Here’s a surprising figure: 70% of graphic design students at London’s internationally distinguished arts university, Central Saint Martins (CSM), are women, compared with 50% in the late 1990s. Yet the number of female graphic designers that currently feature in the curriculum is only 30%.
“Like all educational institutions, CSM is keen to ensure students see themselves reflected in the curriculum,” says associate lecturer Ruth Sykes. In order to address this blatant discrepancy and improve awareness, she’s curated A+, 100 Years of Visual Communication by Women at CSM, a new exhibition that runs throughout the university halls.
The show displays the work of memorable designers like Lucienne Roberts and Sara De Bondt, as well as lesser-known, early 20th-century practitioners like Heather “Herry” Perry and Kathleen Hale. Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts’ recent Pathmakers exhibition also highlighted the work of dynamic mid-century women designers, and Sykes realizes and relishes the fact that feminism is currently featuring so prominently in the zeitgeist.
“Gender issues are being talked about all the time now; we’re arguably in a fourth wave of feminism,” says Sykes. “So I thought it was a good time to enter that conversation specifically from specifically the graphic design education point of view.”
Recent research published in Graphic Designers Surveyed revealed that there’s still a staggering gender pay gap in the industry, which increases as designers age. The CSM show’s 100-year spanshighlights just how long the pay gap has been an issue that women have actively campaigned against through illustration and design. In addition to the 2016 Surveyed book (published by ex-CSM student Lucienne Roberts), a 1910 suffragette publication The Common Cause is also on display. Its cover cartoon by Rachel “Ray” Marshall satirizes the bigoted, chauvinistic, anti-suffrage view that attractive young women were not interested in voting or reforming women’s pay (above).
The A+ exhibition also shows just how much work by women graphic designers is around us every day, even though we might not know it. “Together, Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir designed the road signs for Britain that have been in used since 1965,” Sykes points out. Calvert drew a number of the original symbols, including the famous “Men At Work” sign that Sykes has chosen to display at CSM (above).
It’s a show that contextualizes and reconfigures latent narratives. For those that have noticed the new wave of independent feminist magazines—a group that includes fiercely intelligent titles like Riposte, The Gentlewoman, Ladybeard, Girls Like Us, Film Fatales, Krass, and more—the inclusion of Spare Rib magazine at A+ will be of particular interest. The “second-wave feminist women’s magazine” was produced in 1973 by Kate Hepburn and Sally Doust (previously art director of Australian Vogue), and the pair set out to create “a new kind of visual language that would indicate it was both a women’s magazine and a publication that challenged the status quo” (above).
Recognizing its iconic status and the valuable insights it gives into women’s lives during its 21-year existence, The British Library has recently digitized every copy of the magazine for public browsing. It’s presence at the exhibition—with its crisp blue boarder, unabashed photography, and no-nonsense tone and type—is an important reminder of precedence: you can trace the same kind of bold, confident energy that you see on the cover of The Common Cause to the courageous Spare Rib and all the way to contemporary publications like Ladybeard. Note how Spare Rib’s allusion to “the liberated orgasm” in 1973 has now transformed into the pink vibrator of Ladybird’s celebrated 2015 cover (also above).
Although there are many women who study graphic design, in 1994 the number of graphic designers in the industry was predominately male, something that the UK’s WD+RU (Women’s Design and Research Unit) actively sought to rectify. The CSM show also displays its Pussy Galore typeface (above), a response that the group created after going to a typography conference where the speakers were all male.
“The experimental typeface consist of dingbat style icons reflecting on the endless spectrum of stereotypical language used to label and control women,” explains Sykes. “While there are more women in typography today, it is interesting to note the recent creation of the ‘Alphabettes’ network, which exists to support and promote women in the fields of lettering, typography, and type design.”
A fifth important piece of visual communication on display at CSM’s A+ is Morag Myerscough’s “Letter A,” designed for The Creative Review in 2013 (above). Its inclusion is a celebration of Myerscough’s popularity and contribution to the field of design—her work is included in the permanent collection at the V&A, she was included in Debrett’s “People of Today” list, and most recently she was part of the design team awarded architecture’s Stirling Prize.
Hopefully shows like this will encourage the next wave of women designers to realize that face of graphic design is, indeed, changing, and that visual communication is not only an exciting way for women to express themselves and shape the world, but it’s a profession that’s inclusive as well. Maybe then these designers and artists can be exhibited without having to be called out explicitly as women, but simply because their work is powerful and effective.