Reflections on Design Culture Salon 9: What are the gender politics of contemporary design practice?

While all of the Design Culture Salons for this second series were framed in response to a burning issue in contemporary design, none took place against quite such a build up of anticipation as this, the final salon, on the gender politics of design practice. This was partly a result of the deliberate timing of the event to celebrate International Women’s Day. However, the topic also met a seemingly revived appetite for conversations about the role and representation of women in design and architectural history, (this one on Jane Drew at the ICA being a personal favourite) and in contemporary practice. The vibrancy of the latter was highlighted through a 48 hour twitter conversation in the run up to the salon, which took place on the 4th and 5th of March, organized by collaborators Women of Graphic Design and the Women’s Design and Research Unit. Such an invigorating set of conversations provided a stimulating starting point for the salon.

Cat Rossi, Senior Lecturer in Design History at Kingston University, chaired the evening’s discussion and eloquently brought this activity to the audience’s attention in her introduction. Rossi introduced a panel of distinguished talent, all three of whom, (Simone Brewster, Sarah Van Gameren and Prof Teal Triggs) work in the practice and education of contemporary design. Unfortunately Marloes ten Bhomer, designer and Fellow at the Stanley Picker Gallery, was unable to make it and sent her apologies.

As Cat Rossi put it in her introduction, in spite of such a buzz of contemporary activity on this issue, the evening’s discussion was starting from a point of  ‘deliberate uncertainty’ over the role of gender in contemporary design practice. This can be explained by the sense of puzzlement for many that the issue continues to stubbornly persist in spite of some very direct and persuasive attempts by design historians and contemporary observers to highlight and confront the issue. As Rossi noted, women make up the fastest growing international market, but in professions like architecture, a startling two thirds claim to have suffered sexual discrimination. So, how can gender discrimination still be such a fundamental issue in contemporary design practice and how might we explain its persistence in practice? If we are to identify this as a negative thing, what might be done about it? As with all salons, the panelists were asked to prepare a short introduction to the discussion and Rossi put to them three central questions for the evening’s discussion as follows. Are you a feminist? Do you think gender is an issue in design? Does gender play a part in your own practice?

Simone Brewster, a spatial designer who initially trained as an architect at the Bartlett school before studying product design at the RCA and founding Flock, an all female design collective, was the first to respond. She opened with an attitude of ‘deliberate uncertainty’ to the word ‘feminist’. This was, in part because in her eyes such a word should not need to exist. ‘We don’t have a word for kicking cats’, she put it. She expressed more certainty over the second question about gender politics in design, confessing a need to restrain herself from off-loading a tirade of examples of how this continues to infuse and contaminate design practice today at many levels. Within this however, Brewster cautioned against looking at gender politics purely from the perspective of design. It is, clearly, something which drives and moulds activity in all spheres of society and should be tackled on this broad level. What happens on page three is connected to the fact that women designers don’t appear elsewhere in the media, for example. She also drew upon many examples of gender inequality in her education which made a formative impact on her decision to address and confront the issue through Flock. In a humorous, but highly revealing anecdote, she described how one of her earliest and most successful designs, ‘Coffee Pommel’, was often presumed to be the work of a man and first began to be circulated online under the name of Simon Brewster. Similarly, she described the process of moving from architecture and spatial design into jewellery and being automatically branded as a ‘jeweller’.

The next panellist Sarah van Gameren, a Dutch, London-based designer forms one half of the design studio Glithero, with Tim Simpson. As Cat Rossi explained in her introduction, this partnership approach has historically been a dominant method for women designers seeking to establish a professional identity in the past. However, Sarah took a quick side-sweep at the notion that gender underlies her rationale for working in this way and offered a different explanation. ‘The role of the designer in contemporary society requires such an enormous set of skills that literally require you to act as more than one person’, she argued. ‘You have to be a great bluffer, a talker, a people’s person, good with money’. You cannot capture this in one personality, but neither can they necessarily be separated into distinct gender characteristics, at least in their practice. While Van Gameren was unable to locate gender politics within her own studio, she was very conscious of how it worked outside. However, interestingly, she argued that this often takes the form of a ‘cocktail of xenophobia and sexism’, and it is hard to see where one ends and other begins. Often, she stated, she plays these identity politics to her advantage when working with clients. The performativity of ‘being a designer’ therefore seems to operate through gender bias, national characteristics and identity politics. She does this comfortably and with a lot of ease. Is this feminist? She thinks so. Again, there was deliberate uncertainty in the air. On a more concrete level, Van Gameren was, like Brewster, able to call upon a host of examples at ‘micro-level’, of how gender bias infuses design practice over issues such as salary and a perceived lack of confidence in the workshop. Personally overcoming this obstacle, she argued that she had found her own journey which involved working at home, building machines using domestic equipment and in a comfortable space where she did not feel as though she was being watched or forced to work in one particular way.

Teal Triggs, Professor of Graphic Design and Associate Dean at the school of communication at the RCA, spoke next from a wealth of experience working through these issues in education and also as co-founder with Sian Cook of the Womens Design + Research Unit. This initiative was established in response to the narrow terms on which the graphic design profession was being theorized and discussed at the landmark FUSE conference for typography in 1994. Attending this conference, Triggs remembers a platform of white males with glasses. She raised her hand to ask the question (fairly simple- where are the women?) and subsequently sparked a conversation within the discipline which has been gathering momentum since. Interestingly also, she seemed to propose that identifying and celebrating the gender politics of design practice can be a positive method of driving a stronger identity for the discipline as a whole. The approach here, she articulated, was a kind of ripple effect of working through small issues – the micro-level previous speakers had identified. These little things make a difference, she said. Nevertheless, international collaborations should be encouraged, if only to raise and provoke conversations at an individual level. The recent twitter 48 hour conversation could be cited as evidence of this. Through this, Triggs and Cook collaborated with Tori Hinn, an emerging graphic designer in Rhode Island and founder of the Women of Graphic Design project. This project, Triggs suggested, is important because it is not about focusing on the ‘big names’ but creating a space for multiple voices and stories about women in graphic design from a range of perspectives. The aim of the twitter conversation was to raise a debate and work across generations. Some of the issues that came up in this conversation (just search #womendesign) relate to education, locating world models, women in professional organisations, in forums and conferences…and the conversation is still ongoing.

Cat Rossi asked the question of how things have changed? Teal reflected on the ‘waves’ feminism has undergone, referring back to the second wave, when she began to practice as a designer, when it had a bad reputation and suffered negative press. The conversation is becoming a little easier, she suggested. Again, the role of national identity came into play. Moving from the USA to the UK, Triggs identified a strong British feminist voice generally but was curious about its absence in the design profession.

The issue of confidence had been circulating through the panellists’ presentation in various forms and Rossi picked up on this. It was clear from the three voices that had spoken so far that they had found a way of articulating and moving through the gender politics that had shaped their careers, whether it be by confronting the issues head on or finding other ways around it.  But not everyone can find this confidence. For Sarah van Gameren, it is important to have multiple voices and multiple perspectives. However, while both Van Gameren and Brewster said that they would rather work inside the profession than stand outside protesting, Teal Triggs said it was important to do both and to be generous in allowing participation from all angles. Brewster expressed concern about how young female designers often designed to conform within pre-existing models of the discipline. The challenge for educators is therefore to give young people the confidence to find their own identity.

A member of the audience thoughtfully pondered the question of how gender balance might be better achieved in design. Obstacles to this were identified. As all the panelists and some of the salon attendees stated, women often start out on careers in design but don’t keep going. There are clear managerial and leadership issues standing in the way here. The need to encourage inter-generational support mechanisms for women in design is therefore key.

Two further questions queried the extent to which design has been adapting to accommodate female perspectives and approaches. While one attendee identified this in his own work, another suggested that the disciplines of social design and service design had already put this shift in motion. Teal Triggs responded to this sentiment positively, but emphasized that this was often the case where the skills of communication were at the forefront and that other design disciplines remained more closed and rigid. Van Gameren agreed also that she could see a shift in the way in which her male students approached design, often in more subtle and sensitive ways.

A question that tickled many in the audience and triggered a very interesting discussion was put to Simone: ‘What would Simon Brewster be doing now?’ Simone felt sure that he would still be an architect, her original training.

After this, the discussion moved in an interesting direction to address the issues of class and age, both of which had been mentioned in various forms throughout the discussion. Brewster referred to her experience in curating the RCA Black show, which opened an ‘explosive’ discussion at the time about the barriers and limitations in design practice.

Bringing these issues into the mix made an important point about the complex arrangement of issues that constitute and animate the practice of design in contemporary culture. The Design Culture Salon was programmed to celebrate International Women’s Day, but the discussion that took place highlighted the insufficiencies of discussions that attempt to address the ‘universality’ of any problem. A cluster of issues, often at micro level- race, class, ethnicity, age, nationality- are at play. It was a discussion which opened many avenues for further thought, some of which we might address in future salon discussions.

This concluded the second series of design culture salons. We are in the process of scheduling and programming a new series, most likely to start in the new academic year. If you have any ideas for topics, questions or if you would like to take part in any way, please email me at L.Armstrong@vam.ac.uk , tweet @LeahJArmstrong or simply comment in the box below.

Thank you all for attending and for contributing to an invigorating and thought-provoking series of conversations.

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About Leah Armstrong

Research Officer in Contemporary Design Culture V&A Museum / University of Brighton @LeahJArmstrong L.Armstrong@vam.ac.uk L.Armstrong3@brighton.ac.uk
This entry was posted in design education, gender, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Reflections on Design Culture Salon 9: What are the gender politics of contemporary design practice?

  1. Sian Cook says:

    Please note that if you are looking for the WD+RU and WofGD Twitter project, use hashtags #womensday and #graphicdesign or follow @womensdesign or @wofgd (not the hashtag mentioned above). Thanks, WD+RU

  2. Pingback: The cycling revolution will have more than two wheels (and some kind of motor) | justinspinneyresearch

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