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Features / International Women's Day

Natasha Jen, Liza Enebeis, Rachel Dalton and Hezin O discuss the state of graphic design – over WhatsApp

Look. I know you’re tired of hearing about the gender divide in the graphic design industry, but the fact of the matter is, disparity exists. And it’s not falling in favour of women.

I myself studied graphic design at university and the majority of my fellow students were female, 70 per cent of them in fact. This is a statistic which is mirrored across UK institutions (and internationally I expect), yet despite nearly three-quarters of graphic design students identifying as female, Kerning the Gap reports that the number of women working as creative directors is a lowly 11 per cent.

A quick Google of “famous graphic designers” returns some amazing practitioners: Stefan Sagmeister, Paul Rand, Milton Glaser, Saul Bass, Paula Scher, David Carson, Massimo Vignelli, Chip Kidd, Michael Bierut and Neville Brody all appear on the first page of results. These people have given us the IBM logo, the iconic Jurassic Park silhouette and the New York subway map. But although their work varies in output and style, nearly all of them except Paula (nice one, Paula) share one distinct thing in common – they are men!

The women of graphic design do exist, however. The typeface Chicago (Susan Kare), Britain’s road signs (Margaret Calvert), the 1984 LA Olympics identity (Deborah Sussman), the Nike tick (!!!) (Carolyn Davidson) wouldn’t exist without them. The problem is that these iconic works are often celebrated as isolated triumphs of female design amidst the male-dominated sphere and are, more often than not, labelled as pieces of design by women, not just pieces of design.

To celebrate the work being done today by women within the industry across the globe, I brought together four graphic designers whose work continually makes me fall in love with the medium all over again. Below, check out what happened when Natasha Jen, Liza Enebeis, Rachel Dalton and Hezin O logged in to WhatsApp to chew over everything from success to role models to career advice.

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Hezin O

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It’s Nice That: To start with, I’d love to get your thoughts on how you feel when people distinguish you as “female designers” and not simply “designers”? Does this bother or empower you?

Rachel: A good one to start off on!

Liza: I don’t always appreciate it. Especially if it’s the only reason I am asked for something.

Natasha: I used to get annoyed by that but I now just bypass it. I’m a designer. I design.

Liza: Exactly.

Hezin: That’s true. It’s not important who’s male or female for design. I prefer to be mentioned through my design practice rather than gender.

Rachel: Ditto. It can feel very negative when male designers ask for your “female perspective” on a project; however, you don’t owe it to them to be their intellectual, feminist sounding board or whatever. It can feel very tedious. You’re not a tool to be used for their education or to advance their relationship with a client; they have to put in the hard work themselves. That’s usually the only instance when I have experienced it.

It’s Nice That: Have you had many experiences of being asked to do something because you are female?

Hezin: Not so much but last year, I participated in an exhibition, W show archiving the past and present of Korean female graphic designers. This show was very meaningful here because it was the first show in Korea to do research on women’s works, which have been neglected by a male-dominated history.

Liza: A few times for conferences.

Natasha: Yes. I’ve been asked to attend a conference because I’m a woman.

Rachel: Only this lol.

Natasha: Haha.

It’s Nice That: Haha! True!

Liza: We don’t need any other qualities.

Natasha: We are asked because people need gender equality. Lol.

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It’s Nice That: What about when it comes to clients or collaborators, what are your experiences of the gender divide within the industry? Are you aware of it on a regular basis?

Rachel: For me, not really, but I mainly work on my own. The only way I notice it is in terms of money. I feel like in general women undersell themselves – quite literally when they are running their own business. Often I will talk to my male counterparts about costing up projects and they don’t seem to feel the same gut-wrenching dread about sending out a quote as I do. I don’t know if that changes the longer you are in the industry, it’s something I’m trying to re-learn.

Liza: For me, it’s different. I am not the only person, I represent a studio.

Hezin: Most of my client managers (someone who contacts halfway or manages a project) are young women. But if I have a chance to meet someone who is a director or an executive, most of them are male.

Natasha: I don’t feel that I deal with money or business differently than any others. I like to negotiate and make deals happen.

Hezin: For me, it was also hard to be transparent about money at the beginning. But more and more I realised I had to be confident. I’m still trying though.

Liza: I do occasionally experience the no eye contact attitude – but I also think that is very old-fashioned.

Rachel: Have you noticed that change from when you first started, out of interest?

Natasha: Yeah no eye contact is a thing that is as insulting as straight-up insults. But it goes a lot deeper because you can’t confront someone because he doesn’t address you in a meeting. There are things that are timeless: boys club mentality, for example. That manifests itself in different ways, across time. But I do notice that the younger generation doesn’t carry such behaviours.

Hezin: Yes, I hope that society is getting better and better, even if it’s slow.

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It’s Nice That: Moving on slightly, I’d be interested to know if each of you had particular female role models in your life, creative or otherwise?

Rachel: For me, my mother. Growing up, my mum would paint murals on walls for my friends, I saw how much enjoyment she got from it. She encouraged me and my sisters to make things all the time. No matter how much mess haha.

Hezin: Me too. My mother was a single mom since she was 47. I can’t imagine how hard it was. But she continued to challenge herself through her job and try to empower me and my brother.

Liza: My grandmother was and is a role model for me. She was the first woman to teach in her University – she taught Biochemistry – and was a single mother in the 1940s.

Natasha: I look up to practitioners who have spent their lifetime developing a body of work. From designers like Petra Blaisse, Zaha Hadid, Paula Scher, to the Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I respect that they ploughed through obstacles and built a body of work that influences generations to come.

Rachel: I agree with Natasha on the body of work aspect. I remember learning about Paula Scher at university, and whilst high-profile branding projects were not the direction I saw my work going, I found how passionate and prolific she is hugely inspiring. Also Irma Boom, I really admire her, she seems very unapologetic about doing things her own way. She knows what she loves to do, and she seems to have shaped the landscape around her so that she gets to do that. It’s quite a powerful message I think.

It’s Nice That: All such great answers! Do you think these kinds of role models are important, and do enough exist for young women looking to get into design?

Natasha: There’s never enough role models. But I don’t think that’s the issue. The issue is how women, after those who do get into design, or any field, recognise their own unique qualities and believe that those qualities can shape the world in some positive way. The issue is not about attracting more women into design. There’s plenty of women in design. The issue is how we cultivate confidence in women from the beginning.

Liza: For me, it’s not even the work that motivates me to like someone but I love the drive and the passion someone has to do their work.

Hezin: The circumstances in each country may be a little different, but I think one of the reasons why there are not enough female role models in design is because of marriage and childbirth. Recently, I heard a cynical joke that a woman should not marry or have a baby to be successful. No one asks a male designer how he built a body of work while raising a kid.

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It’s Nice That: That’s interesting… I was wondering, how do you all define success?

Liza: Success is when you do the work that you love doing.

Rachel: When you enjoy your work and want to get on with it most days, it’s not a chore.

Natasha: I still struggle with the very concept of success. Success does not equate happiness. And one cannot be truly fulfilled without feeling happy in some way. To me, it’s feeling fulfilled. As Liza’s pointed out, doing the work that you love is more important to figure out.

Hezin: I totally agree with Natasha.

It’s Nice That: You all seem to feel similarly on that one. Do you think how to feel happy with your work becomes clearer as your career progresses?

Liza: Yes, but that’s not a rule.

Rachel: I hope so haha, it’s something I struggle with a lot. You can’t ignore that it’s a job and has to pay the bills as well. It seems like a difficult balance to strike, for me at least.

Hezin: Whatever it is, for me, it’s clear that feeling and sharing the pleasure of creation through the output, even if it’s not commissioned work, is surely linked to happiness. I’m actually more relaxed when I’m in the studio than when I’m at home. But in order not to get burnt out, I try not to miss the social aspects of my life.

Natasha: For me, this self-dialogue didn’t start until I turned 40, two years ago. But my own definition of happiness has slightly changed over time too. I guess it’s a self-clarifying process. What I know for sure now is to trust my instinct when I encounter toxic people or situations.

Liza: I also feel we have room to reinvent ourselves, it’s not one journey.

Rachel: I think that’s really important, about the idea of success changing and reinventing. Even within a year, I feel what I want out of my work varies.

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It’s Nice That: Is there any advice you would give to yourself when you were first starting your career? Or anyone else currently embarking on their career?

Natasha: This may sound cheesy but I’d tell my younger self and all the starters: “Yes you can.” Believe that your unique perspective matters to the discipline, and keep pushing your work.

Liza: Attitudes have changed in the last ten years, we now have communities, and startups, and house sharing, it’s no longer one straight path (if you don’t want it to be).

Hezin: Oh I still have a lot to learn, so I really cringe to say something to younger people than me. But if I can talk to my younger self, I’d say, “Don’t think too much”. This is also true for me now. Nothing has gone as planned in the last ten years, everything that has happened has become a seed and another happening has occurred.

Rachel: I feel like I’m still at the beginning of my path, to be honest. I never know what to say to recent graduates who ask me for advice. I think it’s OK to not know what you’re doing. Also to fill your portfolio with things you enjoy doing, not things you think people will like – because ultimately that’s what people will ask you to repeat to some extent.

Natasha: That’s great advice, Rachel.

It’s Nice That: Agreed!

Liza: I always say to people starting, just do what you love to do, and not what anyone expects from you, not your parent, not your teachers. And it doesn’t matter what you are doing – even if it’s not design – it’s your life.

Hezin: Exactly. Liza, your opinion also gives me strength.

Rachel: I like that Liza, I think it’s important to remember: You’re the one who has to live your choices.

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It’s Nice That: More great advice… Has your experience of the industry been as you expected it to be when you first started out? Are there any particular changes you have noticed?

Rachel: I think at university we got painted a very strong picture of what work would be like. But since leaving a formal design studio I have realised you can sculpt your own career and lifestyle a lot more. Design is very flexible and no two jobs look the same.

Liza: I find there are more equal opportunities, social platforms have given room to unknown talented people from all around the world. In the past, I only knew a handful from the few design books that were around.

Hezin: Yeah, I feel I’ve benefited from a new era. When I was in university, I made my first social network account on Facebook. After graduating from university, when I set up my studio, I had no difficulty promoting my work or announcing the events I hosted. This must have been a distinctly different situation from the previous era.

Natasha: The industry has changed rapidly in a fundamental way in the last ten years. For example, “branding” was not a thing when I was in school in 2002 but now not only is it a thing, it’s a major industry that offers so many other things that are not the design that was taught in school. It’s still a nebulous field (branding) but at the same time, it created other creative opportunities for both men and women.

Rachel: I think it’s really interesting, like Liza says, how we are very much more interconnected. Many of my clients have come through social media, which is not what I ever expected. For some of my contemporaries their entire careers have kicked off by something going “viral” on the internet, which is such a new thing – it’s exciting to see how this develops even further.

Natasha: The field is now constantly at the intersection of newness. Things happen so fast that there’s not enough time to really make sense out of it, but everyone is doing it. It’s a paradox.

Hezin: On the other hand, I do still think it’s important to make something good that can be seen over a long period of time. A few days ago, I bought a book, Hella Jongerius: Misfit. It was published about ten years ago by Phaidon, but still good and nice. (Oh yes, it’s Irma Boom’s design, Rachel!)

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Rachel Dalton

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It’s Nice That: That’s great! Before we finish, could you each tell us one designer whose work we should all go check out this International Women’s Day?

Liza: The Rodina.

Natasha: Sister Corita Kent.

Rachel: I’d say Irma Boom, Larissa Kasper, and Caterina Bianchini have all inspired me recently.

Hezin: It’s really hard to pick a few names! If I just write down what comes to mind now, Julia Born, Jungmyung Lee, Hella Jongerius, Team Thursday, Rikako Nagashima and so on.