For a country that gave office to the world’s first democratically elected female president nearly 40 years ago, and has since elected the first openly gay Prime Minister, it’s usually taken for granted that Iceland is feminist to its core. But chatting to graduate designer Helga Dögg, it seems that, even if the politics of the country are more progressive than most, its graphic design industry is lacking where equal opportunities are concerned.
“It’s really male out here,” she says. “I feel like I can’t get a job because I’m a woman. You know Slut Walks? I work for the Slut Walks. There were no graphics for it, and when I was in my first year I asked them if they wanted to have some. So I did that for three years.
“But people in Iceland are so prudish that in my experience they don’t want a woman with a loud voice working for them. So I just do my own thing.”
While the circumstances surrounding Dögg doing her own thing are less than ideal, what she’s produced on her own steam and dime is incredibly impressive, particularly given she’s less than a year out of education. Her design concerns itself with challenging conventions that marginalize and repress. While studying at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, she became interested in how Icelanders with disabilities were invisible across the media, or, if they were given a platform, were presented in stereotypical contexts.
As a result she produced Þrátt fyrir (Despite) a project encompassing printed materials and a lecture series, that called for Icelanders to make “multifacetedness the norm” and adapt their culture to embrace people with disabilities. Unlike many student projects, this hasn’t come to a standstill after graduation, and Dögg has developed these ideas into a full-scale publishing project, a 400-page bookazine called Blæti.
“It means like, fetish. It’s a mix of activism, fashion, and advertising. You never see anyone with a disability in advertising images. I invited people to a lecture on it, and a lot of people still said there was no way we could have disabled people in advertising. It was so sad. Then I met Saga Sig and Erna Bergmann and they shared my views, so they invited me to art direct Blæti,” which included making Iceland’s first fashion adverts with disabled subjects.
“All the articles either have a social agenda or deal with feminism. Like there’s one looking at the problem with fast fashion and theft, and another story about an Icelandic entrepreneur who moved to Slovakia. She was so badly slut-shamed. She’s really comfortable with her sexuality and she’s a bombshell—it was so beautiful to meet her—so we made her wear all this clothing with positive messages on it.”
Making clothing with slogans is a field in which Dögg excels, and it’s impossible to walk through Reykjavik without passing a cap or jacket emblazoned with one of her messages. For the Slut Walks she made caps and underwear branded Drusla (slut in Icelandic), in collaboration with Greta Thorkels, and persuaded one of the city’s most respected skateboarders to pose in women’s panties. For Þrátt fyrir she released a series of bomber jackets with the words “Þrátt fyrir” struck through, challenging the idea that disabilities need to be limiting.
On top of all this, Helga’s concerned about her generation of Icelanders, and how quickly they’re becoming isolated from one another. “We’re millennials, and that’s a good thing, but it’s a lonely generation. We’ve all got Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram, but so many of us are lonely, which is killing us. It’s the biggest problem for our generation. We’re always portraying ourselves but we’re not doing anything, and we’re afraid of everything. We all have social anxiety. Why? Because you’re always trying to keep this image of yourself maintained, and it’s so much work to keep putting that out there.”
This is a problem she feels affects young designers in particular, whose career success depends on their successful navigation of social media.
“As a designer you have to brand yourself, and I don’t know who I am. Am I really serious and quiet, or am I a big mouth? I’m both. But you have to have a consistent presence, and I can’t do that.”
Consistent social media presence or otherwise, Dögg has already proven herself an essential addition to Iceland’s design landscape, deftly tackling sensitive issues with compassion and flair. Whether or not a local agency hires her, she doesn’t really care. “I’m going to do my own thing,” she says, “there’s so much ego in design.”