Women in Graphic Design (and why we need to talk about them)

Published:  July 20, 2014
Tori Hinn

It is often discussed, academically and informally, that the presence of female designers missing from the history of graphic design is a sore oversight of the profession. And while we can claim more progressive (and equal) laws and beliefs in present day society, the disparity between male and female representation in design lingers on. But why is retrospective accreditation important? And if it is getting better, do we need to keep talking about it? Tori Hinn, of Women of Graphic Design, talks through some of the issues facing women in the past, and regrettably, in our industry today.

It’s the spring of 2011 and I am sitting in History of Graphic Design, a lecture course at my design school. We are learning about the many designers and movements essential to the narrative of graphic design. Designer’s names are listed on a page, hundreds of them. It’s so subtle; I almost miss it. Later on, I would count the names — three hundred and twenty-three independent designers listed — twenty-two women. In the history of graphic design, my classmates and I were learning about just twenty-two women. That was only 6% of the overall canon. Surely this was a mistake.

The National Education Association reports of 2011 estimated that 54% of all US designers in the profession are women. In the UK it is lower, although the Design Council research found that 70% of design students in the UK are women, but 60% of the industry is male. I was curious to explore the reductive process by which these female majorities dwindle.

Forty or fifty years ago, the workforce was overwhelmingly a man’s world. In the design field, many women may have been assistants or “office girls” and so few held the top titles, such as art director or creative director. In a basic sense, women’s careers have rarely followed the same path of men’s, since there has historically been immense pressure placed on women to be solely homemakers and nurture families (see: Beyond The Glass Ceiling: an open discussion, Astrid Stavro, Elephant #6) with more sinister pressures of socially-accepted sexism and segregation discouraging, or even disqualifying, the career ambitions of capable women.

There is a line of forgotten women in our history. I argue that sexism is somewhat less obvious in our workplace today, far subtler than it might have been in the 1950s and 60s, but perhaps we still accept some mores of old, underlying currents that flow through our design culture, much like that lecture in 2011.

Starting at the Source

Why is it important to talk about the women of graphic design, specifically? What are the issues women still face in the design field? To better understand these questions, I sought out different voices from within the spectrum of graphic design.

Design History and Education

Design history has long overlooked women in our narrative, despite continuously having a large group of women active in the field of graphic design over the past century.

Lucinda Hitchcock is a professor in Graphic Design at the Rhode Island School of Design, as well as a member of the Design Office in Providence, Rhode Island.

“For me, it has to do with the imbalance of genders in the educational environment and in the framework of the design history that is being taught,” Hitchcock explains. Careful to point out it may not be the same situation in all design schools,

Hitchcock adds, “Why does design history still teach about male designers 80% more than women designers? Why do we have 80 % women in the student body (in our [RISD] department) and 80% men in the faculty?”

Image: Lucinda Hitchcock

In the US, some 70% of design students are female, yet their education is scattered with gaps. Teal Triggs and Sian Cook, of the Women’s Design + Research Unit in the UK, explain, “For far too long, history has either marginalised or excluded many women from being entered into the design history books and as a result, the design canon. Whilst acknowledging that over the last decade such gender concerns have begun to be readdressed by historians, educators and the design profession at large, much more can still be done.”

“Not enough women designers are given the recognition that they deserve,” says graphic designer Antonio Carusone. “Take for example Jacqueline S. Casey. She is primarily responsible for bringing the International Typographic Style to the US, and her work is just as brilliant as Muller-Brockmann’s, Crouwel’s, Ruder’s…. But for some reason, her name is left out most of the time.”

He believes that revealing only part of our history fails to fully inform our designers. “It’s important that these women get the recognition, because they were and are part of the history that’s shaping graphic design. Everyone needs to learn about them and their work, especially young designers. If not, then there’s just this big gap that doesn’t tell the entire story of graphic design.”

Image: Jacqueline S. Casey

Image: Jacqueline S. Casey

Should it matter to the structure of design education if the majority of design students are female? Is it a matter of fairness that emerging designers require encouragement, and part of that is seeing their sex represented in the professional field and in the teaching of design? Brockett Horne, a designer and the Chair of Graphic Design at Maryland Institute College of Art, believes young female designers could greatly benefit from a change in the exposure and representation of women in graphic design. “I know from the classroom that student designers are thirsty for diverse insights on design methodologies, outcomes, and advice on how to create a strong life and work balance,” Horne explains. “I’d like to see females become more confident in publishing their process, ideas, and experiences. I see this as a continuity of tradition that we have inherited from the artists and designers who fought hard for us to sit at the table.

“Problems still perpetuate if the media only represents those with the highest profiles, if conference organisers don’t do their research to discover new and relevant voices, if education doesn’t look at a range of role models, if teachers ignore discussions on gender and representation; then, we are not taking our responsibility as designers, as a profession, as educators, and our duty to the public, seriously enough.”

So talking about issues for women in design is not only important for students, but the educators that advise them.

Image: Denise Gonzales Crisp

Denise Gonzales Crisp, Chair of Graphic Design at the College of Design, North Carolina State University, shared “[Look at] salary discrepancy between males and females in education. Almost every institution I’ve looked at, the women earned on average anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 less in the same positions [held by men]. So that inequality we experience generally out in the world is also reflected in education.

“Right now, my classroom is probably filled with 80% women. And yet when I go out into the world, or when you hear from business owners or from creative directors, it’s not the same percentage. What is that, why is that? We can only guess.”

Beyond Education

How does this apply to practitioners in the field—both new and seasoned designers? Is it still important to talk about “women of graphic design” as a topic? Horne speculates that despite the work of revolutionary gender activists, there are still indications that issues for women in design need to be discussed. She names a few: oversights in the organization of jury panels, lack of female representation in anthologies and survey publications and a propagation of blogs reinforcing strict ideas of gender.

Despite notions that the issue of sex is obsolete in graphic design, only a small fraction of active female designers receive public acclamation. Margaret Calvert, a designer who defined the British network of roadways with her typeface design in the 1960s, never received wide recognition for this development. Presently, all road signs in Great Britain include her designs, an important contribution to the cultural landscape of England, but attempting to research this work and topic results in articles surrounding her partner, Jock Kinneir. Recently, after the passing of her studio partner, she has finally begun receiving more recognition for her work. Calvert’s experience is just an example of the oversight many designers encounter.

Image: Margaret Calvert

Image: Margaret Calvert

As discussed earlier, the US design profession is not predominantly male— just over half of the profession is female— yet with celebrity designers so often male, the representation is primarily male. In “Type Persons Who Happen to be Female” Susanne Dechant explains that despite many typographic achievements, women remained underrepresented at type conferences. “TypoBerlin (2009: 5% female presenters) or Atypl (2009: 12%), as well as in various type foundries (Linotype 2005: 12.3%; Myfonts.com 2008: 14%). Today an equal number of women and men are studying type design—so we can expect or at least hope for a levelling of the playing field.”

Additionally, these statistics remain issues when there is still a gender pay gap. After viewing the AIGA-Aquent’s Survey of Design Salaries for 2012, it reveals that women are still not earning as much as their male counterparts, despite the fact that over half of design professionals in the US are female and more than half of AIGA’s members are female. The Salary Survey does not, however, give us any numbers for this wage discrepancy. In trying to mend this disparity, it would be helpful to know just how much those numbers differ.

The repercussions of constant, even mild, discordance can cause female designers like Victoria Rushton, a type designer at Font Bureau in Boston, Massachusetts, to feel there is extra work that must be done in order to prove their ability and their value as a colleague. “It’s just this little extra hurdle, you know?” she explains. “I know I have to make good work for clients and myself, but on top of that I feel the stubborn need to prove that I belong in this industry at all.”

Great progress has been made for women in the workplace in the past 40 years. The Glass Ceiling, a term used to describe an invisible barrier that prevents someone (usually women and minorities) from achieving further success, seems to have almost no place in design, according to some in the field. To quote Sonya Dyakova in “Beyond the Glass Ceiling” by Astrid Stavro, “If there is [a glass ceiling], I’m not going to acknowledge it. The fear of such a ceiling is stifling. I think one must ignore all that nonsense.”

Moving Forward

How do we begin to rectify this imbalance in history, the lack of exposure, source material, and recognition? Teal Triggs and Sian Cook urge us, “We can no longer afford to be complacent as a profession, nor in our roles as design educators.” The surge of online design activity has provided many grass-roots projects, like Women’s Design + Research Unit (WD+RU), Graphic BirdWatching, Women of Graphic Design and Hall of Femmes as key tools for seeking out designers that may not otherwise be reported upon or featured on the stages of design conferences.

The WD+RU Project team believes that certain projects like these serve as “an educational platform; establishing a space for our future role models and interesting new design discourses. The resource is also about engagement with contemporary issues. WoGD forms a virtual community of women designers who are working internationally; a platform for bringing designers together in knowledge exchange.”

Additionally, conferences or discussion panels aimed at this specific topic would be an additional step on the path to better understanding why we need to talk about women in design. Recently, the Design Culture Salon held a seminar in London asking the question, “What are the gender politics of contemporary design practice?” The panel was made up of only women, though not intentionally, and brought together both educators and designers of diverse disciplines and age groups.

To inspire change for women in graphic design, an ongoing conversation is imperative, and it’s necessary to maintain the question of the problem as one that’s highly visible. Sheila Levrant de Bretteville states, “People forget how the change comes about. Critical mass is necessary. I have always thought about feminism as making new ways of working and thinking about people all along the spectrum from male to female — and that is happening.”

In the end, it should always be about the work. And when obstacles, like lack of recognition and poor research, prevent a fair, holistic appreciation of design work, we have a problem. Yet gender-equality requires people who are willing to keep talking about these issues in the press, online, or in the classroom, across all mediums, for a long time. Furthermore, this isn’t a women-only issue. The wage and gender disparity won’t cease without the voices and the efforts of men. This calls for a uniform change of attitude, that it isn’t a matter of “singling out” women or forcing them into tokenism, but a matter of correcting a systematic imbalance. In a 1993 issue of PRINT Magazine, Paula Scher said it well, “Change doesn’t come in one great thump. It comes one by one by one by one, and it looks kind of funny. And then it doesn’t.”


10 Responses

  1. Alison

    Great and timely story. But what annoys me about this kind of article in any industry is that men don’t even read them, let alone comment on them. It’s just so far off their radar that the very headline seems invisible to them. Until we can get the every-man designer to join this conversation change won’t come.

  2. @Alison — With an open discussion about the absence of women in design in our history, we can hopefully retrospectively correct that, and change the way we talk about designers in the future. Men are not a necessary ingredient to make this happen — passion and determination are. I think the important thing is to change the way we concentrate on ‘heroes’ in design, and look instead at the wider, social contexts, which includes both sexes, all races and sections of society.

  3. Alison

    @bonnie; thanks for your response – I do want to agree – but when we look at (vaguely) similar ‘struggles’ such as Afro-American rights in the US in the 60′s and even today’s marriage equality fight it seems like it takes involvement from the ‘majority’ (which in this case might be men) to see change.
    Having recently downloaded Designerd, I wonder if we should get Kevin Finn on board as none of the questions so far have mentioned a single female designer… Not his fault – prob just further reflection of the existing male focused narrative that the article above exposes.

  4. @Alison: Sincere thanks for your comment about the DESIGNerd app. Several questions across the series actually do include female designers. And future volumes – already in planning – feature a prominent female designer. But I absolutely agree that female designers don’t have the visibility they deserve, compared to our male peers, and this is something I’m actively seeking to help rectify in my own small but genuine way. I also agree that involvement from the majority is vital. Sincere thanks for raising this issue in relation to DESIGNerd!

  5. Johnd883

    I appreciate you sharing this article.Thanks Again. Really Cool. egacadbdekea

  6. @Alison: PS: I forgot to mention in my original reply that DESIGNerd 100+ Volume 2 is a joint signature volume from Steven Heller and Lita Talarico, which supports your interest in highlighting female designers alongside our male peers…

  7. Good article but personally I don’t see the need to differeniate male and female in our industry… sexual preference, race and age don’t seem to create sub categories and such focus, and the gender debate exists in all industries. You are a designer, and art director, a creative… I don’t see myself as a female designer, female art director or female creative. We women have a short history in the workforce (outside of traditional roles of nurturing and teaching as some examples) – lets just get on with it and create fab creative solutions for the visual problems we are briefed on, have fun, push trends and thinking, please. History and role models will follow – cheers c

    • Thanks Christey, it’s good to hear you are in a position where you don’t feel your sex has anything to do with your work or employability. But your comment that women have a short history in the workforce is precisely what Tori Hinn is wanting to challenge. There are incredible, talented, influential and dedicated female designers in our history, but they remain absent in the mainstream consciousness (and much of design education). Tori’s article goes some way in trying to answer why this might be, but in the meantime, we must remember and celebrate them, lest we have the mistaken idea that men are the only ‘heroes’ in our history.

  8. Thanks for the article and I think it is important to continue to raise awareness about gender inequality in the workplace. It think there is significant change toward woman in the workplace but it is mainly in attitudes towards equality rather than action. It would appear that most people certainly in Australia would support the idea that women are entitled to equal opportunity in the workplace – design or otherwise. This still however has to be actualised in reality, particularly in positions of leadership. I also think it is important to explore the differences in how women live their lives and set their priorities as this impacts on their opportunities and what is important to them. Having organised 16 of the past 25 agIdeas events I know that it has been difficult to get commitment from some of the world’s leading women designers to travel to Australia to participate. They will always consider their work and family commitments and often struggle to take the time. This has never been raised as an issue for the men that we invite. That is of course not to say that no male designer puts their family before career but certainly they do not articulate this as a reason to step away to attend our program. We do continue to share the work of brilliant creative women as much as possible and I encourage to view the video’s of some of those we have managed to put online to date. There will be more. Thanks Desktop for your considered article!

  9. Beatrice Ward

    Reading between the lines of this article, it appears that this author is rooted in the “RISD Experience”, a place where I would argue that such inequity has long been prevalent. I was glad to see Lucy calling out RISD regarding the imbalance of gender within the faculty. Please do not think that the experience at RISD mirrors the rest of the educational world. There are many strong female leaders in design programs across the country, and many faculty that are more in balance with the student body.

    I would love to see someone follow up on Denise’s comment “What is that, why is that? We can only guess.” because I respectfully disagree. We should not have to guess! We could have much deeper insight into females in the design workforce if someone actually did a proper study. Overall there is little research into the the paths and trajectories of design students into the workforce after leaving school, and even less into the specific experiences of women across their lives and careers.

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