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Finding a home in the Hebrides: The success story of an island graphic design studio

A man sits at a desk in front of a computer.
Pearse O'Halloran, founder of the graphic design studio LOOM. Photo supplied by: Pearse O'Halloran

Just after his family’s six-year “islandversary”, Pearse O’Halloran reflects on his journey from a Glasgow-based freelancer to a “loud and proud” islander.

There’s no doubt that depopulation is one of the biggest challenges the Western Isles are facing today. But people leaving isn’t the whole story – and some versions can make the islands sound like a ghost town rather than the vibrant community it is. In this article, and others, we shine a light on some of the many different people who are choosing to build a life in the Outer Hebrides.

For graphic designer Pearse O’Halloran, occupational therapist Laura O’Halloran, and their two daughters, life on a Scottish island had always been a “pipe dream”.

“Laura had visited the islands and loved them,” Mr O’Halloran says. And, with their oldest daughter just about to reach school age, news about them being “the best places to raise kids” was sounding more relevant than ever.

A man, a woman, and their two children pose smiling for a family photo.
Pearse and Laura O’Halloran and their two daughters. Photo supplied by: Pearse O’Halloran

Still, though, they were sure it was “never going to happen”. After all, it seemed a world away from their busy life in the suburbs of Glasgow.

So, when she mentioned there was a job opening for a hand therapist, his response was: “Great – what part of the hospital?”

“And she said, ‘no, it’s actually in the Western Isles.’ Like the actual Western Isles – not the name of a building in Glasgow!”

‘Love at first sight’

Her job interview in November was his first time setting foot in the Outer Hebrides.

“It was love at first sight. I asked her about two or three times to stop the car,” he says.

The family soon settled in in Stornoway. “I just thought it was a really nice size,” says Mr O’Halloran.

“I think that one of my reservations is that I love rural life, I like quiet living – but I want to be able to go and see a film in the cinema.”

A window view of Stornoway harbour.
For Pearse O’Halloran, life in the Hebrides was “love at first sight.” Image: Pearse O’Halloran

The independent line-up at arts centre An Lanntair means that Stornoway has a great outlet for culture, he says.

They moved up in February 2017, and celebrated their six-year “islandversary” this month. But LOOM itself would come later.

Luckily, Mr O’Halloran had been able to keep his clients as a freelance graphic designer after the move.

‘Hiding that I was up on an island’

“I just thought that I would be up here and have my clients in Glasgow. I didn’t really think that their would be any work for me up here.”

During those first years, he says he was “sort of hiding the fact that I was up on an island,” worried that his remote location would be a “turn-off” for mainland clients.

While he started to get smaller jobs from island-based businesses, it wasn’t until a contract from An Lanntair that he started to think seriously about focusing his work on the islands.

The brand refresh for the cultural centre was “a big thing to take on”.

“It was great, and suddenly I was looking at my portfolio, and realising it was filling up with Hebridean businesses.”

Island location ‘should actually be an advantage’

One of his favourite early designs is a t-shirt he made for Hebrides swimmers.

“I’d see people wearing them about town. I even met a girl who was up from Manchester on a study placement, and she said ‘I’ve only been swimming once but I had to buy the t-shirt because it was the only cool one!’.”

“That was a big compliment.”

A notebook with a minimalistic, geometric design of the Lewis Chessmen.
LOOM’s signature designs feature “reimaginings” of familiar images like the Lewis Chessmen. Image: Pearse O’Halloran

Inspired by his success and the opportunities he saw in island design, he decided to start LOOM, with Laura taking on the role of managing director.

The idea was to be “loud and proud about the fact that we’re doing graphic design in a very unique location”.

“That should actually be an advantage.”

The company officially launched in April 2019. “So that’s another anniversary coming up.”

‘It kind of started to snowball’

LOOM’s designs put a fresh modern spin on everyday life in the Hebrides, featuring everything from the iconic Lewis Chessmen to the islands’ brutalist bus stops.

The idea, he says, was to “reinvent the cliches” of the Western Isles using a “contemporary” design aesthetic.

These designs sold well in LOOM’s own shop, but soon commissions from other businesses started picking up as word spread.

T-shirts with clean, minimalistic designs on a rack.
T-shirts designed by LOOM. Photo supplied by: Pearse O’Halloran.

“It kind of started to snowball,” he says. “Harris Tweed got in touch with me.”

At first, he was only doing small jobs for Harris Tweed Hebrides, who supply the famous fabric to fashion houses and luxury brands all over the world.

But last year, he took on their summer marketing campaign.

“That’s great,” he says. He says usually, they would probably go to an ad agency in Glasgow.

“They trust us to take on that scale of work – and our creativity, as well.”

LOOM’s success meant that last year they were able to move into the business into its own building in Stornoway.

Mr O’Halloran has also been able to hire two new team members – and it looks like LOOM will only continue to grow.

“We’re taking on so much client work right now that we’re scaling back the shop,” he says.

‘A better life for the family’

It’s a long way to come from the beginning of Mr O’Halloran’s journey from the mainland, when he “wasn’t thinking about it terms of developing [his] career.”

“My main focus was a better life for the family.”

And, sure enough, he says moving to the Hebrides has been a “huge boost” for their wellbeing.

For his daughters, “this is their home now”.

A colourful print of the Gaelic alphabet.
LOOM’s design for a Gaelic alphabet. Photo supplied by: Pearse O’Halloran.

“They’re both fluent in Gaelic,” he says, and spend time exploring on their bikes by themselves – something he says he would have never felt comfortable with in Glasgow.

And, as it turns out, it’s been a win on both fronts.

“The biggest surprise for me has been how my business has been boosted by coming up here,” he says.

“It’s a success story.”

More from this series: