Strength in numbers

An open day at the studios of 12 female creatives is just one initiative making the work of women designers more visible

Joana Niemeyer is set up at a picnic table with stacks of maps, muttering the British Saturday prayer: “So long as it doesn’t rain.” The designer is an active member of Graphic BirdWatching, a network aiming to encourage diversity in visual communications by celebrating and supporting the work of female designers. I have come to Hackney under a drizzling sky to partake in BirdWatching’s Graphic Design Walk.

Now in its third year, the walk sends London Design Festival visitors, equipped with a map, around 12 open studios in east London managed by female creatives – art directors, printmakers, illustrators, set- and graphic designers. “We constantly try to provide meeting spaces and activities [that are] off the web,” says Niemeyer. “It works great for networking and takes off the edge of intimidation for young designers and students.”

The map for the walk, created by London-based illustrator Karolin Schnoor, is just accurate enough to leave space for intrepid BirdWatchers to drift around Hackney. Its ballooning rents attest to the fact that much of the area’s up-and-coming years have passed to leave behind the coffeeshops of the recently gentrified. From photographer Linda Brownlee’s shared workspace in an industrial estate next to Regent’s Canal, a view of the London skyline filters through derelict gas holders as, four floors down, high-end prams queue up on the approach to Broadway Market.

“I think I’ve been ‘up-and-coming’ for over a decade,” laughs Brownlee whilst talking to her visitors about professional confidence. The trick, apparently, is to just tell yourself you’re already where you need to be. For freelancers, close networking with other professionals will help
keep that faith.

The sentiment is echoed later that afternoon down Miller’s Junction, where Janina Sitzman is one of five BirdWatching designers exhibiting their work at Print Club London. PCL provides its members with access to its versatile screenprinting studio, as well as deskspace for over 30 illustrators and designers in a new creative studio next door. “A lot of client deals and team meetings happen down the pub – there’s no problem in running with that,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t build additional environments to connect in.”

The additional environment that BirdWatching provides is a welcome one for the group’s Eliza Southwood, who trained as an architect and is now a full time illustrator and printmaker. “I don’t believe in gender separation,” she says, “[but] that being said; that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”

Varied in their professional practices, the members of the BirdWatching network are drawn together by a shared concern about the lack of a public voice for female creatives. Data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that 61% of the UK’s undergraduate degrees in creative arts and design in 2011/2012 were earned by women, but somehow this presence isn’t reflected in the workforce. “Women designers are there, but you don’t hear about them,” complains Lisa Sjukur, who works with Niemeyer at Studio April. “It’s endemic.”

“It’s a true observation, but then you have to ask yourself, who controls the prize-giving ceremonies, the magazines that give exposure to designers, the key blogs in our field. And, what kind of vested interests these might represent,” says Teal Triggs, associate dean of the Royal College of Art’s School of Communication and co-founder of the Women’s Design + Research Unit. “Certainly, you have to search a bit harder to discover women designers who are committed to design and are doing great work, but don’t find the drive to generate those high-profile press spins and take time out of
their studios.”

Researching the book Women in Graphic Design 1890-2012, Julia Meer and Gerda Breuer ran into these issues of lower profiles as they attempted to revise the canon. In writing about her process for Hall of Femmes – the group that highlights the work of female designers through a blog, lectures [see CR July 13] and a series of books – Meer said they soon realised that in order to explore the history of women graphic designers, just tracking named designers and their work would not suffice. Instead questions had to be asked about “when and where designers become visible”. Historically, female designers’ tendency to work in the background translated into their vanishing into it. Meer and Breuer’s 600-page book [reviewed in CR Feb 13] is trying to re-arrange those layers.

Whilst we remain fairly taken with the notion of the divine genius creating in isolation, the reality is that community not only provides a network through which to create good work, it also instils the necessary confidence to carry the tidings of it beyond pitch room doors. “This is where Graphic BirdWatching, Hall of Femmes, Women’s Design + Research Unit and other similar design collaboratives have excelled in raising awareness by highlighting women designers and their work so that they are visible to those beyond the studio doors,” Triggs concludes.

Such collaborations improve the chances of having a more balanced reflection of the profession and extending legitimacy beyond the widely publicised canon. Yet regardless of whether there is accurate female representation, the canon isn’t without question itself and probably serves us best if we use it to examine what isn’t included. Otherwise, as designer and historian Martha Scotford remarked in an article from 1991, it hampers discourse through a sense that “the best is known, the rest is not worth knowing”.

Whilst the Guerrilla Girls sardonically claimed that being included in revised versions of art history was one of the Advantages of Being a Woman Artist in 1988, revision might not go quickly enough for many of the 30,000 or so young women graduating from art and design courses in the UK each year to stop them from dropping off the radar. You cannot be what you cannot see.

In her workspace on Teesdale Street, Sandra Zellmer, a graphic designer from London via Düsseldorf, stressed the importance of spreading BirdWatching’s wings further to reach “many, many more young designers, [to] encourage them to participate”. Talking openly about the realities of working designers of all genders gives young designers vision. “The majority of visitors [to the Graphic Design Walk] seemed to be fairly recent graduates with bundles of enthusiasm and questions,” says Brownlee a few days later. I briefly chatted to a couple of them during our lunch break. “I expected front desks and security guards,” one of them says. “But it’s all open doors and backyards … Pot Noodles in the shared kitchenette.” “Does that disappoint you?” “No, it’s great. Makes it seem so much more do-able.” “Hmm. You should tweet that,” I say.

Julia Errens is a London-based design writer and contributor to Monotype’s Brand Perfect initiative. More on Graphic Bird Watching at graphicbirdwatching.com

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