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Rebecca Wright on the ratio of girls with design degrees vs. those in the industry

We often find ourselves discussing the role, and lack of women in the world of graphic design. Rather than try and cackhandedly work it out for ourselves we decided to ask someone at the frontline of the issue to help explain it. Rebecca Wright is programme director of graphic communication design at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. With Lucienne Roberts, she is also co-founder of GraphicDesign&, a pioneering publishing house exploring the relationship between graphic design and the wider world, and the value that it brings. GraphicDesign& will be launching a survey for graphic designers in early 2015 as part of a new project which uses social science to look at who graphic designers are and how they work.

Here she is on the enormous amount of girls who study design degrees, compared with the very small few that go on to become big names in the industry. As ever, feel free to leave your comments below.

Rebecca Wright

There’s a funny thing going on with graphic design and girls. It’s noticeable on HE courses up and down the country and writ large as the new academic year begins again. For of all the students arriving and returning to study undergraduate and postgraduate graphic design, the majority are female.

“A 2013 Guardian survey reports that of the 12,930 students at the University of the Arts London, of which CSM is part, 9,370 are female – a pretty weighty 72.5%”

Rebecca Wright

At Central Saint Martins this is by no slight margin. Of the 525 students enrolled this year on BA Graphic Design, 372 are female, which is 70.8%. The picture is similar on MA Communication Design where female students are 68.3% of the cohort. Within the broader context of art and design education, this is not in itself unusual. A 2013 Guardian survey reports that of the 12930 students at the University of the Arts London, of which CSM is part, 9370 are female – a pretty weighty 72.5%. And of the 49,920 students studying creative arts and design in Higher Education in the UK, 30,790 or 61.7%, are women. What is unusual however, and deserves scrutiny, is that this female domination in graphic design education appears to be reversed when it comes to the graphic design industry.

“This female domination in graphic design education appears to be reversed when it comes to the graphic design industry.”

Rebecca Wright

A much-quoted survey of the UK design industry published by the Design Council in 2010 revealed that only 40% of designers were women, in startling contrast to the 70% of female design students. This statistic prompted dissertations and magazine articles, questions to awards panels and industry line-ups, and both defence and dispute. And yet, despite the debate, there are areas of the industry where there seems little evidence of significant change.

Attend any design conference and the likelihood is still that the speakers will be predominantly male; look at the boards, panels, juries, the partners, chairpersons and even the majority of awards winners, and the picture is the same. Because, although in rank and file the number of women in graphic design is surely growing, it’s in the high profile positions and public platforms where the gender imbalance remains most visible.

“Attend any design conference and the likelihood is still that the speakers will be predominantly male; look at the boards, panels, juries, the partners, chairpersons and even the majority of awards winners, and the picture is the same.”

Rebecca Wright

And this is a problem. It’s a problem because, as in many other walks of life, the higher echelons of the industry does not reflect the demographic it purports to represent; neither the future of the industry nor the audience it serves. Yet there was a never a time when we needed this more. Unprecedented social, economic and health related challenges necessitate 360 degree thinking: a diverse range of people and perspectives to innovate, propose and provide. While graphic design education strives to provide an environment of equality and pluralism where competition thrives and meritocracy is the measure, there is a culture in parts of the industry that lags behind – it may recognise the value of talent and graft, but it rewards confidence, charisma and chutzpah, and the uncomfortable truth is that these attributes do not always sit as comfortably with women as they often do with men.

“After 15+ years in design education, my experience is that female students are still less likely to want to grab the limelight, less inclined to push themselves forward and to self promote.”

Rebecca Wright

This is not to suggest that to be a woman has a bearing on levels of skill and competency in the discipline – great graphic design is created by both male and female students, and in this regard the issue of gender is of little concern. However, after 15+ years in design education, my experience is that female students are still less likely to want to grab the limelight, less inclined to push themselves forward and to self promote. These students show their confidence in other ways – in the events they organise, coordinate and manage, the group work they often lead and the imagination and innovation with which they develop their project work. But the lack of fanfare that accompanies these activities may lie behind the lack of visibility of women graphic designers at those top tables.

“Few courses explicitly discuss the issue of gender in the contemporary graphic design industry, or the hierarchical structures and cultural machismo that persist.”

Rebecca Wright

The best graphic design courses teach their students, regardless of gender, to be skilful, articulate and agile designers: to empathise, to work with and not just for their clients and end-users, to take their role as citizens seriously. These courses create the space for young designers to flex their creative muscle, take risks, push boundaries and make mistakes, to think freely and act consciously. I’m not suggesting any of this should change. But maybe we should be more honest about where resistance and potential inequalities lie. Few courses explicitly discuss the issue of gender in the contemporary graphic design industry, or the hierarchical structures and cultural machismo that persist. But if we want to equip our students to have influence in industry, and for its shape and face to change, perhaps it is time that more of us did so.

Back to School
Throughout the month of October we’ll be celebrating the well-known autumnal feeling of Back to School. The content this month will be focusing on fresh starts, education, learning tools and the state of art school in the world today – delivered to you via fantastic in-depth interviews, features and conversations with talented, relevant, creative people.