On International Women's Day 2017, I was given the great privilege of presenting my research on gender disparities in graphic design history to graphics students at Central Saint Martins (CSM). My talk was part of a debate entitled 'Do we need graphic design history?' between myself and Dr Paul Rennie, Context Subject Leader for the Graphic Communication Design programme at CSM.
'Yes, we do need graphic design history', I argued. Of the several points I used to build a positive case, the one that generated most discussion was about gender gaps in graphic design. I argued that an understanding of graphic design history was a way into understanding wider gender disparities in the current graphic design industry. These disparities include a gender pay gap (latest figures here); small numbers of women in senior positions (as reported here); and a lack of women talking on stage at industry events (example here), alongside the under-representation of women's contributions to graphic design history.
Graphic design history has largely foregrounded the achievements of male graphic designers, leaving the contribution of female graphic designers under-examined. In my presentation I suggested that if graphic design history were revised to include more of the accomplishments of female graphic designers, it would be one part of the process of achieving equal industry status for female graphic designers. Knowing that the reason female graphic designers rarely appear in our history books is due to the way that history is made, rather than a lack of actual contribution, could help the industry realise its goal of gender equality.
An internet search for 'notable graphic designers' returns more male than female designers.
This revised and expanded graphic design history that includes the achievements of female graphic designers is well underway. Examples of this include the work of Hall of Femmes, Women's Design and Research Unit, and Women of Graphic Design; and the books Women in Graphic Design (edited by Gerda Breur and Julia Meer), and From Suffragettes to She Devils (by Liz McQuiston), to name just a few. I hope my research will contribute to this field. I shared some of it in my presentation; for example, the exhibition I curated at Central Saint Martins last year – 'A+: 100 Years of graphic communication by women' at Central Saint Martins. I also referred to my recent research into eighteenth-century author, illustrator and designer Elizabeth Blackwell, and my next research project, which will examine the story of the Co-operative logo.
Somewhat surprisingly for a graphic design historian, Paul Rennie was happy to argue against the need for graphic design history – or at least the standard academic presentation of it. To illustrate his argument, Paul drew attention to the commonly found dichotomy between the design of academic histories of graphic design and their content. One would expect a book containing authoritative writing of how graphic design works and influences society to be designed in a way that fully exploits the power of graphic design to move minds. The constraints of academic publishing, however, dictate that the design of academic graphic design history books follows a generic template for both text and image layout, and material choices regarding paper stock, print process and physical dimensions. Paul called upon graphic designers to take back control of their own histories, and design those histories with feeling and pride.
Although our presentations were packaged in the 'yes/no' debate format, ultimately Paul and I want the same thing: a graphic design history that takes equal account of diverse contributions from designers of all backgrounds, and a format for graphic design history that exploits the power of visual language as a force as potent as the words themselves.
Ruth Sykes RCA/V&A MA History of Design student, Associate Lecturer in Graphic Design at Central Saint Martins, and co-founder of graphic design studio REG Design.