hours. I just thought I don’t belong here anymore. Not specifically in that business, but in any routine of work like that.

Then very quickly, I discovered that I could manage my work, manage my life and be around for the kids. Even though my kids are a little older now, the freedom you have to just come and go, be at a recital or a sports game. Or being called in the middle of the day and quickly needing to get to school. It’s amazing.

GL You’ve designed the studio around your life, so the name of it makes a lot of sense. Did you ever think of calling the studio something other than after yourself?

CD Yeah, I did. And it’s something I now really dislike, and I’ve always regretted it. I did think of names. I couldn’t possibly remember what they were now, but I did.

I remember talking to my first creative director, Julian, and asking him about how best to approach it, especially as I was going to be by myself. And he basically just said, just use your name. And his theory was it meant that I could trade on any kind of reputation I had in the industry. He said just make it about you. He said that’s the most valuable thing that you’ve got to offer.

He has been a mentor and source of help and advice for me for 20 years now and I just always listen to him. So I went with it. And it was right at the time. Having said all that, I regret it now because it’s obviously not just about me. It’s been about several people, yourself included, over many years. And so much of what the studio does or has achieved is the work of a team of people. But I am not sure there’s anything I can do about it now. It is what it is.

GL Do you really regret it, though? Do you think that things would be different? I definitely agree with Julian.

CD Oh yeah, I do. I regret it because I feel like the output wouldn’t be any different. But it would have a name that many people would be able to feel ownership of and connection to. I think there has always been this perception that it’s only me, which is just not true. It was fine for the first year, but as I said, it very quickly became (and has continued to be) about other people. I don’t know. It just makes me uncomfortable.

GL I would argue though that even when other people are involved, there isn’t anything that goes out of the studio that you haven’t touched in some way. You are the common thread through every project.

CD Yeah that’s true. And I hope people associate a standard of work or a type of work or relationship with us. I understand my name is probably the entry point to that. And yes I am still very hands-on with the work. I’m very much attached to everything that goes on. I guess in some ways it also puts pressure on me to dictate a healthy culture and foster healthy ways of working. I’m responsible for that which I like. But it still makes me uncomfortable.

GL You were a team of five at your biggest?

CD Yeah, we were five. Myself and four designers.

GL You made a very conscious decision recently to scale the studio size back down. Has that made things harder or easier, and in what ways?

CD I think it’s definitely made things easier. It’s impossible not to talk about it through the lens of COVID and everything the pandemic brought with it.

A few things were going on. You have to take on a certain amount of work to have that many people, which isn’t even really a big team. I have friends who have got studios with ten, twelve or fifteen people which just blows my mind. I don’t know how you manage a team that big. But for me, it was a lot. And I felt pressure to take on a lot of work. I was also getting to the stage where all I was doing was just moving from desk to desk, looking at work. I wasn’t doing any of the work, not directly anyway.

I was just directing. And this is a very common thing that studio founders talk about when their teams grow. I understand why it makes sense, but I think you’ve got to be happy to do less and less design as you get bigger. So I noticed that I wasn’t really doing any design. But I would see almost everything, and I would craft and direct the work to help shape everything. And of course, that’s the role of the creative director, to direct the creative. It’s not to sit on the tools and be designing it too. It’s about giving people space and time to think and make work. And then knowing when and how to step in and steer the work. And I really enjoy that. But I think once we got to that size that was all I did. And I still wanted to be designing. I feel like I only started to feel confident and comfortable in design in the last five to seven years. I felt like I wasn’t ready to stop. I was just hitting my stride.

Also, the honest truth is I found the management of that many people stressful. It mentally really took a toll on me. I became depressed. I was turning the car around halfway to work and going home. It was overwhelming. We were also managing a couple of retainer contracts that took up a lot of time. And I had this realisation, which I spoke with you and a couple of other close friends about, which was that I have the power to change this. You know? It’s my business, and I can change it. I can pause, rebuild it and start fresh. Then of course what followed was the terrible realisation that people would be impacted. People would lose their jobs. Obviously, that weighed on me too.

But the thing that I often come back to now, which is undeniable, is that I am happier. Sure my pride took a hit. And I felt enormous guilt about letting people go. I worried that I had failed. I worried I was going backwards to scale down. I still look at bigger studios, or bigger projects and clients, and sometimes wish we were doing that work. But ultimately, when I stop and think about where I am and how I truly feel, I am clearly and noticeably happier than I was three years ago. So I believe it was the right thing to do. And I am sure we lose work because we are too small or don’t get considered for certain types of projects. But I know this is what it needs to look like for me, for now, to feel happy and to be a present parent and partner. And a good creative director.

GL It’s the curse of compare and despair!

CD Always. I think everyone does it. It’s natural. We all look around and compare ourselves. It’s not just our design output. It’s everything. It’s so unhealthy but so hard to avoid.

GL Words have always been as important as visuals to you. Have you always liked to write (like early days, high school) or was it something you developed further into your career?

CD Looking back at school particularly, yes, I remember using language as a tool in assignments even in early primary school. I could draw and write. That was it. Then, throughout high-school there was less and less of a need for creative writing. It was only when I started studying design that I started to use language in projects and spot opportunities where words could play a part.

Then when I started my second job I was exposed to a tonne of UK and US advertising and design and there was so much incredible writing. Especially early design work from the ’60s and ’70s where sometimes words were the entire design. A single sentence on a page could be the whole design. That really impacted me. I had been told for so long that design was a visual medium.

To discover the role writing could play was huge. It changed the whole way I thought about design and communication. And it was something I enjoyed and felt good at early in my career. Not that I would ever call myself a writer. I am just a designer who likes to write.

GL What advice would you give to people looking to develop their own voice?

CD I am not sure, to be honest. The way our studio presents itself verbally is very much my voice, which has naturally evolved over time as different designers have worked at the studio. But we are always conscious of not imposing our tone onto our clients. That’s lazy and the wrong approach.

I would say it’s much more important to understand how language and writing can be used across different categories and clients. Defining an actual tone of voice for a client or a project is complex. It’s not something we do in-house. We work with writers to do that sort of work. But I do encourage the whole team to write, to learn about the rhythm of language, comic timing and pacing. I would also say to read as much as you can. Don’t just look at design work, look at advertising. Analyse what makes something enjoyable to read and what makes it moving, funny or clever. Ask other people to read and edit your writing. It’s no different to design in that sense. It’s constant editing and adjusting until it feels right.

GL So I only read this recently, but research shows that humour increases professional status. Do you think that’s why your 2008 Personal Identity Guidelines were such a success and part of what kickstarted your career outside of the studios you were working at?

CD I think it was almost entirely humour, yes. The design was nothing special. It was really just one big inside joke for designers. But the writing was the key to it working. Anyone working in the industry had access to the idea via the writing. And I just tried to make it personal and relatable. And I think that’s what resonated most. The design was secondary and not nearly as important.

GL How has your process changed over the years, if at all?

CD It hasn’t really. I know I am quicker but that’s just experience. I’m a really big fan of designing in my head. I don’t know whether you do this, but I find a lot of the time when I am not working I will be working out an idea in my head. I’m writing headlines, sketching logo ideas, and thinking about colours and systems. I do so much of it mentally.

GL Yes, I do this too! Kind of like on The Queen’s Gambit when she’s high and moving chess pieces on the ceiling. The Doyle’s Gambit. Without the pills addiction.

CD Ha! I actually do a lot of it staring at the ceiling. It’s so intensive that by the time I sit down and actually do it at a machine or with a pen and paper, I have all the groundwork done in my head. I think it comes from just being excited to do it and an eagerness to solve whatever it is. It’s a real high for me. I leave a briefing and I’m immediately thinking about logo ideas and the copy, I’m rearranging letters in my head and doing word association and all that kind of stuff. I have to start. And by the time I sit down to actually do it, there’s already a whole bunch of things floating around that you get to try out.

GL Cracking an idea is definitely a dopamine hit that we all chase. Do you find that more satisfying than things like awards?

CD Absolutely. I find it more satisfying than designing, to be honest. Which I worry about (laughs). For me, finding the answer is by far the most thrilling part of any project.

GL You’ve won all the awards at this point anyway and your studio has international recognition. What do you aim for when on the outside it appears like you’ve hit every milestone?

CD That’s very kind but I still feel like we have so much to do. I feel like we are a small studio, in what feels like a faraway place, just trying to do good work. I am not sure that will ever change. I hope it doesn’t.