Design Ecosystem in Chicago

{ 🇺🇸 } – US’s capital of pizza

Design Ecosystem in Chicago

After kicking off 2019 by taking a look at Moscow’s blossoming design community, we’re taking a trip to the capital of pizza…at least in the US. We’re talking about Chicago of course, the 3rd biggest city in the States.

Turns out, one thing the windy city isn’t lacking is job opportunities for designers. Let’s see what the locals have to say about the city, the scene and where to get the best deep dish pizza!

Life as a Designer in Chicago

Even though Chicago is one of the biggest cities in the US, it’s way more affordable than New York or LA. This is something to keep in mind if you want all of the perks of living in a big city but still value a spacious living area.

“[…] you get all the perks of a big city with incredible restaurants, museums and historic architecture that influenced the rest of the US. And at the same time, you can afford a good size apartment, maybe even with a backyard!” – says Masha Safina.

She also points out that the city is perfect for job-seekers: “Chicago has a good range of companies to pick from in terms of employment: from startups of all sizes and stages to established corporations, agencies and small design shops – for any taste, experience level, and ambition.”

The Chicago River
The Chicago River

Won J. You also appreciates the low cost of living and great tech industry presence: “Chicago is fast becoming a tech hub for start-ups and innovation. It’s a good time to be a designer in Chicago.  The city has world-class architecture, food, and culture without the same cost of living as the other major cities in the US. Midwesterners are really approachable and you can get a beer with just about anyone.”

Josh Childs adds that some bigger companies based in Chicago may not be really passionate about design, but finding opportunities isn’t a problem here at all: “If you’re working for anything larger than a startup, it can be hard to convince Chicago’s cut-and-dry business folks on the value of design. That being said, to the extent that some do value it, some real meaty opportunities are out there.”

From Enes Umur Gokcek’s perspective, local companies, even the brick-and-mortar ones, already realize how important design is, so it’s way easier for designers with various specialties to make their ideas happen:

“Chicago has a really good diversity of users for a human-centered designer to design for specific audiences or even universally. You have unique chances to interview and test with various types of users and understand their real needs to design purposefully and better.

Therefore, almost all of the companies, even the most traditional ones now understand the power of design for everything including from product development to human resources to derisk the failure in every action. The feeling that you do not need to spend energy on proving values of what you are passionate about is one of the best things in this city for designers.”

Skyscrapers in Chicago
So many skyscrapers!

Chicago’s Design Community

Most designers that we interviewed agreed that the local community is really close and helpful. “The design community in Chicago is tight-knit and super supportive. We’re also a community that has great respect for good research.” – says Jenny Wanger.

Won used exactly the same words as Jenny. He also added: “It always seems like you’re only two degrees away from knowing another designer in town.”

Enes also points out that the Chicago community is very respectful and it doesn’t bother taking actions in social issues:

“Respect is my one word to describe Chicago’s design community. Even though a lot of people have different tastes and opinions on design, everybody respects each other opinions and enlarge their understanding of design. Also, the design community is really aware of the latest global problems, and rather than just discussing the problems, designers here take action upon respectfully by centering the human in every decision.”

In Design Ecosystems we already covered two big American design hubs: New York City and San Francisco. As Masha points out, many designers from these places are actually moving to Chicago:

“We have so many talented people with diverse backgrounds all connected by the love of our craft: seasoned professionals who’ve “seen things,” as well as fresh college/bootcamp grads eager to learn. Consequently, we are constantly losing our talent to New York and SF, but lately, the opposite is true! I’m seeing more and more new transplants coming from other cities and I’m loving this trend.”

The Chicago River at sunset

Design Events and Meetups in Chicago

If you’re looking for an opportunity to hang out with other designers, there are a lot of events in the city that you can just show up to, like the Colored Collective and Designers + Geeks, which Chicki recommended to us.

Won recommends the following: “For younger designers just starting out, I think &UX Chicago is great. For female designers looking for support, there is Ladies That UX. Creative Mornings are always a fun way to listen to local designers talk about their craft. And of course, the IxDA is also a very active group here in town.

Jenny agrees with Creative Morning and adds more places to the list: “I love the UX Strategy meetup — they always think about great topics and bring together a nice community. Creative Mornings is always inspiring. But I also recommend designers branch out and go to some of our Product meetups like ChiPMA.”

Masha provided us with her favorites as well:

  • Prototypes, Process & Play by Chicago Camps – nice combination of inspirational self-help/help-others design talks and some very practical topics on UX and all around.
  • Design Systems meetup – almost like a mini-conference: might not be directly applicable to everyone, but great for learning about other companies’ ways, meet new people (and old friends) and eat pizza.
  • CodePen Chicago – show off your code doodles and make friends with developers 🙂 Also, pizza!

And if you are more of a conference person, Josh encourages you to check out HOW.

Buildings in Chicago
Older building fit skyscrapers perfectly 👌

Places to work from in Chicago

Chicago doesn’t lack cool places to work from either! Josh’s favorite co-working spot in the city is 1871. You may also want to check out Free Range Office, Coalition, LifeWorking, or 2112.

If you prefer spending time at coffee shops, Masha recommends checking out Dark Matter Coffee. Other great cafes are Caffé Streets, C.C. Ferns, Café Integral, Dollop Coffee Co., and Limitless Coffee & Tea.

If none of that works for you, you can follow Enes’s tip: “Personally, I really like libraries to smell old books’ dust and also get in the focus zone, therefore Harold Washington Library is one of my favorites!”

The Best Pizza in Chicago

There is no design community without pizza and if you don’t agree, just go to any design meetup and take a slice yourself. That being said, there is no way that we could cover Chicago without looking for the best pizza in town. So here are our top designers-recommended places:

  • Giordano’s (Chicki’s and Enes’s recommendation)
  • Pequod’s (Jenny’s and Won’s recommendation)
  • Reno Chicago (Masha’s recommendation)
  • Medici (Josh’s recommendation)

Here you have it – your designer’s guide to Chicago! If there is anything that we missed about the city, just let us know on Twitter. We’re especially curious about any additional pizza recs! Also, feel free to check out our list of Chicago-based designers.

If you want to contribute to next the issue of Phase Magazine, just drop us a line:

Nick Budden Avatar

Nick Budden / CEO @ Phase

Designer, and sometimes-writer. Canadian in Taiwan ✈ Berlin. Trying to help people enjoy being creative.