Making Visible
By Vera Sacchetti

05 March 2024


Women in design, past, present, and future

Issue 2.2

Design history

Looking at the Present: Dismantling and Developing Systems of (In)Visibility

Contemporary design practice is marked by the work of several female designers, many of whom have their own offices and design exclusively under their own name. Since the 1980s and 1990s, product and graphic designers such as Hella Jongerius, Ilse Crawford at Studio Ilse, Rianne Makkink at Studio Makkink and Bey, April Greiman, Paula Scher at Pentagram, and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, among others, made their mark and effectively became trailblazers and inspirations for female designers everywhere. While some of these women are declared feminists, however, others are decidedly not, and merely adapted themselves and their ways of working to the patriarchal, competitive and exploitative nature of design as determined by the modernist canon. This is a problematic attitude, because it does not defend or encourage the inclusion of women in design practice, history, and in fact continues to propagate the mechanisms of invisibility that were discussed in the first part of this essay.

This ambiguity continues to this day – while some designers work in a decidedly inclusive, horizontal, and feminist way, others merely replicate ways of working that defined the past. Whether the myth of the lone creator carried through by an unnamed collective of collaborators, the unwillingness to end exploitative practices, or the neoliberal understanding that there is no space at the top, these ways of working are damaging to both designers and design itself. In order to create and support systems that will render female designers visible and keep them that way, it is important to understand that those at the top have the dual responsibility of not only inscribing themselves into history, but also to highlight their peers and open the doors to those who will come after them. How can we dismantle old, ingrained patterns in order to develop systems of visibility, and ensure that the stories of contemporary female designers are transported towards future generations? Additionally, we all have a shared responsibility to give nuance to the theme of “women in design”, and thus avoid it becoming merely a buzzword. A simple look at how women are currently represented in design media can be useful to identify stereotypes. A few articles discussed at the 2019 A Woman’s Work symposium, organized by Foreign Legion, started a conversation on the use of language, collaboration, representation, forging one’s own path, and responsibility. At the symposium, author Alice Rawsthorn pointed out how labeling things “women/female/feminine” can be marginalizing, but “given that we are coming from such a bleak history of female invisibility, these tactics aren’t particularly useless.” She further noted how stereotypical representations and reductive characterisations of women designers abound, and therefore it is important to consider the imagery used. Controlling the images that go along with the articles can strongly influence people’s memories.

When was the last time you saw a portrait of a woman designer? How was she portrayed, and what did the image evoke? “There has been a significant increase in the visibility of women in design in the mainstream media in recent years,” Rawsthorn pointed out during A Woman’s Work, noting how the next step of the work remains ahead of us. “We need to build on it with a dynamic and critical discourse,” Rawsthorn said. “While many skirmishes have been won, others await.” Fighting simplification and stereotypes, Rawsthorn’s work is informed by her lifelong feminism, and has in recent years, especially through the weekly series in her Instagram page, introduced and contextualized with depth and nuance the work of numerous female designers, from Jane Addams to Otti Berger.

Design media and publishing have an extraordinary power in shaping the discourse of the discipline. It is therefore essential to continue to support those initiatives that, on the one hand, continue to shed light on understudied aspects of design history, and on the other, document our present moment in comprehensive ways. A good example of the former is the Errata project, a doctoral investigation by Isabel Duarte, which through a multilayered output spanning research, publications, podcast episodes, a website, and an exhibition, focuses on Portuguese graphic design history to shed light on the universal systems that “devalue, omit and ignore the work of women.” In her Errata manifesto, Duarte quotes design scholar Ece Canlı, stating a need to “‘interrupt history’, so we can begin the process of unlearning, reconstructing and relearning it.”1. Ece Canlı, “Design History Interrupted: A Queer Feminist Perspective”, in Polysemia #1, quoted in Isabel Duarte, “Manifesto”, Errata, 2021. She also quotes feminist theorist and educator bell hooks, noting how “attempts to improve the representation of women cannot only append women to existing histories — these methods of history must themselves be transformed.”2. Cf. bell hooks, Feminist Theory: from margin to center, South End Press, 1984. 

Errata: a feminist revision of Portuguese graphic design history, 2021, installation view at Gabinete Gráfico – Museu da Cidade, Biblioteca Almeida Garrett, Porto. © Alexandre Delmar

An example of this kind of effort can be found in the publication 1 – A New Perspective on Women Graphic Designers in Europe. Authored by German designers Claudia Scheer, Lea Sievertsen, and Silva Baum, the book seeks to counter a male-dominated discourse that is prevalent in the field. A diverse selection of work by contemporary women graphic designers showcases commissions, independent work and research. It is complemented by interviews with designers, social scientists and academics, focusing on themes that range from design philosophy and ideals, to everyday work situations and experiences. The result is an expanded view of contemporary graphic design history, and an apt mosaic of a polyphonic present.

In a similar vein, the editorial platform Futuress actively transforms the way in which contemporary design is mediated, while simultaneously giving space to a wide network of voices that have otherwise been unheard in the design discourse. Founded in 2020, the platform describes itself as a “queer intersectional feminist platform” that strives to be a “home for the people, histories, and perspectives that have been – and still often remain – underrepresented, oppressed, and ignored.”3. “About”, Futuress, 2023. Here, design is inseparable from politics, race, class, and socioeconomic issues, true to the entanglements that define the field. In their work and approaches, all of these examples – from Alice Rawsthorn’s Instagram series to Futuress’ expansion of voices and themes in design – are transforming the methods of making history, of inscribing the stories of women designers in the design field, while simultaneously pushing for an expanded understanding of that same discipline.

Parallel efforts can also be observed in other arenas. Traditional gatekeepers of knowledge, from cultural to educational institutions, are also engaging with these ideas and opening space for those that have been overlooked. In 2019, with Matylda Krzykowski as part of Foreign Legion, we curated Add to the Cake: Transforming the roles of female practitioners, an exhibition at the Kunstgewerbemuseum Dresden. As a manifesto, at the time we declared: “We can — and need to — add to the existing cake: infinite layers for an expanded canon. Adding to museum collections and to historical accounts, adding to collective memory and to possible futures. Most importantly, we must realize that ‘adding’ doesn’t mean ‘taking away’, but that it enriches the existing context with multiple, varied voices and perspectives. A cake with added layers will be, altogether, a different one.”4. “Add to the Cake”, Kunstgewerbemuseum Dresden, 2019. The exhibition aimed to enact the kind of transformation that design is experiencing, and the museum embraced our exploration of female practice, past, present, and future. Through performance, new commissions, visual fictions, we sought to represent and envision a future that is already being shaped now.

Against Invisibility Hellerau Designer – Why were women written out if this historical context? © Klemens Renner, SKD / Kunstgewerbemuseum Dresden

Other museums have devoted themselves to the topic. In 2021, the Vitra Design Museum opened a large exhibition about women in design, titled Here We Are! Women in Design 1900-Today. Curated by Susana Graner, Viviane Stappmanns, and Nina Steinmüller, the exhibition presented a revisionist take on design history, but also centered contemporary practitioners and new, collaborative ways of working. “In the present day, nearly half the design students are women, and women lead the way in many pathbreaking areas of design,” the exhibition noted, proposing a reflection on “what design should be in the twenty-first century, who defines it, and who it is for.” 5. “Here We Are! Women in Design”, Vitra Design Museum, 2021. Despite the fact that the exhibition did not publish an accompanying catalog, it did embark on a five-year-long traveling period, and after being displayed in Weil am Rhein in 2021, it has already been presented in Rotterdam and Barcelona. The impact of exhibitions such as these, especially on students and young designers, should not be underestimated. Seeing oneself represented – as a woman designer – in a museum or exhibition hall can function as a long-deserved recognition for some, but also as inspiration for many others.

Similarly, research projects in universities and polytechnics are centering the work of women and dedicating the time of students and teachers to these themes. Looking beyond women’s insertion in curricula and textbooks, some groups are forcing institutions to take a good look at themselves and their own structural inequalities. Such is the case of the Parity Group at the ETH Zürich’s Architecture Department, a grass-​roots movement founded in 2014 by architectural students and staff members to advance matters of parity at the school. Through their initial manifesto 9 Points for Parity, a strategic list of measures designed to improve gender balance, they managed to enforce the cre­ation of an official Parity and Diversity Commission, as well as push for parity in the selection of jury members, invited critics and new hires within the department. Additionally, they organize a yearly symposium called “Parity Talks”, which keeps bringing international and external guests to discuss topics of parity and diversity every year. Such activist work is remarkable, not least because it has guaranteed continuity and permanence in the discussion and implementation of parity and diversity, with an undeniable impact in the school and all those that form part of its community.

From schools to museums, from publications to doctoral investigations: the work to dismantle systems of invisibility is never ending and needs to be continued systematically, every day. And yet, as it continues to be done, it is important to recognize that it isn’t only about women, and especially not about Western European and North American (WENA) women. As design strives to become more inclusive and diverse, it is important to go beyond the gender binary and welcome perspectives from all parts of the gender spectrum. Similarly, it is crucial to center work that is being done by non-white designers, in parts of the world beyond the WENA regions. It is through this effort that design can ultimately become a discipline for the 21st century.