This op-ed is one of a three-part series of opinion pieces in which educators address the way design history has traditionally been taught, and how we can push for more representation in the canon. Two more pieces will follow in the coming days. The series originally ran in Eye on Design magazine issue #01: Invisible.
In the UK, the latest government statistics report that only 29 percent of graphic designers are women; meanwhile, many of those in senior design positions who are considered leaders in the field tend to be men. Yet for decades the number of female graphic design students in higher education has been similar to male—and in 2017, women made up 60 percent of graphic design students. (This proportion stays the same when international students, who are less likely to work long-term in the UK, are taken out of the figures.) This contrast between students and professionals is concerning. There aren’t enough jobs for all who train for one, and who gets and keeps them should be decided by ability, not gender.
So what action can graphic design education take to equip students to deal with gender disparity in the profession? For one, the curriculum can feature more graphic design by women, to demonstrate that innovative and valuable graphic design can be generated by any gender. Educators can explain the historical processes in the development of the profession and its historical documentation that leave women’s work less likely to be celebrated. This can be done in both a creative and critical way, as graphic communication design students at Central Saint Martins, where I am an educator, recently demonstrated.
There aren’t enough jobs for all who train for one, and who gets and keeps them should be decided by ability, not gender.
In December 2017, a group of students, from first year undergraduates to final year masters, both male and female, made an exhibition related to gender disparity in graphic design. Supported by me and Sarah Campbell, curator of the Central Saint Martins Museum & Study Collection, the students made new work in response to graphic design pieces displayed in the museum by eight female alumni and staff of the college. As the students weren’t previously familiar with the women whose work they responded to, even though much of their graphic styles seemed familiar, they named their exhibition I Don’t Know Her Name, But I Know Her Work.
The female designers they chose had careers making graphic design for important clients, competing against designers such as Edward Bawden, Abram Games, and Barnett Freedman—men who are far better remembered today than are their female peers. They include Freda Lingstrom, who started her own graphic design business in the 1920s with British and Scandinavian clients, and became head of BBC children’s television in 1951. Another is Dora Batty, who worked for the prestigious Curwen Press and designed publicity materials for large UK businesses such as Mac Fisheries and Clarks in the 1930s and ’40s. Enid Marx also worked for Curwen, designed book covers for publishers including Penguin books in the 1940s, and stamps for the Post Office in the 1950s and 1970s. Each of the eight female alumni featured had work commissioned by London Transport, creating a total of 150 posters between them (an exhibition of this work by the London Transport Museum, in fact, provided inspiration for this show). Much of their design work was produced during wartime and post-war periods, when women graphic designers in the UK were prevalent, even though their contributions do not get the same attention today as those of their male counterparts.
The more we can teach students to recognize the inequality in their chosen profession, the more equipped they’ll be to change it.
Research into these women’s careers inspired the students’ final outcomes, and we displayed both the new and the historical work at the entrance to the college. The students referenced the issue of under-valuation of women in graphic design, and they broadened their design references to include female designers—but they also became familiar with the media, methods, and styles of these pieces. Including as diverse a range of designers as possible in design education is essential to teaching the whole history of the craft and profession.
Importantly, the study of role models and the reasons for their historical under-appreciation may also help students build the resilience required to achieve long, creative, and high-level careers. It can help explain that, fair or not, the reception of their work may be influenced by more than just how accomplished they are as designers. The more we can teach students to recognize the inequality in their chosen profession, the more equipped they’ll be to change it.
Ruth Sykes is cofounder of REG Design, an associate lecturer at Central Saint Martins, and a postgraduate candidate at the Royal College of Art.