Illustration by Celestin Krier

This article was originally published in 2018 in the “Worth” issue of Eye on Design magazine. We’re republishing it today in honor of Equal Pay Day. 

Picture your favorite font. What do you see? The shapes and contours that inspire and excite you, or the person who designed it? Let’s say you choose Helvetica. Do you picture the friendly counter of the lowercase a, or the smiling face of Massimo Vignelli, who made it famous? Bonus points if you pictured his designer wife, Lella, who shared his affinity for the modernist typeface.  

The history of design has been written by both women and men, but there have been times when it was difficult to see where women have had a seat at the table, and just how significant their contributions have been. While the doors of design have always been open to women (sometimes just a crack, sometimes more), the industry has not been immune to sexism, outdated expectations around gender roles, and the claustrophobic effect of the glass ceiling. 

The history of design has been written by both women and men, but there have been times when it was difficult to see where women have had a seat at the table.

It’s no secret that no matter the industry, corporations are unfriendly to change: As of January 2018, women represented only 4.8% of CEOs on the Standard & Poor’s 500. Female-only–founded startups received just 2.2% of 2017’s total venture capital funding, and according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the gender wage gap is unlikely to close before the year 2059 if current trends continue.

Low numbers are concerning enough, but the rate of stagnation is cause for real alarm. Women are the chief executives of just 22 of the 500 most profitable companies in the United States. The share of IPOs led by female CEOs in the United States has averaged around 5% since 2000, and the percentage of female senior venture capitalists has actually dropped from 10% in 1999, to just 6% in 2018.

As an industry that prides itself on being forward-thinking, designers owe it to themselves to turn their critical eye inward and look at just who’s leading the charge for change. Gender parity and pay equity are still issues, but the landscape isn’t actually all that bleak. And when compared to many other industries, design has actually come a long way, and women have always been part of the lifeblood of the design world—whether or not their contributions were acknowledged at the time. Lella Vignelli, after all, was not just Massimo’s wife—she cofounded Vignelli Associates and ran the business for years. If the most effective change truly comes from within, the key to getting more women into management roles is to tap into the collective power they have within the field, a movement that’s already underway. 

The most crucial key to unlocking opportunities in graphic design to women is actually the women themselves.

Pay disparity in male and female artisans has been recorded as far back as the Arts and Crafts movement in the 19th century, when women were trained in artistic and production skills but paid a wage that was considered “supplemental” to their husbands’ income. Decades later, during the advertising boom of the 1960s and ’70s, women had a clear creative presence, though neither their salaries at the time nor the lack of recognition reflect that. 

Design luminary Paula Scher started her career designing album covers in the CBS promotion department in the ’70s, and while she later became one of the most famous designers in her field, she certainly wasn’t alone coming up. Scher recalls a sense of community and camaraderie among herself and her fellow female designers. This group included influential designer Henrietta Condak, who Scher says, “helped her [illustrator] husband, worked three days a week, and did the best work in the joint.” While Scher and her fellow designers knew they were hired because their talent was more “bang for the buck” than their male counterparts, she says that their real focus was always simply on the work. They produced the best design they could and believed the rest would come later. 

Success did come later for Scher. She was hired as the first female principal at Pentagram in 1991, yet it would be decades before the same could be said of other women on a significant scale. One major downfall of the ’70s was that talented female designers weren’t given the tools to succeed as independent business owners, making it hard for them to launch their own companies and upend the status quo. Even in large, progressive cities, women were faced with sexism from both colleagues and clients. Scher notes that while women fostered their design skills, male-dominated business culture not only discouraged women from starting their own companies, but made it extremely difficult to win clients if they did. 

Scher says that when trying to build up her business after leaving CBS “expectations were low.” During her early days at Pentagram, she was often mistaken for a spouse at company events. Since then, Scher has redefined graphic design through her work with Microsoft, Citibank, MoMA, The Public Theater, and many more, meanwhile making significant headway in creating opportunities for other women on their way to top design positions. Pentagram now has five female principals in its U.S. and UK offices, most recently Astrid Stavro, who was hired in late 2018. While there is a long way yet to go for the industry at large, it’s still encouraging to view the design world compared to other sectors.

“I didn’t see the gender difference in a school setting, it’s only in the professional world that you start to see leadership roles mostly represented by men.” —Min Lew

According to the 2019 AIGA Design Census, 61% of designers working today are women. The rate of female creative directors across the industry rose from 3% in 2008 to 29% today. While this number of women in leadership positions is certainly not the end goal, it indicates a positive momentum and genuine sense of progress. And with more than half of the industry being women, the chance to effect change is even more significant. 

It’s even more encouraging to look at the number of women graduating with advanced degrees in graphic design. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 60% of graduate graphic design degrees go to women (by contrast, it’s estimated that fewer than 50% of MBA students are women). However, this highlights the stark contrast between women in school and women in C-Suite positions. Why do these high numbers of female grads and working designers start to taper off the closer you get to the top?

As the global CEO at brand consultancy firm Wolff Olins, Sairah Ashman is one of the few women who has made her way up the ranks. Like Scher, she recalls a time when the expectations of women’s professional goals were egregiously low. Her school counselor advised her to decide between being a secretary or a nurse. Luckily, she says, “I had different aspirations.”

Even today, design education doesn’t always set up students to succeed in the professional world. The priority of rigorous design programs is to build technical skills, learn design history, and create a portfolio of work, all of which is gender agnostic. But entering the workplace means navigating the gray areas of negotiating salaries, balancing family life, and projecting confidence in a world that is not always friendly to women. Many female design graduates feel unprepared for that, no matter how strong their work is. “I didn’t see the gender difference in a school setting,” says Min Lew, creative director at Base Design in New York City. “It’s only in the professional world that you start to see leadership roles mostly represented by men.” 

The main differentiator between design and industries like tech and finance is the fact that design is a visual and product-oriented industry, driven by the power of creation. Scher says that while she and her contemporaries were building their careers, she took comfort from the fact that “design is a visual profession—you can see if someone is good. That’s the advantage every woman has. If you stay in the game and you do the work, you’ll be recognized. Women have the work.” In other words, while women in design are still fighting for power and recognition, they have, for half a century, at least been in the room.

“If you stay in the game and you do the work, you’ll be recognized.”—Paula Scher

The gospel of “the work” is a belief that many young designers share. Scher’s fellow partner at Pentagram, Natasha Jen, notes that “gender never came to my mind until I was in more of a leadership position. I was very focused on my work and developing my skill set; just trying to be the best in whichever group I was part of.”

The most crucial key to unlocking opportunities in graphic design to women is actually the women themselves. After hearing the personal stories of more than half a dozen women, it was heartening to learn that, in their view, the design world has bred a remarkable degree of compassion and cooperation among women in powerful positions, and a sense of responsibility to give back. As the New York Times recently noted, change starts in the boardroom. The same is true of the design industry: The most significant change has relied on women climbing to the top of the ladder and extending a rung to young up-and-comers.

Kat Gordon is one of these women. Gordon was taken aback in 2012 when she learned that grim 3% statistic about the amount of female creative directors in 2008. Having started her own agency years before, Gordon knew firsthand the challenges women faced when it came to moving into leadership positions. Her solution was to create the 3% Conference, an annual conference that teaches professionals from around the world best practices for managing employees, cultivating work/life balance, and fostering diversity in the workplace.

“Gender never came to my mind until I was in more of a leadership position.”—Natasha Jen 

“Sexism is not only asking somebody to sleep with you,” Gordon told the the New York Times in 2017. “We’re getting at those subtle things—how much your firm is celebrating women, how much you’re giving them the stage to own the floor, to being in front of key clients, to participate in pitches.” No longer just a two-day conference, Gordon’s organization has launched MiniCons in cities around the world, a certification program for agencies that want to cement themselves as equality-driven, agency consulting programs, a student scholarship fund, and a series of significant research projects. 

For Jessica Walsh, partner at Sagmeister & Walsh, a sense of internal frustration at the lack of women in power spurred her to curate a conversation series called Ladies, Wine & Design, in which women come together to seek knowledge and inspiration through mentorship circles, creative meet-ups, and portfolio reviews. Walsh’s frustration, that there simply aren’t enough opportunities available to women from the top down, is shared by many, creating a new paradigm where women fight from the ground up. The organization, which started in New York City, has spawned more than 200 outposts around the world. “We’ve heard stories of women who formed bonds through our meet-ups and who went on to create studios or new businesses together,” says Walsh, “women who were inspired from the events to make career changes to pursue what they truly love doing; women who got the courage to ask for a raise or confront a coworker who was being sexist.” 

“Female leaders should be using our privilege to help others benefit.”—Cat Hyland

For Cat Hyland, formerly the ECD of Portland-based agency Swift, “creativity is a team sport.” Launched by Liz Valentine and Alicia McVey in 2007, Swift prides itself on being a female-led company. As a firm with an impressive history of female entrepreneurship, Swift’s leaders feel an inherent duty to pay their insights forward. “It’s really all about goal-setting and accountability,” says Hyland. “Female leaders should be using our privilege to help others benefit. Mentoring makes all the difference. Investing in your people is one of the best ways to create change.”

Yet even as women designers look inward at the design industry’s own gender parity problems, most practitioners still have clients to contend with. Design doesn’t exist in a vacuum; as part of a service industry, graphic designers often work with companies in an adjacent industry, whose values may or may not align with their own. Lew describes her professional agency experience as supportive and harmonious, with many women in director and staff positions. However, she notes that “as creatives, the reality is that we do deal with clients. It’s been interesting for me to notice who’s on the other side of the table.”

Many female designers are also hopeful for a more inclusive future because of the nature of design itself. The goal of design lies not simply in economics, it’s about creating something—from a typeface or logo to an entire brand identity or digital product—that speaks to and represents the world around us. The most significant change usually happens in direct proportion to the bottom line, and increasingly, consumers are flocking to brands with values (or, at least, purported values) that align with their own. 

According to one 2017 study, 90% of millennials prize authenticity in advertising, but only 57% of consumers say that brands create campaigns that feel authentic. Global powerhouses Nike and Audi have debuted ad campaigns this past year that call attention to racial and gender equality, and to significant profit. After their ad featuring football player and social justice icon Colin Kaepernick, Nike says their sales rose 31%. 

Successful firms intrinsically understand that a more diverse workforce leads to more dynamic, effective, and relatable design. According to Hyland, this heightened cultural awareness has presented both designers and clients with opportunities to educate. “Minorities deserve to see themselves in media,” she says. “The future belongs to creatives, brands, and agencies that see how powerful design and advertising can be in that regard.”

“Social media combined with cheaper tools that allow for a lower barrier to entry and the flexibility to work from home have all helped democratize who can become a designer or who can receive recognition and work.”—Jessica Walsh 

While the design industry hasn’t been as demonstrably affected as Hollywood or news media by #MeToo, it has still felt the cultural shift the movement incited. “As a society, we’re a lot more aware of gender inequality issues,” says Jen. “And as women, we have the opportunity, as well as the responsibility, to actually shape and fine tune this movement so it doesn’t fall into a simplistic battle between men and women.” 

Additionally, opportunities to work remotely has helped ease the pressures of family life, which is something that is still a very real concern for women in every industry. Walsh agrees, saying, “Social media combined with cheaper tools that allow for a lower barrier to entry and the flexibility to work from home have all helped democratize who can become a designer or who can receive recognition and work, and find success.”

This past November, Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin, the founder of the Gaia Project for Women’s Leadership, took the stage at the 7th Annual 3% Conference and asked the audience to think of one commitment they could make to help steer the organization toward its goal of 50% female leadership. That may seem daunting, but history has shown us that daily perseverance and support from every woman working in design has made us all more empowered, each generation improving on the last. 

The design industry is poised to be a leader in adapting to equality and making women’s voices heard, in the boardroom and beyond. We haven’t arrived yet, but reflecting on the experiences of the women who have made it to the top thus far, the future is in good hands. If everyone, both men and women, grasped the lessons those early female leaders have to teach, design stands to outpace other industries when it comes to creating a more inclusive workplace. Design is a discipline that improves only with a combination of self-awareness and keen perception. After all, you can’t design the writing on the wall if you can’t understand its message.