International Women’s Day is a worldwide event that celebrates women’s achievements – from politics to social matters to cultural issues. March the 8th is the perfect time to support women’s rights, promote their contributions to the world, advocate for the education of young girls, and inspire people in a positive way.
According to the U.N., around 35 million girls are not enrolled in primary school and that has to end. Every girl should have the right to an education and freedom of choice. Women need to be free from violence, trafficking, and discrimination. It’s time to raise the flag when it comes to women’s rights and pay tribute to their strength and determination.
In honour of International Women’s Day, I’d like to dwell upon gender inequality in graphic design. I’m not the first to do so and lot’s of texts can be found on the subject. I point out some interesting ones out to you.
To begin close by, my own blog Words for Designers. To be honest the male designers far outnumber the women featured in the interviews. How come? Where are the women in graphic design? Is there a difference or not? Paula Scher likes to state that the gender is of no specific interest to her, she just wants to go on with her job.
‘I never set out to be the only woman blah-blah. I set out to be a designer.’
Yet there is a difference.
Canon and celebrity
Martha Scotford in her now seminal essay “Is There a Canon of Graphic Design History?,” first published in 1991 in the AIGA Journal, stated:
a canon creates the impression that . . . the best is known, the rest is not worth knowing.
The value of a canon is that it provides an overview, it’s a mirror. Seemingly so. But the field is way to vast and confusing. We need a canon. It puts it all in perspective, when there’s progression, a period of blooming, or decay, the canon will tell us. A canon makes clear how designer react to each others creative work, and when our ideas and insights change the canon changes with them. In a canon you’ve got winners and a second set. The superstars, the rock stars, the worker bees. This pyramid-shaped canon is strengthened by today’s obsession with celebrity. Members of the design community cross-over to the ‘upper-class’ of celebrities. Their light shines brightly on events, talk, panels. Good on them… It crawls along an Anglo-American axis though. And I’m prone to the editorial pitfall it entails.
In this system of canon and celebrity there often is little room for female designers. Gender obviously isn’t an issue exclusive to the design profession. There certainly exists a Glass Ceiling. And, as in many professions, it has nothing to do with talent, ability, or accomplishment. A very different canon can be compiled once the criteria are balanced.
Regarding the amount of publications, the discussion about gender inequality mainly occurs on the Anglo-American axis. Perhaps less elsewhere. It’s a generation thing as well. Young designers who identify themselves not as much with militant feminism anymore, it seems a subject with less priority.
In a male dominated economic environment women sometimes have less opportunities to build a career and create visibility. On a panel discussion Milton Glaser once said
“that the reason there are so few female rock star graphic designers is that “women get pregnant, have children, go home and take care of their children. And those essential years that men are building their careers and becoming visible are basically denied to women who choose to be at home.” He continued: “Unless something very dramatic happens to the nature of the human experience then it’s never going to change.” About day care and nannies, he said, “None of them are good solutions.”
…and an icy silence descended on the room. Harsh, but true.
Sheila Levrant de Bretteville acknowledged that women represent different, female values. Quite the opposite of many women who don’t want to accentuate gender in their work. Many feminists of the 60s and 70s pointed to the importance of affective and creative professions in our society. Education, arts, health care, all can be defined as representing female values in society as a whole.
These values meanwhile are fully integrated in today’s creative economy, that is being pushed forward by the rise of digital techniques. No stopping that. Think of startups, freelancers, hipster culture, etc. A non-believer in the Age of Aquarius myself, I dont’t link female values with ’soft’ or new-age, as this assumes their opposites being ‘forceful’, goal oriented, in short: male values. For me ‘female values’ transcend such artificial contrasts: away with canons. In the age of networking creativity is the foremost value we all need.
Women of Graphic Design, curated by Tori Hinn (founder) and Kathleen Slebod.
The Women’s Design + Research Unit (WD+RU), founded in 1994 and run by a collective around Siân Cook and Teal Triggs.
Words for Designers, The Glass Ceiling, interviews with female graphic designers.
Martha Scotford’s now seminal essay ”Is There a Canon of Graphic Design History?”, first published in 1991 in the AIGA Journal.
Read also her update “Googling the design canon”, in: Design Observer, 28 July 2008.
Michael Bierut, “The Glass Ceiling”, in: Design Observer, 12 November 2006.
Indra Kupferschmid, ”Female speakers at conferences”, in: Kupferschrift, 23 July 2015
Isabelle Anscombe’s book A Woman’s Touch (Viking, 1984) was one of the first to focus on the contributions women made to textile, interior, and furniture design.
A few years later, Liz McQuiston wrote Women in Design (Rizzoli, 1988), which through bibliographic entries highlighted women working across the design disciplines.
Pat Kirkham’s, Women Designers in the USA, 1900–2000 (Yale University Press, 2000).
Bryony Gomez-Palacio and Armin Vit’s Women of Design (HOW Books, 2008).