Typography appears to be a particularly male-dominated area of the design industry, and I often ask typographers why they think that it is. When I go to design conferences, there are brilliant women in the line-up who talk about type (at this year’s TypoBerlin, Nadine Chahine was the highlight), but most lectures I attend that are specifically about typography tend to be presented by men. As recent findings have shown, back at 2015’s TypeCon, there were 52 men speaking and 15 women, at Typo Berlin 2015 there were 61 men and 15 women, and at Typographics 2015 there were 18 men and 8 women.
It’s been suggested that type design’s roots in the historically male-dominated world of printing has resulted in today’s gender disparities. Sibylle Hagmann, type designer and founder of Kontour, explored this in her 2005 essay for Visual Communication journal Non-existent design: women and the creation of type. “In the 19th century, women began to have access to university or college training[…] they were encouraged to focus on the learning of crafts such as weaving, textile painting, pottery, illustration[…] all occupations orientated towards the decorative”, Hagmann writes. “Male-dominated areas such as metal-smithing or the design of lead type were not about decorating.”
Design activists have addressed the lack of equality in the type industry before; in the 90s, the WD+RU (Women’s Design Research Unit) highlighted the issue through the development of typeface Pussy Galore. But as the stats show, in 2015 there was still significant imbalance. In the last year this has begun to change—Typographics recently had a 50/50 split in its line-up, and TypeCon has made a significant effort in addressing inequality. This change can be attributed to the efforts of several women within the industry. So who are the type and graphic designers addressing the gender balance in typography today?
The Typical Type: Where are all the women?
In 1994, design historians and educators Teal Triggs, Sian Cook, and Liz McQuiston set up the WD+RU to highlight the role of women in design during a period when the industry was rapidly changing. The group’s aim was to question and subvert traditional male power structures within the overwhelmingly new and transitional context of technological innovation; it was a bold and necessary motivation, one inspired by an event that took place when the founders attended a Fuse typography conference in 1994 (a yearly event organized by the experimental typography magazine of the same name).
“At the end of the day, all the speakers were invited onstage for the last round of applause,” Triggs recalls. “It was at that point, when they were all visible in front of us, that we noticed the line-up was all white, middle-class men, many with glasses.
“I raised by hand and asked a question about the selection process: where are all the women?”
The response of the oblivious bespectacled jury was of genuine shock; they hadn’t noticed any imbalance. Shortly afterwards, one of the conference’s organizers, graphic designer Neville Brody, asked the WD+RU to contribute a typeface to Fuse magazine that in someway articulated Triggs’ pressing question. That’s how Pussy Galore was born, a font named after Honor Blackman’s uncompromising character in James Bond film Goldfinger. It’s a rich and conceptual approach to typefaces, directly addressing gender stereotypes using dingbats of feminine archetypes. Its letters include pouting lips, Eve’s snake, and a floppy Monroe “dumb blonde” hairdo.
Different configurations of the font result in striking juxtapositions: it invites the user to consider the lexicon of female stereotyping, to think about the words and visuals that define the gender status quo.
I ask Triggs whether she has noticed any real change in the representation of women in the typography industry since that imbalanced Fuse conference and the release of Pussy Galore.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” says Triggs. “But, particularly over the last three or four years, the conference line-ups, both in terms of speakers and juries, reviewers visiting the conference, who is on stage, has changed. There’s a nod towards something shifting in a really, really positive way. I’m optimistic, but I’m also not complacent.”
In 2015, type designer Lila Symons posted a tweet that brought the conversation up to date: “I just looked at the main conference schedule for @typecon and barely any women are speaking. Seriously, what’s up with that?!” she wrote—a comment that sparked and provoked heavy discussion.
Articles and blog posts were written, more tweets were fired and refired, all of which spurred designer Isabel Urbina Peña to launch Yesequal.us. The directory attempts to close the gender gap in the type industry by featuring the portfolio and contact information of over 1,200 women members. “Whether you are holding a conference and want to find talented women speakers, or are trying to get in touch with other ladies in your field, feel free to browse,” the homepage reads.
Before launching the site, Peña collated a number of statistics that addressed representation not only in typography but across all fields of visual communication, and she published her findings on the site. The stats show that the number of the women in art schools, on jury panels, and receiving prestigious awards is raising every year in most areas of the design industry.
“In contrast, type design conferences are mostly men,” Peña writes. “It hasn’t changed much in the last few decades.” Sites and groups like Alphabettes.org have also emerged as a direct reaction to this imbalance: they showcase and research women in lettering, typography, and type design in order to bring the topic to light.
Another Typology: “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman”
So why does there seem to be a lack of women in typography specifically? Recently, Berlin-based typographer Verena Gerlach wrote an article for Typographica exploring possible reasons.
“The most common explanation is that type design is a ‘technical’ profession,” writes Gerlach. “This is rubbish. Yes, font production does involve some programming, but, as a whole, doesn’t type design have as much to do with the patience required by classic female handcrafts, like needlework and knitting?” The writer suggests that a lack of role models and the proliferation of the lazy myth that a kind of obsessive masculine nerdiness is required for type design have led to a situation where young women don’t see themselves as having the “right” characteristics for the discipline.
Gerlach’s argument encouraged Stockholm-based student Kim Ihre to begin Typequality, a database of typefaces designed by women. To create the font for the website, Ihre drew on the very “technical” and traditionally female crafts of embroidery and stitching, a direct and pointed response to the idea that the “technical” skills required to design type is somehow inherently male.
Ihre’s story and experience in the educational realm of type design is a familiar one. “During my early years at Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm, I worried that I was doing things wrong. I felt inadequate and insecure,” says Ihre when I ask her about the reasons for starting Typequality. “I soon realized that my insecurity could be due to the lack of women role models in the field of typography. I started to research and I saw that actually there were many women.
“I found so many new role models, and I wanted to share that with others.”
Of particular interest to Ihre is type-designer Zuzana Licko. Born in 1961 in Bratislava, Slovakia, and emigrating to the U.S. in 1968, Licko founded foundry and later magazine Emigre with her husband Rudy VanderLans. In 1996, she designed the font Mrs Eaves—a traditional serif that’s not just beautiful and poetic in its play with traditional motifs, but also a typeface with a powerful narrative. Named after Sarah Eaves, the wife of innovative printer and typographer John Baskerville, it celebrates one of the many forgotten women in the history of type. Eaves finished many volumes of work left behind after Baskerville’s death and worked on many of his typographies, receiving little credit for her endeavours.
“The way that Licko combined the craft of typography with this narratives amazes me,” says Ihre. “I’m convinced that role models are important for every young girl entering any field of work. Art schools need to integrate new histories into their curriculum: maybe stop talking and talking about classical typefaces Helvetica, Times New Roman, Garamond, Futura, Gill Sans, Baskerville… All made by men. Make education more modern and equal.”
This is not a new debate for most areas of art history—so why should it not be extended to the history of type too? I imagine opening up a book and finding pages on typefaces designed by women like Mrs Eaves, Pussy Galore, Berytus, and Odile, all sitting alongside the well-established usual suspects. I imagine seeing a chapter on Anna Rügerin, who is considered the first female typographer to inscribe her name in the colophon of a book in the 15th century. There are lots of histories still out there to be explored and become part of the received wisdom.
A New Type of Press
Graphic designer Elana Schlenker runs Gratuitous Type magazine, an independent title for typography enthusiasts that consistently achieves a striking balance of contributors, not just in terms of gender, but also location, race, and discipline.
Triggs had emphasized in our conversation that “the media needs to be accountable for, oftentimes, very lazy journalism. It’s very easy to continue to talk about the same people because they’ve been in the press a lot, and it’s much more difficult to locate young women who haven’t been talked about yet.” Gratuitous Type breaks from the go-to list of same the faces, featuring the known and unknown in a way that’s balanced but not simply for the sake of being balanced.
While all-female design sites have been vital in supporting and celebrating young and forgotten female talent, we should be seeing work chosen because of merit and originality; not because of their sex or status in a self-perpetuating all-boys-club.
“I think the best outcome would be for more and more women type designers to be made visible not solely because they are women but because they are talented, period,” Schlenker rightly asserts.
Queertype and Stereotype
As a graphic designer, a particular issue that Schlenker often encounters is being asked to design products for women because she is a woman, but then being told by men to make the work more “feminine”. “It propagates trite gendered work,” Schlenker says, “but I think the solution is not just to employ more women designers but to elevate more women into roles of leadership, as that is where visual direction and final sign-off comes from.”
The issue of gender equality in the typography industry is two-fold. There isn’t enough representation, so non-male experience doesn’t feed into the design output. Triggs and the WD+RU began to argue this in the 1990s, addressing how “few women have then used their graphic design skills to redefine or restructure visual language.”
Recent graduate students Minna Sakaria and Carolina Dahl of Summer Studio in Stockholm are addressing gendered use of type with their work. Sakaria first became interested in the subject when researching gendered sub-brands—she was looking at H&M, Coca Cola, and Gillette, noticing how a neutral, angular sans-serif is used to signal masculinity, while the feminine binary is inevitably represented by a flowing, soft, and curling font. So Gillette “Fusion Power” has a technical, fast-paced and very purposeful typeface, while Gillette “Spa Breeze” is, naturally, flowery and decorative and a little dreamy. As I discussed in a recent article about feminine stereotypes in tampon package design, this restrictive and binary approach to design is patronising.
“I question our employment of these stereotypes: are we oversimplifying things in the name of communication and clarity?” Sakaria asks. “Thinking about this is how the idea of Queertype was born.
“Typography is the perfect medium for contradiction because it allows for redundancy: you can say ‘girl’ twice with the same word by using a girly typeface.” For the Queertype project, Summer Studio used the typographic stereotypes but challenged them by switching their application, ie. writing words associated with girls with a masculine typeface and vice versa.
“I designed two gender stereotypical typefaces—Sans and Avec—and made them queer by applying them inverted,” explains Sakaria. The typefaces were used for t-shirts featuring slogans found at high-street clothing stores. T-shirts “for boys” reading things like “trouble is my middle name” were re-appropriated with Avec, while slogans “for girls”, like “I wear flowers” and “cats have more fun”, were printed using the stoical, neutral Sans.
It’s not just women in the industry that need to feed their experience into work and use their position to readdress the status quo, but everyone across the gender spectrum. Visual communication is riddled with stereotypes—it’s by working from the ground up, say starting with the basic tool of type, that designers can begin to dislodge the binary and represent a broader range of experiences in marketing and branding.