Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: a cautionary tale?
Barbara Stauffacher Solomon pioneered the use of Supergraphics (her work for The Sea Ranch, California, 1966 is shown above). A student of Armin Hoffmann, she later became disillusioned with graphic design. To those worried about the lack of women at the top of the profession, her story may prove illuminating.
The current (February) print issue of Creative Review (which you can buy here) includes a wonderful interview with Stauffacher Solomon by Adrian Shaughnessy. In it, she highlights some of the issues that came to restrict her professional practice. At one point she describes her attempts to balance her working life in 1960s San Francisco with her home life and the limitations that imposed. While her male peers had the luxury of obsessing long into the night over every last detail and type choice, she had other demands on her time:
"Now that I happily live alone with my dog I have time to think, and I realise that I was always so frantically busy making money to live, taking care of my daughters and worrying about men, that I never had time to think, least of all about my work. At my office I just drew up the first design I visualised so that I could leave to pick up Chloe or Nellie from school, shop for dinner, cook and clean, play wife and do all the stuff that working mothers do."
In the 1970s, tiring of battles over receiving credit for her work and admitting to a distaste for the kind of self-promotion others used to advance their careers, she became disillusioned with graphic design and her role in it:
"Clever verbal architects used my skills to promote their projects; mostly real estate developments. I designed good design covers for many questionable commodities. I worked fast and well and my projects came in at or below the budget. I flattered the men, got paid and then went home to cook dinner."
And then in 1977, having closed her office, she went back to college, this time to the University of California, "to study what I hadn’t learned in Basel; the myths and misinterpretations behind the messages of the Modern Movement. I read mostly French philosophers cleverly discrediting the superficial visual covers I was so skilled at designing; the deceits I’d wrought on the world by camouflaging guileful land developments with good design covers and learned that to design is to do the work of the Devil."
And so one of the most talented designers of her generation was lost to the profession, preferring to pursue a career as an artist instead.
This all happened 30-odd years ago, but do Barbara Stauffacher Solomon's experiences and concerns, I wonder, still ring true with female designers today?
Here's what Ruth Ansel, the pioneering art director of Harper's Bazaar, Vanity Fair and The New York Times Magazine had to say on the subject when we profiled her in last May's issue of CR (subscribers can read the piece here):
"In part, women today are facing a storm of conflicting expectations. Women feel that they have to achieve in the workplace, they have to look fabulous, preferably thin as a model, and probably go under the knife for their first nip and tuck before they’re 30. Oh, and besides this they’re supposed to be perfect mothers and wives. They’re obliged to pull all this off simultaneously. What craziness is that?
So I think that many women, who recognise after 10 years or more that their wonderful jobs are not so fulfilling, are opting out. They are marrying later, having babies later, and divorcing earlier. If they’re lucky they’ll find that their biological clock hasn’t run out on them like their man has who is probably on to his next trophy wife. Many are not so lucky. Often they feel stranded and deceived by a system with diminished opportunities."
The February issue of Creative Review magazine in which the article discussed appears is available to buy direct from us today by calling +44(0)207 292 3703 or go here to buy online. Better yet, subscribe to CR, save yourself almost a third and get Monograph for free plus a host of special deals from the CR Shop. This issue also includes all the winning work from our first Type Annual.
The full version of Adrian Shaughnessy's interview with Barbara Stauffacher Solomon appears in Supergraphics – Transforming Space: Graphic Design for Walls, Buildings & Spaces, published by Unit Editions. It is exclusively available here.
As a graphic designer and a woman today, I have a fantastic husband who stays home with my son full time and we are both happy with the system. Our parents think we both are fighting our inner natures somehow, but I think we feed our inner natures fine- just in non-traditional spheres.
Most women, not all though, pursue their career while maintaning a balance life between their passion and other responsibilities (especially for moms). Though being a wife or a mother doesn't have to restrict what you do for work, there are some limitations imposed (like the amount of time spent and effort). That's why I'm always amazed with women who make names in the field they choose, while doing their other responsibilities.
I blame Emmeline Pankhurst.
I am both depressed and cross to say this rings true of my career/life.
Hopefully one day men will spend, on average, the same amount of time and energy raising children as women.
It's a situation that has been apparent ever since women started working. It's ourselves who worry that we're not achieving enough and so we beat ourselves up about it. Being a mother for the first few years is a full time job and when you have a few children it can take up decades of your time. Maybe there is a chance for women to start up companies that can benefit their careers as mothers and workers. A support system and self confidence in what you're doing is right is the only way to survive. The male/female ratio in design is appalling but not surprising.
Yeah! Solomon's so right!
Forget babies and men! They are so overrated!
Love your work and just keep drawing!
Work culture and career obsession is the problem here not men or women. Far too much of our time is given up to having a good 'work ethic' and a 'fulfilling career'. It's work and career that ruins parenting, not vice versa!
The reasons Stauffacher Solomon became disillusioned with Graphic Design are universal regardless of sex; ie. Graphic Design is mostly about making something shit and unnecessary look good.
sometimes I wonder who we are designing for? Is it for ourselves, our ego, for art, to communicate, or to just sell pretty things.
"You can't have the best of both worlds." often you choose to be a parent, if not you soon understand the responsibilities this involves. And if the man doesnt carry his weight then kick him in to touch. If you can afford to hire a nanny then thats a whole different ball game.
"You cant have your cake and eat it".
Neither can most men.
Women have been sold the illusion that all men get the best jobs, this is utter rubbish.
And quite rightly you should be annoyed by this, as many many men are today we also fell for it.
In actual fact the top 5% of males get the best jobs and the rest of us get to live the illusion that by working where we do we make a difference in the world.
And finally as a word of encouragement to anyone who has read this far, Whatever you want to be, be the best you can be at it & always finish things off never have any loose ends.
And for fun an old man once said to me that "design is like putting lipstick on a pig", ......... "it is still a pig"... "but we have to dress it up so it sells".
certainly some mixed messages in here, interesting that she seemed to get disillusioned with the process first and then with the product.
dealing with the gender issues first things do seem slightly better now, but only in the way that a broken arm is slightly better than a broken back, one of the main steps forward seems to be increasing consensus among men that the situation is wrong and needs sorting (even if this motivation comes from wanting more time with the children too, rather than wanting to make the workplace fairer) this doubling of people concerned by work life balance should help to keep us moving in the right direction.
their are a few interesting pieces on this on our gender equality debate here
Including my own on being a minority man in a female dominated studio
As for design being unethical because of the way it creates a demand that isn't there or selling unethical products - that's a massive generalisation, if you don't like the game change the rules, aim your skills at something that you feel more worthy of them (I know easier said than done in a credit crunch but small steps can make a big difference)
Well, thank god I'm a man and as such don't ever have to worry about other people's expectations. And it's a darn fortunate I'm too stupid to think about the superficial nature of design and can just happily sit back fiddling with fonts as the money to support a family gushes into my account purely because I have a penis. As for the kids, why would I want to spend time with them? I'm much too busy drinking scotch and chasing my next trophy wife. Men – we love not having responsibilities.
(Sorry, I know that doesn't help the debate. But I think Solomon's disillusionment with design is separate to the gender issue. And Ansel's comments about 'a storm of conflicting expectations … who recognise after 10 years or more that their wonderful jobs are not so fulfilling, are opting out' is true of many careers, regardless of gender.)
I moved into Teaching after 9 years of working in the design department of a well-known, large tv company. The move was prompted by the birth of my son and the opportunity to regain a better home/work balance. I loved my design job in tv and it was a difficult decision but I don't regret it. When I left the company, I was one of only 4 females out of a department of approximately 100 designers.
Until employers make working practices more flexible for both women AND men (there are many Dad's who would welcome the opportunity to balance their family life and careers, I am sure ) this problem will remain.
Sadly,however, it is often women who have to compromise their career potential, due to the demands of parenting.
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