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Why We Can't Let Design Become a Boys' Club Why We Can't Let Design Become a Boys' Club

Why We Can't Let Design Become a Boys' Club

by Dylan C. Lathrop
June 21, 2011


Graphic design is, by and large, a boys' club. Of course, if you were to survey practicing male designers, you'd find an abundance of guys that wouldn't identify as sexist. But personal beliefs don't always translate to how we work, and that's an issue that needs to be addressed. Female designers still struggle to feel comfortable in their profession and recognized for their work.

Recently two separate incidents made this point clear: the launch of MOMENTUS, a visualization of important moments in U.S. history curated by Evan Stremke, and the Weapons of Mass Creation Fest, a three-day event held in Cleveland, sort of a SXSW for design. These projects are great because they challenge designers and highlight their work, but both suffered from the same glaring flaw.

With MOMENTUS, the failure to include women has been acknowledged (though not on the project’s home page). I reached out to Stremke to ask how it came to pass that he did not have a single female designer or illustrator in a project that has 30 pieces. His reasoning was one that is common among creative people that curate this type of project: He wanted to work with his friends and didn’t realize that gender imbalance would be an issue. Both things I can forgive, for sure, but neither one is good for design.

MOMENTUS and Weapons of Mass Creation are not outliers. The recently completed 50 and 50 project also had a pretty big gender gap, featuring only seven solo female creatives and three small studios that include women. (Ten out of 50 is low, no matter how you slice it.) The root of the issue is that most dudes in design don't have a very diverse network. This can be attributed to any number of things, but mostly to the fact that women have historically been marginalized in design, often considered boutique or needed only to make things that sell specifically to women. That's reflected in the numbers: Only 3 percent of creative directors are women, so few that a conference was set up to discuss the problem.

This is all such a bummer! We haven't vaulted ourselves very far above the 1960s stereotypes presented on Mad Men. But it’s not as if women designers and illustrators aren’t out there. In making excuses for the dismal number of women highlighted in these events and projects, the organizers reveal that they are just lazy. Throw a stone (not literally, I don't condone that), and you'll hit a talented female designer. My graduating class at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design had roughly a 1:1 male to female ratio, so it's not like they are rare. (Indeed! Check out our slideshow of 25 women designers and illustrators we love.)

And yet, of the 20 presentations at the Weapons of Mass Creation Fest, only four featured women. The event didn’t just lack gender diversity. The speakers were almost all white. Again, I don't necessarily blame the planners, but the only way to buck this trend is for the presenters to be aware of who will—and won’t—be on stage with them. A word of advice: If you find that every slated participant looks exactly like you, don't participate. The personal benefit of discussing your work shouldn't come at the expense of not fully representing the diversity within the profession. I can't imagine being a woman and attending an event like this, with so little representation. Surely designers like Irma Boom, Jennifer Daniel, Paula Scher, Marian Bantjes, Jessica Hische, or Keetra Dean Dixon could have been asked to participate. Maybe they were and maybe they turned it down. Even so, hungry, young designers are waiting in the wings to show what they have.

And let's face it, they should have the opportunity to do just that. Every talented female designer should burn down the status quo, and every well-intentioned male designer should be aware of the flaws in his own network. Mix it up and get challenged. Design can only benefit from diversity, and frankly no one wants to be a part of a sausagefest. Am I right, ladies?

UPDATE: The conversation is moving! Evan Stremke has taken to his personal site to explain his approach to MOMENTUS; the designers of Quite Strong have posted about their involvement at the Weapons of Mass Creation Fest; a few people were critical that we didn't attempt to solve this issue on our own, but perhaps that's because they missed our accompanying "designing women slideshow" (you should really check it out!). Bobby Solomon of The Fox is Black posted his reaction to this article and was nice enough to reach out to me for a response, which you can find at the bottom of his piece. 

We want to keep talking about this issue, both here and elsewhere. But it might serve us all to take a deep breath, sip a chilled beverage, and remember that this isn't about any one person or event or project. It's about expanding our networks in meaningful ways to ensure quality experiences for everyone.