Bringing to light and life

A welcome study of female graphic designers can only enrich our understanding of the discipline and its history

Despite the prevalence of women studying graphic design and the number practicing as graphic designers, there are few studies on the profession of female graphic designers. Women in Graphic Design, 1890–2012 is a significant step in reclaiming this lost ground. Based upon a research project conducted by editors Gerda Breuer and Julia Meer at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal, Germany, it is a substantial publication comprising collected essays, interviews, selected documents and short biographies that chronicle and contextualise the work and careers of over 400 women graphic designers. Attractively designed and richly illustrated, it is an ambitious book that brings together original scholarly research and previously published articles to right the record and write the history of women in graphic design.

The editors admit from the outset that the problem with a book that addresses the issue of ‘forgotten’ women designers is that in seeking to correct these omissions, it unavoidably reinforces others. Add to this the paucity of publishing and scholarly study on women in design and it is all but inevitable that there will be heightened sensitivity about who and what has been included, or not.

While this book aims to provide an international and comprehensive survey of the field, there is undeniable bias in both its content and context. There is an especially strong showing of Germanic designers, and US designers and educators feature prominently, too, but from a UK perspective there are notable omissions. Among them, Morag Myerscough (Studio Myerscough), my colleague Lucienne Roberts (LucienneRoberts+ and Graphic Design&), Sophie Thomas (thomas.matthews and the RSA) and Marina Willer (formerly Wolff Olins, now Pentagram) might reasonably be expected to feature, and it is surprising to find them overlooked here. But then this is a book in which the issue of selection and omission looms large.

The first section contains selected essays exploring the position and profiles of both well and lesser-known women graphic designers of the past, including pioneers Cipe Pineles, Ray Eames and Dore Mönkemeyer-Corty. However, a significant frustration throughout this dual-language book appears early on – texts are printed only in their original language, so three of 12 essays appear in English, the remainder represented by an English abstract, and nine of the 12 interviews are in German. Substantial content and the contribution from some women designers can be seen but, disappointingly, not heard.

The documents section is dominated by views and voices from the US. There are fascinating juxtapositions – reading ‘Some aspects of design from the perspective of a woman designer’ by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville (1973) alongside ‘The boat’, a letter from Paula Scher to Julie Lasky at Print magazine (1993), highlights the stark contrast between a designer whose feminism has defined her practice, and one for whom the issue of gender is a largely unwelcome distraction. It is interesting that although there are a number of women designers here who resist or resent being “adjectivised” (to borrow Veronique Vienne’s term) in this way, this book ultimately makes a strong case for the reverse.

Taken together, Ellen Lupton and Laurie Haycock Makela’s correspondence ‘Underground matriarchy in graphic design’ and Martha Scotford’s ‘Messy history vs. neat history’ (both 1994) make a compelling case for the subversion of the mainstream graphics industry, to create a culture and conditions in which not just women designers, but a range of alternative thinkers and makers are supported, encouraged and promoted. Scotford’s call for “an expanded view of women in design” is no less relevant or timely today.

Indeed, it is striking that while the majority of these essays were written over a decade ago, the profile and attitude of the industry they describe remains so recognisable. As Astrid Stavro details in ‘Beyond the glass ceiling – an open discussion’ (2011), women are still under-represented on jury panels and conference line-ups, in memberships of professional organisations and in the multitude of books on design. Breuer and Meer note that in their experience there is ambivalence among the current generation of designers about the importance of gender in design and even a belief that it is no longer an issue. Encouragingly, many of the designers Stavro interviews are aware and concerned by this lack of visibility, and their common question depressingly familiar: where are the women?

The final section of the book goes some way to lay this question to rest. The short biographies bring to light and life a lineage of women designers across the generations, which eloquently demonstrate how women have been and continue to be active and successful in graphic design. It is a visual treat to see this heritage: Carin Goldberg’s Gallup journals (2001) alongside Jane Atché’s poster for Job cigarettes (1896); Grette Stern’s striking designs for Uhu (1927) in relation to Jessica Hische’s typographic illustrations (2011).

The combination of insight, information and images collected in this book succeed in capturing some of the complexities and many of the dimensions of the role and experience of women in graphic design. It is, however, neither definitive nor conclusive and is perhaps most accurately described as a book about some women in graphic design. Some who have been denied the spotlight, some who shun the spotlight and some who have had the spotlight shone upon them.

Women in Design is by turns fascinating, frustrating and inspiring. It reveals the work of women designers who have slipped from history. It reminds that women have excelled in areas such as book design and achieved significant influence and impact through graphic design education, most notably in the US where the roll call is formidable: Muriel Cooper at MIT, Sheila Levrant de Bretville at Yale and Katherine McCoy at Cranbrook to name but a few. It exposes the tension between those who wish to be seen as women designers and those who do not. Importantly, it highlights the ongoing issue around the type of design and designer that the profession predominantly chooses to recognise and reward. It is a much-needed book that expands the history and understanding of graphic design – and a thought-provoking, overdue introduction to inspire further study and act as a foundation for the future standing of women in graphic design.

Rebecca Wright is programme director of Graphic Communication Design and course leader of MA Communication Design at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. She is co-founder of GraphicDesign& with Lucienne Roberts.
A GraphicDesign& Social Science title exploring how gender affects professional development and career outcomes in graphic design will be published later in 2013.

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