Extremely influential women designers that have shaped the world of design

by Ruth d’Andilly-Clune

After posting a comment on a previous post ’30 designers that shaped the world’, I was asked to write an article on Women Designers. In the article that I read, I found it extremely disheartening that there were only two women in the article, out of 30!
So, here I am writing about extremely influential women designers that have shaped the world of design.
Being a woman myself, I am obviously passionate about this subject. I am a third year graphic design student currently approaching the end of my studies.  I have just written a dissertation on ‘Inspirational Women in design’ discussing why women are not as well known as male designers, in what it still usually considered a male dominated field. I learnt a lot as a student and I hope that it has changed my outlook as a designer as well. The dissertation is of course, subject to my own opinion. It would be great to hear your opinions and what you think about women designers.
Firstly, I’d like to start with a few designers that I wrote about in my dissertation.

Ellen Luton’s career

Throughout Ellen Luton’s career, she has achieved a considerable amount, despite her gender.  In her opinion she suggests that women today are among the most influential designers of American books, having forged key paradigms in the exterior packaging and internal architecture of jacket and page. She goes on to say that women across the twentieth century, have found opportunities to work in the publishing world, as editors and authors as well as designers.[2]  Luton (2004) is a classic example of a woman who has found her way in the design industry, but more importantly still asks the question as to why women are not as well recognised in design as men. Luton contributed to a collection of work to address this issue such as ‘Underground Matriarchy’ where she and Makela discuss why the role of women in design is overlooked.
To quote ‘Women of Design’, Gomez-Palacio and Vit (2008) they argue that,

‘It’s equal parts question, conversation, argument, concern, and point of polemic that extracts some of the thornier aspects of our twenty-first century society: Why aren’t there more women represented in conferences, boards of directors, judging panels and other public-facing situations, where men always seem to outnumber them?’[3]

Yet, there are many other successful women in graphic design such as April Greiman, Elaine Lustig Cohen, Paula Scher and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. These women where trailblazers in design.[4]


Greiman (2009) is a pioneering woman who helped introduce the computer vernacular to design through experimental mergers of type and image. Greiman is recognised as one of the first designers to embrace computer technology as a design tool. Greiman is also credited, along with early collaborator  Odgers, with establishing the ‘New Wave’ design style in the US during the late 70’s and early 80’s. The ‘New Wave’ refers to an approach to typography that actively defies strict grid-based arrangement conventions. [6] This approach has been embraced in graphic design, and is still used today with designers such as David Carson and Jamie Reid.[7]  Carson (2009) is an American graphic designer. He is best known for his innovative magazine design, and use of experimental typography.
Carson is an example of a male designer who has been influenced by the work of female designer
Greiman.  Greiman is not as well known as Carson despite Greiman laying the path of which Carson went on to develop his own design ideas when realising the potential of Greiman, and as result founded his career based on Greiman’s ‘New Wave’ design style. This is an example of a woman who has planted the seed, and a man came along and cultivated the seedling, watching it blossom into something outstanding and gaining recognition for it.

Paula Scher

One woman who is an example of a successful and influential designer is Scher.  Pentagram is the world’s largest independent design consultancy. The firm is owned and run by 16 partners, a group of friends who are all leaders in their individual creative fields, one of which is Paula Scher[9] who was the first female principal at Pentagram.[10] Scher (2002), who was part of the New York Design Community since the 1970’s worked amongst a core group of powerful men who ruled the design community. Nevertheless, despite being around powerful male designers, this did not stop her or intimidate her and still, her professional career went on to be a success.
Scher is an example of a successful, influential woman who has never allowed limitations get in her way.
As a consequence of her unparalleled approach to design in 1998, Scher was named in the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, and in 2000 she received the prestigious Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design. She has also served on the national board of AIGA and was president of its New York chapter from 1998 to 2000. In 2001, she received the profession’s highest honor, the AIGA Medal, in recognition of her distinguished achievements and contributions to the field. She is a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale. Her work is represented in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York; the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich; the Denver Art Museum; as well as the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.[11]
It appears that as society has changed and women have become more successful whether that is starting up their own businesses or having the opportunities to achieve more. Women are doing it for themselves.  Morgan (2011) argues that although unemployment is rising and the downturn appears to be hitting women disproportionately hard, it seems female entrepreneurs are opting to do it for themselves, bringing a distinctly female approach to business.[12]

Elaine Lustig Cohen

Another ground breaking female graphic designer, artist and archivist is Elaine Lustig Cohen. She is recognised for her expansive volume of design work amalgamating European avant-garde and modernist influences into an American, mid-century style of typographic communication.  From the 1970s until around 1998, Cohen maintained a gallery called Ex Libris on the upper East Side, which she founded with her second husband, the publisher and author Arthur Cohen. The gallery was well ahead of its time in the handling of avant-garde books, posters, collages, paintings and decorative arts. Cohen assumed ownership of her husband’s midtown Manhattan design practice after he died at the age of 40.  However, most of his clients, among them the architect Johnson, expected Cohen to complete her husband’s unfinished commissions.
Dirty Work
Little did they realise that Alvin Lustig, a totemic force in the field of the modern design, never offered to include her in his own projects. “As a rule, no one in the Lustig office designed except Alvin himself,” Cohen recalls. In fact, Cohen and Alvin’s assistants, including (for a short time) Ivan Chermayeff, would do the so called “dirty work” while Alvin, dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie, sat at his immaculate marble desk with only a tracing pad, making thumbnail sketches for others to render.’[14]
Once Cohen had taken over her husband’s design practice, she remarked “My gender may have been an issue for other designers, but not for my clients.”[15] Cohen began in her husband’s shadow, yet emerged among her male peers as a perfect example of contemporary graphic design as well as typography. Through Ex Libris, she became a commodity of design history and a knowledgeable and generous resource for scholars and students of design all around the world. She is currently a living link between design’s modernist past and its constantly changing present.

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville is a graphic designer, artist and educator whose work reflects her belief in the importance of feminist principles, user participation in graphic design, and diverse local community issues. Since 1990 she has been the director of the Yale University Graduate Program in Graphic Design, one of the oldest and most important design programs in the country.[17]  Levrant de Bretteville holds a pivotal role in the history of feminist art.
She founded the Women’s Design Program at the California Institute of the Arts in 1971
Co-founded the first independent feminist art school in the United States, the Feminist Studio Workshop in Los Angeles in 1973 (with Judy Chicago and Arlene Raven), and there created the Women’s Graphic Center.  In 1980, Levrant de Bretteville established the Department of Communication Design at the Otis Art Institute and in 1990 became the first woman to receive tenure at the Yale University School of Art.  Throughout her career Levrant de Bretteville has continually focused on the social implications of design and worked to establish the means by which women artists could collaborate to address and publicise feminist concerns as part of the design process.[18]
However, even though Levrant  de Bretteville has achieved a lot for women, she does not believe that she has acted as a result of a personal feminist views and opinions, she defended her position quoting, “When I think of my myself and my work I do not frame it by my feminism. That reframing is a result of the current reengagement with 1970s feminism. My work is influenced by my earliest memories of my father, his sense of community and commitment to his fellow worker.”[19]  Levrant de Bretteville achieved a lot in 1990, by becoming a director of the Yale University Graduate Program in Graphic Design.
Fellow female designer, Ellen Lupton (2012) of National Design Triennial catalogue rightfully states that, on both coasts of the United States, Levrant de Bretteville used typography and environmental design to enhance communities and that her aesthetically rich, metaphoric projects are indeed meaningful to a diverse range of local populations.[20]  These are just a few examples of successful and creative women that have shaped the design industry, who have achieved so much in their creative careers in industry. As mentioned previously, some of these women have influenced some of the most well known male graphic designers in the industry today.

Theories of why women are overlooked in design

Now I will look at theories of why women are overlooked in design. Interestingly, research from a website highlighted ‘70 designers that shaped the world’ of which only seven were women- (previously on this blog). The post on this website was published in September 2009 and later republished a revised edition of ‘30 designers that changed the world’ of which only two of them were women designers.[21]  Makela and Lupton (1994) argue that the role of women in graphic design is consistently marginalised or overlooked and that men still tend to dominate the profession, even at its avant-garde fringes. Women seem to spend more time underground, gaining collective recognition and regenerating the field in intangible ways. [22]
It is argued that women, more than men, engaged in a variety of work that extended beyond conventional practice to areas such as urban planning and historic preservation. Adams and Tancred (2000) contend that only in Quebec did women play a major role in higher profile architectural projects. Women also struggled with conflicts between the irregular hours in practice and desires for a pattern that would accommodate domestic responsibilities. The odd part of this book is the conclusion. It fails to mention, even in passing, the many accomplishments of Canadian women in the 1990s, which could be considered a breakthrough decade in terms of stardom. [23]
Do women design differently from men and are their differences in how they apply their work?
With the heavy demands of contract deadlines which may cause conflict with domestic responsibilities, women still seem to appear to be able to accomplish this.  Women designers Ramsey and McCorduck (2006) question this by asking, do women design differently from men and are their differences in how they apply their work? It goes on to say that if there are gender differences, then serious studies of the differences between how men and women design are possibly still in their infancy. Ramsey and McCorduck go on to argue that their present knowledge is mostly impressionistic and that women as a class sometimes appear different, and they believe that women certainly come to the design process with different life experiences, and therefore may contribute to different ways of solving design problems.  
So, is this innate or learned? 
According to Ramsey and McCorduck, psychological research suggests innate and that men excel at design owing to their superior mental abilities to manipulate space, for example. Nevertheless, if men are naturally more gifted at the design process, and therefore rightfully dominate the field, 85 per cent – 15 per cent, with women clustered in the fashion and jewelry ghettos, then why is there so much bad design? Quoting one experienced designer, she said her experience was that the difficulty comes in getting credit, “There goes another man to the top, put there by the women behind him.”  Ramsey and McCorduck argued that they heard this often.[24]
‘Behind Every Successful Man is a Woman’, meaning that many men owe their achievements in life to women.[25]  This is a very common quote about how the success of a man in his career or other is also down to a woman behind him, such as his wife. One example is Elaine Lustig Cohen who was married to Alvin Lustig, who suffered from diabetes and slowly lost his sight.[26] As a consequence, he depended on, and trusted Cohen to execute his ideas. Cohen was his eyes and maintained his career and success.
There have been many explanations as to why women have not received more recognition for their work. One explanation in particular is that it is common for some men to feel threatened by women who are more successful than they are. Middle Eastern men especially prefer to be in control and some of them may feel that a woman’s success would undermine their authority.[27]
Snap2Object state that some time ago, they wrote the polemic article “70 designers that shaped the world”. After suggestions, they changed this to “Another 30 designers that shaped the world”. One thing that caught their attention was the few women present on the lists. Looking at the 100 designers, only 8 were women – among them, Eileen Gray, Zaha Hadid, Jean Muir, Vivienne Westwood, Irma Boom, Matali Crasset, Ray Eames e “Coco” Chanel. Therefore, is there any prejudice with women? Are there more male or female designers on the market? Does their gender really make a difference? [28]
Although women designers are being interviewed with regards to women in design, it would appear that the interviewers are actually focusing on the women and their life rather than their practice. In fact, in some cases, the interviewers asked more questions about the personal lives of their own women designer’s, such as, interviewees (eva Zeisel, Lella Vignelli, Gere Kavanaugh, and Judith Leiber) rather than having discussions about their training and their career paths, works, or design philosophies.  Some of the questions asked were about their life experiences, such as, do you think your experience of household work has helped you as a designer of products for the home? as well as, did you take time off to get things set up for your family? and do you try to keep work away from home? [29]  Perhaps, interviewers are not asking the right questions to explore and enable the women to talk about and discuss their work and profession. It would probably be highly unlikely for an interviewer to ask a male designer how he balances his home and work life.
The editor of Step Inside Magazine, Emily Potts (2005) described how several months ago she was putting together a list of designers as possible judges for the Design 100. When she reviewed her list she was shocked to see that she did not have any women on the list. Potts stated that, the male designers names came so easily to her and that it struck her that this appears to happen every year when she is assembling the list. Potts wondered why that was. Afterwards, when she gave it more thought, she decided that it was time to celebrate the women of design by devoting an entire issue of ‘STEP’ to them. When she ran this idea past the STEP editorial advisors, she received overwhelming support, surprisingly from the men.[30]
Potts then went on to say that through this process, she became acquainted with the women who are and continue to change and influence the profession. Some are the usual suspects, like Paula Scher, Emily Oberman, and Bonnie Siegler, while others have flown slightly under the radar. Potts stated that she had a chance to interview all three of these women along with 14 others about the fame game, the challenges that they each faced in the early days of their careers, and the differences between them and their male counterparts. The answers to her questions were varied and unpredictable, and she was impressed with the openness from all the women.  Interviewee, Heiden highlighted that when it came the time for her to attend her college, her parents were not convinced that design was an actual vocation or career (especially for a woman).[31]
It seems as though it may have even been difficult for women to enter the world of design simply because of family opinions and their expectations of women as well as the possible lack of knowledge of the design industry.
The discovery of some of the women researched and the work they have achieved is both surprising and refreshing. It was refreshing to see that some women have influenced some of the most influential male designers to this present day. I hope that this article has opened the eyes of the readers and more so for women to confirm what they can realistically achieve and how the women researched persevered and did not let obstacles get in their way. It is pleasing to know that there are influential women to look up to in the design world.  I hope that this study will reach a lot of readers and hopefully for them, be pleasantly surprised about women designers and how much they have influenced design as a whole. Perhaps one day in the future, maybe there will be women’s names mentioned in a Graphic Design lecture in the same way that men’s are today. Maybe, when we are at the point where designers, design students and perhaps the public can name more women designers without thinking too hard, that women would have really succeeded in stepping out from behind the society constructed wall that appeared to oppress women. Perhaps then there will only be positive social change today and in the future.
Although this is only a snippet (of something which I can talk about for a long time!) it gives us an idea of women designers and some of the difficulties that they still have or need to overcome.
I find these women designers extremely inspiring.

About the Author:

‘Ruth d’Andilly-Clune is a third year Graphic Design Student at the University of Lincoln, UK. She graduates later this year. Although primarily a designer, Ruth also has an avid interest in writing and photography. She blogs often and enjoys intellectual and stimulating reading which is enables her to further her knowledge and to develop her skills as a designer and individual. Ruth has also had the wonderful and unique opportunity of working in London for a short time with the well known artist Sam Winston.  She loves black coffee, and her cat, Rajah’
Reach me at: Site: www.ruthdandilly.com   Blog:ruthdandilly-clune.blogspot.co.uk/


[1] Image: Ellie Lupton taken from: http://www.elupton.com/index.php?s=about
[2] Typotheque (2004) [Online] Available at: http://www.typotheque.com/articles/women_graphic_designers [Accessed 15 November 2011)
[3] Gomez-Palacio, B and Vit, A. (2008) Women of Design. Ohio: How Books.
[4] Ibid
[5] Image: April Greiman taken from: http://www.thedetroiter.com/v3/2009/02/toyota-lecture-series-features-april-greiman/
[6] A Brief History of Design (11 September 2009) [Online] Available at: http://www.slideshare.net/JenniferJanviere/a-brief-history-of-20th-century-graphic-design [Accessed 02 April 2012]
[7] Ibid
[8] Image: Paula Scher taken from: http://dearbev.com/2009/06/05/afraid-of-failing-don’t-be/
[9] Pentagram (2012) [Online] Available at: http://www.pentagram.com/work/#/all/all/newest/ [Accessed 07 April 2012]
[10] Scher, P. (2002) Creativity, Trade Publication, Vol. 10 (9):62.
[11] AIGA (2012) [Online] Available at: http://www.aiga.org/medalist-paulascher/ [Accessed 03 April 2012]
[12] Orange (13 December 2011) [Online] Available at: http://web.orange.co.uk/article/news/business_women_are_doing_it_for_themselves [Accessed 03 April 2012]
[13] Image: Elaine Lustig Cohen taken from: http://www.aiga.org/search.aspx?taxid=322
[14] AIGA (2012) [Online] Available at: http://www.aiga.org/medalist-elainelustigcohen/ [Accessed 07 April 2012]
[15] AIGA (2012) [Online] Available at: http://www.aiga.org/medalist-elainelustigcohen/ [Accessed 07 April 2012]
[16] Image: Sheila Levrant de Bretteville taken from: http://www.sessions.edu/notes-on-design/people/interviews/sheila-de-bretteville-designer-educator-feminist/
[17] AIGA (2012) [Online] Available at: http://www.aiga.org/medalist-sheilalevrantdebretteville/ [Accessed 11 April 2012]
[18] Stanford University (undated) [Online] Available at: http://lib.stanford.edu/women-art-revolution/bio-sheila-levrant-de-bretteville [Accessed 11 April 2012]
[19] Gomez-Palacio, B and Vit, A. (2008) Women of Design. Ohio: How Books.
[20] AIGA (2012) [Online] Available at: http://www.aiga.org/medalist-sheilalevrantdebretteville/ [Accessed 11 April 2012]
[21] Snap2Object (September 2009) [Online] Available at: https://www.snap2objects.com/2009/05/26/70-designers-that-shaped-the-world/ [Accessed 03 April 2012]
[22] Makela, H, L. and Lupton, E, (1994) Underground Matriarchy. Eye Magazine, Vol. 4 :42-47.
[23]Google Books Canadian Book Review Annual (undated) [Online] Available at: http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Designing_women.html?id=i8oVMPqR3BIC&redir_esc=y [Accessed 10 February 2012]
[24] Women in Design (May 19, 2011) [Online] Available at: http://www.pamelamc.com/html/women_in_design.html [Accessed 09 February 2012]
[25] English Club (2012) [Online] Available at: http://www.englishclub.com/ref/esl/Sayings/Quizzes/Men_and_Women [Accessed 02 April 2012]
[26] Gomez-Palacio, B and Vit, A. (2008) Women of Design. Ohio: How Books.
[27] Femeo (August 03, 2011) [Online] Available at: http://femeo.bayt.com/en/articles/career-development/6-reasons-successful-women-intimidate-men [Accessed 07 April 2012]
[28] Snap2Object, Male versus Female Designers (September 2009) [Online] Available at: https://www.snap2objects.com/2009/09/28/male-versus-female-designers/ [Accessed 02 April 2012]
[29] Gornman, R, C. (2001) Reshaping and Rethinking: Recent Feminist Scholarship on Design and Designers. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vol 14(4): 72-88.
[30] Step Inside Design (November/December 2005) [Online] Available at: http://www.stepinsidedesign.com/STEPMagazine/Article/28530/index.html [Accessed 12 April 2012]
[31] Step Inside Design (November/December 2005) [Online] Available at: http://www.stepinsidedesign.com/STEPMagazine/Article/28523/index.html [Accessed 12 April 2012]

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