Electric ladyland

New media may be an exciting new field of design offering opportunities to all, but how well are women faring on its creative side? Emma O’Kelly asks five leading wired women

If you’re not a 22-year-old guy with a Britpop hair cut and don’t stay up all night geeking around on your computer, you can’t possibly be designing interfaces, CD-ROMS and delving into cyberworlds. Or can you? It seems that women are getting turned on by new media; applications from women to colleges to study digital arts courses and the like are on the up, and as the corporate structure changes from being face-to-face to working at home with e-mails, faxes and modems, even working mothers can keep that vital foot in the door.

But let’s not get too excited; like design, the realm of new media still remains very male-dominated; and although a very young industry, it parallels other creative fields in that the women involved tend to be found in production, academia and sales rather than on the creative side. But here we look at some women who were on the frontline when new media was in its embryonic stages, and who have managed to stick to their creative guns.

Danielle Eubank

Head of projects

and design,

BBC Multimedia Centre

If you ever wondered where your TV license fees go, the multimedia centre at the BBC, opened in March 1996, provides part of the answer. Danielle Eubank and her team of seven designers receive funding to “develop new ways to deliver BBC content. We come up with concepts and ideas which are passed on to BBC Worldwide for commercial production”. Although sworn to secrecy on current projects, she has recently finished a CD-ROM on Bach as part of The Great Composers series, but she is quick to point out that “CD-ROMS are on their way out, so we are concentrating on developing push technologies – where content is delivered to the users without them having to going and fetch it”.

Prior to coming to Europe as a designer courtesy of Wolff Olins in Spain and then London, US-born Eubank worked back home at those new media meccas, multimedia publishing outfit Voyager in Santa Monica and then Microsoft, (while doing a masters degree at UCLA in communication design). And if the BBC is afraid of being left behind in the scramble to take new media on board, then Eubank is the perfect evangelist of West Coast technologies and aesthetics. “Projects must have good content and design, and you must never forget the user,” says Eubank, who identifies huge holes in the fabric of new media and is eager to fill them. “Multimedia is an incredibly young market and its products aren’t engaging enough. I’m continually searching for the ultimate project.”

Perhaps due to her absolute focus, or the fact that most of her working life has been spent in the US, Eubank is bemused by the notion that the industry may be male-dominated: “I think women are well represented in new media. Here at the BBC it’s the first time I’ve had a male boss. There’s no sign saying ‘women go to the back of the bus’. It’s damned hard work, that’s all. But hey, I’m having a blast!”

Karen Mahony

Mahony Associates

“It may sound strange, but embroidery is good training for doing pictures on-screen. They’re both about designing to a grid,” says Karen Mahony, who used to exhibit lace creations incorporating contemporary slogans before setting up her own interactive media company last year. With a team of eight (split 50/50 between men and women), Mahony is a branding expert – branding software, that is – for clients ranging from BBC Arts to BT and pharmaceuticals company Boehringer Mannheim. “Interface design has a huge – and growing – role to play,” she explains. “The look and feel of a software application is very important to a brand. Think of all those people using Windows; we are here to ensure a company’s software doesn’t look like it’s from Microsoft.”

Mahony modestly claims that her thriving business is due to “luck that I studied the right subjects”, but foresight and identifying a weak spot in the design structure seem more apt explanations for her success. After a degree in English and computer science, she went on to do a masters degree at The Royal College of Art ten years ago. “I wanted to study text on-screen. There wasn’t a specific course at that time and I had to find my own tutor (film-maker Peter Wollan) and put the course together myself. The RCA is good for that.” After that, BT created a post for her as corporate design manager for multimedia and interface design, then it was on to Wolff Olins as head of interactive media before going it alone.

In the corporate world in which she works, Mahony has noticed that she deals with growing numbers of women: “As this work comes increasingly from marketing rather than design, more women are commissioning me.” But what about women getting into the creative side? “New media has an image of being ‘boysy’ – about motorbikes and ‘how many gigabytes have you got?’ I sense corporate clients are relieved when they see that we’re there to service business needs rather than being ‘groovy dudes’. And once this stereotype is erased and we look at new media as communications, we will see more women getting involved.”

Meriel Yates

Senior designer,

BBC On-line

“You have to be very tough to be known in this industry if you’re a woman,” says Meriel Yates, who has not been short of a few challenges. As soon as she finished her MA in computer- related design at The Royal College of Art three years ago she went to Seattle to join the design team at Microsoft. Not only was she the only woman in the team, but she had to deal with Bill Gates’ “disconcerting habit of yawning every 30 seconds, even when he’s interested in what you’re saying”, and the fact that he has “the worst colour sense in the world” – not what you need when you’re designing interfaces for his interactive speeches.

After two interesting years in Seattle, her commitment to wanting “people to lose their preconception that computers are difficult to use” was as strong as ever, so she came back to London and joined the BBC to design software and websites based around BBC brands such as Top Gear and youth programmes. There are many projects in the pipeline, but Yates has to keep the details under wraps.

She works with a team of eight designers, three of whom are women. The aim is to create sites that are highly interactive and incorporate live chats with the stars, for example. According to Yates, web design is an area which “in the last year has become more like publishing”, and she is doing her best to ensure it “doesn’t become like magazine production; so instead of throwing out content, it is rich in interactivity and involves the user”.

And as highly produced website design grows, more women from publishing backgrounds will come in, predicts Yates. This progression, combined with the fact that more new media degree courses are opening up and the numbers of women applying are growing, means the opportunities are there. “We’re about two years behind the US, but the UK and

The Netherlands are ahead of the rest of Europe. However, things are moving very quickly and with colleges like the RCA encouraging women to be creative, there’s no reason why we can’t play as great a role as men.”

Jane Prophet, Artist

Jane Prophet claims that when she graduated in fine art from Sheffield Hallam University she “couldn’t see how computers would be related to my work”. Funny, as all her work now involves technology, and she has even created a cyberworld as a means of “exploring what artists can do on the Net”. Entitled TechnoSphere, the user is given pages of images in order to build an artificial creature, which is then given a name and sent into a 3D world to interact with 50 000 other creatures all with their own life codes. The project took nearly two years to complete, and raised many issues, including a debate over which creature would be the carer as they were all one sex. “We decided in the end that the creature which initiated the sexual act would have to care for the offspring.”

Prophet does not restrict herself to working on the Net. Last October she created an interactive exhibition in the tiny village of Uley near Stroud. She built beehives housing computers and a floor concealing pressure pads, which, when walked on, triggered images of bees to swarm around the room and on to visitors. Entitled Swarm, the idea was to discover whether a small village has a collective identity through observing the way visitors interacted with each other. She is currently working with The Wellcome Institute on an exhibition opening in April at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry on the body’s internal organs and transplants. Dealing with the heart, brain and stomach, she has created a sarcophagus, on top of which is a 3D cyborg. When you touch its body, images of internal organs are projected on to a screen. As well as exploring the consequences of, for example, transplanting a heart, this exhibition is sure to emphasise the often-ignored links between art and science.

As Prophet observes: “The links between art and computer science are growing stronger. I’m working with more and more computer programmers, who are generally male. But in the colleges we are now seeing loads of women running digital arts courses.” And, she adds, the way women are interacting with technology is “positive – they are embracing new media. Research in the US shows that whereas men are always trying to beat the machine, women use technology in a more constructive way to compete with other women.”

Marie Redmond

X Communications, Dublin

Being told by your school teachers that you’re a “pure mathematician” is bound to have its advantages, but it also means taking the boys on at their own game, as Marie Redmond, Professor of computer science at Trinity College, Dublin, and head of multimedia publisher X Communications, knows. After spells of travelling the world as a computer programmer, interface designer, and lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she returned to her native country and Trinity College gave her the funds to set up X Communications in 1991. Things moved so fast that she ended up going commercial earlier than scheduled.

Her team of ten (all male – “design in Dublin is very male-dominated”) has worked on a wide variety of corporate and arts projects, from a CD-ROM for the National Gallery of Ireland to a CD-ROM for the 1995 Dublin Film Festival providing viewers with information on more than 200 films. A more recent project for the Chester Beatty Library and Gallery of Oriental Art involved creating the means – via CD-ROM – of showing the Chongonka, a sixteenth century Japanese scroll which is being restored and can’t be displayed by traditional methods.

Corporate jobs include website clients such as IDA, a CD-ROM for Microsoft Ireland and interactive kiosks for London Underground. And one of the most exciting projects X Communications is about to undertake involves digitising Ireland’s oldest manuscript, The Book of Kells, which was drawn in the eighth century by 671 monks. It will be presented in two versions on CD-ROM, which Redmond’s not too happy about: “CD-ROM is a short-term publishing format. It is finished and the Net hasn’t yet fully arrived. Multimedia is in limbo as it has no proper platform at present,” she claims. And she laments the lack of good design around: “The World Wide Web is shatteringly bad; we haven’t got to grips with interface design; we’re stuck with a mouse and clicks and are carrying around 50 years of computer baggage. We need to find more intuitive ways to interact with the screen, moving beyond working with a keyboard, buttons and bars. And until we do there won’t be any good design around,” she says.

Last year, in an effort to tackle the sorry state of multimedia, Redmond set up a post-graduate course at Trinity College entitled Multimedia Systems. The response was overwhelming; 600 people applied for 50 places. Redmond makes a point of accepting students from all disciplines, from drama to English, and has ensured there is a 50/50 gender split. “Multimedia is a cross discipline, but it is more creative than technical – it was always the reverse in the Seventies. And as this perception sinks in, more women are coming in.”

In Redmond’s experience, “women don’t like being the vanguard of new technology, they prefer to come in more slowly. Men are more confident about saying they can do things. But once women are in, they then take over.”

Look out for Desire by Design – body, territory and new technology, a series of essays by women working in new media. Due to be published by Cutting Edge, the women’s research group at The University of Westminster, in autumn 1997.

The Women’s Design Research Unit (WD+RU) aims to safeguard and empower women’s voices in design and new technology and produces a regular broadsheet. If you are interested in getting a copy, or have information on other collectives of women trying to promote awareness, contact Teal Triggs, head of graphic design at the London College of Printing, on bunker@easynet.co.uk

Latest articles