Feministiska founders Lina Forsgren and Ellen Subraian.

While in her last year of study at Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm, Lina Forsgren teamed up with her friend Ellen Subraian to form an agency. It’s not an unheard of story; former students with a shared creative sensibility and professional outlook open new businesses together all the time. Yet Forsgren and Subraian also came together out of ideological necessity, rejecting what they perceived as a stifling agency culture and outmoded way of thinking within the industry.

“We couldn’t find any companies that presented an alternative to the homogenous, male-dominated design and communication industry,” explains Forsgren. So they founded Feministiska, a cooperative of graphic designers, illustrators, art directors, programmers, project managers, and copywriters based on a set of feminist and intersectional principles that anchors every aspect of the design process. Four years down the line, and the studio has managed to build up a successful practice and impressive case study for “norm-creative” strategies—a radical method of design thinking currently taking contemporary Swedish design education and practices by storm.

www.feministiska.se homepage

 

Popularized by gender theorists Rebecca Vinthagen and Lina Zavalia and their book Normkreativ (2014), norm-creative is a method adapted from feminist and normative critical theory that asks a designer to question discriminatory standards and values. For years, under the name Settings, Vinthagen and Zavalia have been lecturing and giving workshops at schools and businesses on norm-creative strategies, and how they might lead to inclusive workplaces and diversified forms of visual communication.

A norm-creative process begins with a “norm-critical” perspective—an interrogation of the potentially harmful and prejudiced effect of each design decision and aesthetic choice. Critical questions within a graphic context include, “Who or what is represented visually and textually, and who or what is left out?” and “What potential for identification is there in this image?” After identifying a norm and questioning what might make it problematic, the process sees designers developing a strategy for readdressing the problematic element or elements.

As an example, Forsgren points to an oft-cited yet still pervasive way discrimination is baked into even the most benign areas of design. “Make up and clothing advertisements often talk of the “Nude,‘ presuming a white person’s skin color,” she says. “Just call it beige!”

So how does this theory play out in practice? Most recently, Feministiska used norm-creative strategies to design the identity for Fempowerment, an organization that supports women, girls, and non-binary victims of domestic violence, especially those who are new arrivals to Sweden. Feministiska first decided that illustration would play a key role in humanizing the website and other communications; it felt strongly about collaborating with an illustrator who could relate and empathize with those supported by Fempowerment.

The designers landed on Vera Panichewskaja, originally from Belarus, whose resulting illustrations are friendly and open, and whose characters are diverse in age, appearance, ethnicity, and ability. In line with norm-creative thinking, the set addresses those less visible in mainstream communications and ensures that marginalized people can identify with the drawings.

For the web design, Feministiska chose a block structure for easy navigation. Fempowerment’s help-line number is prioritized in a large font at the top of the page; an alerting pink button floats at the bottom right hand reading “panic exit button,” which will take the visitor to Google’s homepage immediately if their abuser unexpectedly enters the room. Its design is welcoming in its color choice but doesn’t overtly advertising the website’s purpose (a strategy not dissimilar to that used historically by designers of publications for sexual assault victims, as explored by Interference Archive’s Take Back the Fight exhibition last year).

Fempowerment homepage.

Another project in which Feministiska have used norm-creative strategies was in branding and developing the website for The Unstraight Museum. The online platform allows LGBTQI people to share personal stories by linking their memories to images of objects. Clicking on one of the objects on the homepage takes the user to the text of a personal story that accompanies it. But instead of dictating the order of the content—and therefore the experience of reading that content—Feministiska designed the site so that the user can move each object on the screen themselves, placing each into a spatial hierarchy of their choice. Whereas a typical website might have still blocks that dictate a reading, Feministiska’s flexible system encourages a plurality of experiences.

The same sense of fluidity and inclusion is emphasized by design choices ranging from the Pride Flag-inspired color palette to the fonts, which are all designed by female type-designers. Feministiska often works primarily with fonts by women, sourcing them using Typequality, the project by Kimberly Ihre that lists women-created typefaces.

In its manifesto, Feministiska emphasize that it avoids static designs and embraces movement across all of the identity systems it creates. “An identity should have a strong core but also be able to change and morph to represent and speak to different people,” says Forsgren. “It’s a way of building design that is more open and welcoming.”

Unstraight Museum homepage.

Organizing a non-hierarchical cooperative company that makes collective decisions requires patience and a committed effort bent on dismantling existing systems, as the Women’s Center for Creative Work’s recently published A Feminist Organization’s Handbook makes especially clear. For Feministiska, logistical hurdles are made simpler by the fact that each member of its cooperative is a specialist in their specific field and so takes responsibility for their particular area of expertise. The ten members collaborate on a freelance basis, making practical decisions together via lengthy discussions over Slack. Separately, individuals also have their own practices and projects; Forsgren is a freelance graphic designer for example, taking on projects like the London-based ethical fashion webstore Birdsong, which boasts an ethos of “no sweatshops, no Photoshop.”

While many studios and designers identify as feminist, Feministiska builds its intersectional feminist politics directly into its mission and mode of operation. As with any projects that have a feminist core and an online presence, it’s been met with hateful comments online, but also celebratory praise for its inclusive politics. Client interest has also rapidly grown, though Forsgren points out that one of the most important decisions for the studio is to work with those whose message they can support in good conscience.

“Today, compared with when we began, there are more and more agencies working with norm-critical strategies, and with feminism as a foundation,” says Forsgren. “They keep emerging and, at least in Stockholm, the more traditional agencies need to keep up with those values. Ultimately, there are no excuses left. You can always practice feminism and work for equality.” 

Printed matter for the Unstraight Museum collaborative conference, Halland.