Women in Design: Now, Then /

by Linda Norlen

What designer isn’t curious to hear how other designers’ careers have taken shape? Small surprise, then, that the Women in Design panel organized by Tether Design Gallery drew a crowd (mostly women).

Shannyn Roberts (moderator, Methodologie) asked questions of the four panelists: what project are you proud of? How do you feel about technology? Did you have a mentor? How do you stay inspired? What’s your design process?

Because the four work in quite disparate areas of design, the answers were varied.

Wendy Chisholm (newly at Microsoft from academia) is an advocate for accessibility. When you talk about people with disabilities, she says, listeners often shut down. But when you design products that are accessible to everyone, those products also help people with disabilities.

As an engineer and strategist, Chisholm “lives and breathes” technology, which she sees as part of daily life, allowing us to connect, hear more peoples’ stories, and through them see a more varied view of the world.

Describing herself as relatively new to “the graphic design scene,” Chelsea Conboy (illustrator/designer for Bumbershoot 2010) confesses to being “a bit of a Luddite. Technology terrifies me [because] it has the power to isolate people.”

Asked about mentors, Åsa Sandlund (brand creative director for Nordstrom) said that rather than follow the path of her own mother, who was a doctor, she looked to a friend’s mother, the “cool mom,” a book illustrator who stayed home and drew. Later, in her professional life, she had several women mentors.

Robynne Raye (Modern Dog co-founder, Cornish College faculty) also said she was more influenced by people she knew—especially her business partner of 27 years, whom she met “when we were both kids and grew up together”—rather than heroes from afar, like Picasso.

When someone from the audience asked the panelists if there were certain things they wouldn’t compromise about, Raye said she had been offered a lot of money by an ad agency to design cigarette packaging. “I don’t have anything against cigarette smoking,” she said, “but I knew that kids were attracted to our work; I just couldn’t get past that.” She declined the job.

However, Raye said she regretted turning down some work in the past. A beer company had asked her to do some ads for a female version of the “Spuds MacKenzie” ads. At the time she could only imagine it turning out like their girls-in-bikinis ads, but now she realizes it could have been done differently, and she wishes she’d taken the job, because “it could have been empowering.”

photo: Tether

When Roberts asked the four panelists if their role as a woman had changed over the years, there was more agreement on that subject than almost any other of the evening.

Chisholm, the technology engineer, said she used to try to be one of the guys, but felt less need to do that now.

Sandlund claimed to have never thought about it: “I’m from Sweden, where we’re all equal… and I’m working for a company with 72% women.”

Raye said: “I don’t think about it. I wake up and design. It’s not male or female.”

Conboy: “I’ve never thought about it…there’s never been a better time to be a woman.”

After a few more questions, the panel was over. Or so we thought. Then a woman in the back of the audience stood up. (Only later did I find out that she was Paula Rees, principal of a company called ForeSeer.)

“It’s great that women today feel they don’t have to think about gender anymore,” Rees said. But it’s also important to know our own history and to remember that the name “Women in Design” has significance in Seattle: a group of women designers here started an organization with that name that eventually grew into a larger group and finally into AIGA Seattle.

And it’s important to remember that some great women designers are still not as widely known as they should be, she continued. Her own mentor of 25 years, Sara Little Turnbull, an influential designer, art director, and consultant who later ran the Process of Change Laboratory at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, is still relatively unknown (a state of affairs that Rees is working to correct).

Rees said that another example of a designer who should be better known is Beth Levine, the shoe designer whose work was recently shown at the Bellevue Arts Museum. All her design work was produced under her husband’s name (Herbert Levine Shoes) rather than her own—the custom in the 1950s when they started their company. Few had heard of her until 50 years later. (This, despite the fact that Manolo Blahnik described Beth Levine as “to shoes what Eames is to furniture.”)

As design in the U.S. is more and more practiced by women, it may well be that in our fields, the barriers based on gender have all but disappeared. But the rights and freedom to do our work didn’t happen naturally, inevitably, or easily. Women before us worked for over a century to gain access to everything we enjoy today. Most of the feminists of both the first wave in the 19th century and the second wave in the 1960s and ’70s weren’t aiming only to secure their own share in the status quo, though; they wanted to change society to become more just for everyone.

Today, Rees believes, we’re living in difficult times brought on by short-term, bottom-line thinking; success has been defined only by quick financial returns. “As talented and skilled women, we have an incredible opportunity and responsibility to step up” and devise new ways of doing business to produce a better future, Rees feels, because the old idea of what’s ‘normal’ in business is unlikely to return.

And we all live and work in a country and a world where gender issues still very much exist. (One example of many is the lack of women in computer science). As we enjoy the fruits of our foremothers’ labors, maybe the next step is to figure out what we can do to help women and girls, both close to home and around the world, who don’t yet have the luxury of not thinking about it.

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