Talking a good game

Glass ceilings are shattering across the UK, but graphic design is resolutely male. Maybe it’s because women are rubbish at bullshitting, says Adrian Shaughnessy

Why aren’t more women designers in prominent positions in the UK graphic design scene?

Whichever way you look at it, graphic design is a depressingly male business. You have to go back to 1995 to find a female president of D&AD (Mary Lewis). Male designers overwhelmingly populate panel discussions, seminars and talks. And how many of the DW Top 100 design groups have female heads? How many have women in board positions? 10 per cent? 20 per cent? I’d be surprised if it was more.

Yet when I visit design schools up and down the country I find equal numbers of male and female students. Tutors are increasingly likely to be female, and plenty of groups have female design ers occupying important positions.

Other countries seem to be able to produce influential female figures, but is there a British female graphic designer with a reputation to equal that of Irma Boom in Holland, or Lorraine Wilde, Paula Scher, and type designer Zuzana Licko in the US?

I attended the American Institute of Graphic Arts annual conference in Denver last year, and males and females populated the panels and seminars equally. If anything, the conference had a welcome female bias. But in the UK, we’ve got a handbrake on somewhere, and it is stopping female designers from rising to the top.

In 2006, during a notorious public discussion in New York chaired by Michael Bierut and featuring panellists Milton Glaser, Chip Kidd and Dave Eggers, a member of the audience asked, ‘Why are there so few female graphic designers – or at least so few female “superstar” graphic designers?

Is there a glass ceiling in graphic design?’ Writing in Design Observer, Bierut quoted Glaser’s resp onse: ‘Women get pregnant, have children, go home and take care of their children. And those essential years that men are building their careers and becoming visible are basically denied to women who choose to be at home.’

Glaser has a point. Childrearing does cause many women to abandon careers – some willingly, others not. But it is no longer the impediment it was. Other busi ness and cultural activities are bursting with high-flying females.

The Guardian reported that women now make up 46 per cent of the UK’s 376 000 millionaires, and this number is increasing by 11 per cent a year. This isn’t because women are all at home washing nappies and making supper for their male partners.

But what are we looking at here? Is there a genuine bias in favour of male creativity, or are we looking at the male ability to talk things up? Or, to put it another way, is Stefan Sagmeister the best graphic designer in the world, or the best self-publicist in graphic design? Part of being a successful graphic designer – both creatively and in business terms – is the ability to talk a good game, and men seem keener to do this than women.

I saw this divide most clearly when I had my own studio. For 15 years, I had a female business partner. She wasn’t a designer. Instead, she was a sharp businesswoman who was good at all the things I was rubbish at. The bits I liked – gobbing off to clients, pontificating on the importance of design and telling anyone who would listen how great our group was – she hated. She just got on quietly with the job of keeping our studio solvent and efficient. And I suppose you don’t win many Yellow, Black or Polka dot Pencils for that.

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