Farah Kafei and Valentina Vergara, Led by Example

The story of gender imbalance in the design industry is an oft-lamented tale: you don’t need us to tell you that while more women study graphic design than men, the higher you rise up the ranks, the more the scale shifts in the opposite direction. As we’ve previously discussed, this imbalance is palpable across disciplines: typography appears to be a particularly male-dominated area of the design industry; She-Mojis have been created to address the male-skewed designs of the characters; an entire directory devoted to female-identifying illustrators is still necessary.

Now, Pratt Institute students Farah Kafei and Valentina Vergara (also best pals and roommates) are tackling the problem, too, through an initiative created as part of their studies called Led By Example. The project was born out of their “frustrations with the gender imbalance amongst our professors and in our design history education,” and through their research they found that across the U.S., the majority of graphic design students are women (around 75%), yet the majority of professors are male (again, around 75%). In school, they felt they were being taught a canon of graphic design that “commends male accomplishments over their counterparts,” that lacked a comprehensive and inclusive history, and that even ignored the fact that Cipe Pineles was the first female graphic designer to graduate from their own institution.

Of course, such a male-skewed syllabus is not only unjust, but also unhelpful: it doesn’t reflect the world we live in, nor does it inspire future designers by example. As such, Led By Example aims to question, challenge, and confront the “male dominated structure within design education” by bringing awareness to and instigating productive conversations around the topic. 

“It all started out of conversations around our frustrations as students choosing our senior thesis,” says Kafei. “We usually take a lot of classes in typography and graphic design, and when deciding our professor there were literally no female professors. It’s rare here to have a male classmate, but it’s very rare to have a female leader. We were so frustrated at not being represented; I feel like I’m already about to start on a career facing what I see as downright sexism.

“It makes sense to start from the beginning, and address how that plays out in education. It’s not that those women examples don’t exist.”

As part of the research for the project, the designers asked other students across the school to write down as many names from design history as they could in three minutes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, more than 70% of the names were male. “It just shows how imbalanced our education is,” says Kafei.

Led By Example then manifested in a number of ways. The designers created a publication called Missing Pages, which documents female designers throughout history in striking monochrome and neon green, with typography that appears occasionally jagged—imbuing a sense of anger and potency to the aesthetic. Pages from the book—described as a “reconciled history textbook”—were printed at a huge scale and hung around a  “rather an awkward hallway/room in our department”, as Kafei puts it, “There’s a lot of foot traffic from one building to the other that goes on in that room, which is why it was the perfect space to run into these women on your way.” 

These were accompanied by a “resource corner” which provided visitors with printed ephemera of key reading material and information including books Kafei and Vergara asked the department to purchase, as well as stacks of scanned essays. “To do this project, which called out the department and criticized it, we of course had to get permission from our department. We were so nervous,” says Kafei. “One of the biggest things we learned is that all you have to do is ask.”

Other aspects of the project included a set of postcards, using the same typefaces and colorways as the publication, called Send Thanks. “We wanted visitors to be able to reach out to the larger world and provided postcards as a way to do so,” say Kafei and Vergara. “We encouraged visitors to use the postcards to thank a woman in their life, or a woman they admire, which we then stamped and mailed for them.”

The pair also produced the free panel discussion event Against All Odds, which focused on gender disparity in graphic design education and its effects. Carly Ayres, Natasha Jen, Ellen Lupton, and Tracy Ma spoke at the event, which Kafei describes as occasionally “tense,” in a good way. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought that’s the point—that everyone has different opinions. It was interesting seeing the gap between what the older women and the younger women thought. It’s great to have different ideas in the mix.”

“In general, I think the older women did what they needed to do, and what they could do, to become successful designers, and I think that meant letting a lot of things slide and moving on,” says Kafei.

“The younger women seem are a lot more comfortable and perhaps even feel like it’s their responsibility to be more vocal. Natasha said ‘There hasn’t been a better time to be a woman.’ And while I think we can all agree, I think the younger generation is eager to continue making it an even better time to be a woman. Natasha and Ellen are so thankful and happy with where they are today, and with how things are today, that it feels arbitrary to complain about microagressions. Tracy and Carly, on the other hand, are working toward a world where there will be no microagressions to complain about.”

Indeed, there’s no real discussion and debate when everyone agrees with each other. 

Farah Kafei and Valentina Vergara, Led by Example

Both Kafei and Vergara are Hispanic Americans, and, for them, their backgrounds add a further sense of urgency to the project, and to their feelings around the design industry more widely. “We’re women but also immigrants, so we feel that studying graphic design is a huge privilege,” says Kafei. “If I’m here already, I have his power and platform. I’m not going to put my head down, I’m going to speak up for what I see as unjust.

“I’ve never been taught by any Hispanic women, I’ve only been taught by two females, and one black person. It’s just sad. Recognizing there’s an issue and that you need to do your part in helping against misogyny is important: amplifying women’s voices and giving them credit are very simple things.”

She adds, “I’m not going to put up with bosses or coworkers who don’t treat me right—who make racist jokes or don’t truly give women a voice.”

Farah Kafei and Valentina Vergara, Led by Example

Though the event and the show are over, and the book has been produced, Led By Example is a project that lives on, and that Kafei and Vergara see as an easy mission we can all help continue. “Just open your mind to wider range of experiences and histories; do what you can to bring in a more inclusive history.

“Pull from other texts: don’t sit and read a book by white man, hear other voices and you’ll get a larger, better, more full picture. It makes sense for everyone.”