Poster Girls: “Women in graphic design have been criminally neglected”

A new exhibition at London Transport Museum celebrates the wealth of “unknown” female designers who have created transport posters over the last 100 years.

Merry Go-Round, by Anna Katrina Zinkeisen – 1935

“The story of women in 20th century graphic design has been criminally neglected,” says David Bownes, curator at the London Transport Museum. “It would be tremendous if they could receive the same acknowledgement as their famous, male counterparts.”

This is the idea behind a new poster exhibition set to open at London Transport Museum this week, which celebrates the work of female poster designers over the last 100 years.

The exhibition has been curated to coincide with the centenary since women were given the right to vote, in 1918.

Poster Girls features over 150 posters designed for Transport for London (TfL), from advertising material through to safety notices on transport systems such as the Tube, buses and National Rail trains.

Illustration to art deco

The show starts in 1910 and is organised chronologically until the present day, exploring different graphic styles.

Bownes, who has co-curated the exhibition, says that it starts off illustrative, as originally children’s book illustrators were often commissioned by TfL to design posters, resulting in prints that looked like “pages from nursery rhyme books”.

The 1920s and 1930s then saw a bolder, art deco style with block colours and geometric shapes, only to return to a more illustrative style following World War Two, which has continued through to the present day.

“Over the last 100 years, there have occasionally been posters in a more painterly style, from painters like Sandra Fisher and Gillian Ayres,” he says. “Fine artists have sometimes been commissioned. But illustration became the default setting again following the war.”

“Revolution” in design education

The show also aims to demonstrate the “revolution” that took place in design education in London following 1945 as the advertising industry boomed, with more and more women taking on courses at specialist schools such as Royal College of Art (RCA), and the then-separate Saint Martin’s School of Art and Central School of Arts and Crafts.

“Women made up a disproportionately high number of students on these courses, given the hierarchical and socially-restrained era,” Bownes says. “Design was seen as ‘something appropriate’ for women to do.”

One example from this era is Dora Batty, who worked across poster and graphic design, ceramics and textiles, was commissioned to complete many advertising jobs and was also head of the School of Textiles at Central School of Arts and Crafts.

“There are monographs about the men”

“She was a particularly good graphic designer and an inspiring teacher, and the likes of Terence Conran claim to have been inspired by her,” says Bownes. “But she’s so obscure now that we couldn’t even find a photo of her for the exhibition.”

Other female designers featured in the show include Laura Knight, Edin Marx and Mabel Lucie Attwell, with TfL estimating that over 170 women have been commissioned by the organisation since 1910 – yet most of them are relatively unknown to today’s design community, let alone the general public, Bownes explains.

“The best of these designers are just as good as the best, male poster designers, who are quite well known,” he says. “Think Abram Games, Tom Eckersley, and Tom Purvis – there are monographs about these men.”

“It shouldn’t be ‘female’ designers – it should be ‘best’ designers”

While Bownes acknowledges there is still gender inequality in the design industry, he hopes that exhibitions such as this will help to celebrate the achievements of these past design greats – and that, eventually, shows like this will no longer be necessary.

“It hasn’t been a straight, upward arrow for equality in the design industry,” he says. “The number of women commissioned to do posters declined quite steadily after World War Two, and has only increased again in the last 20 years.

“Throughout the 20th century, men were paid significantly more and had a much higher profile,” he continues. “They did more self-promotion than women and did not have the pressure or constraints of family life. Ultimately, we don’t want to need to have an exhibition on female poster designers – it should just be the best poster designers.”

Poster Girls runs 13 October 2017 – January 2019 at Exterion Media Gallery, London Transport Museum, Covent Garden Piazza, London WC2E 7BB. Tickets cost £16 in advance or £17.50 on the door. For more info, head to the London Transport Museum site.

Summer Sales Quickly Reached, by Mary Koop – 1925
From Country to the Heart of Town for Shopping, by Dora M Batty – 1925
See London and London’s Country, by Sheila Stratton – 1954
We Londoners, by Dorrit Dekk – 1961
Children’s London, by Carol Barker – 1973
The New Kew by Tube, by Jennie Tuffs – 1987
St James’s Park by Tube and Bus, by Jennie Tuffs – 1997
Simply Food and Fresh Air by Tube and Bus, by Louisa St. Pierre – 2001
Epping Forest, by Ruth Hydes – 2015
Hide Comments (3)Show Comments (3)
  • A King October 16, 2017 at 9:35 am

    In the 25 years of our company we have always tried to keep 50% of our studio staff woman and 50% men. Naturally this sometimes swings in one direction of another as people leave and join. But you hire the next person to aim to correct the swing.
    This is a representation of the audience and was right in the 1990’s and is still right today.

  • Kate October 18, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    It’s shocking that the differences are so large that it creates a need for female only exhibitions, protests, networking and business groups etc. Although there is no escaping biology any individual, with the right attitude, has the ability to achieve great things. But if a woman wants a baby and success then you’d be unrealistic not to accept that this choice will make your ability to compete harder.

  • DJ Johnston October 23, 2017 at 9:59 pm

    Despite DW being edited by a woman from it’s inception, the DBA chaired by another incredibly able bodied lady, the REAL industry (by that I mean the day -to-day machinations of design) being helmed by females, the industry is still driven by blokes -boyish ones at that, obsessed with boyish things, such as typefaces, kerning, the texture of hot metal and juvenile brand book copywriting (you are sussed!) Time to change indeed, get smart, get business savvy and get to grips with the fact that women are the real creators, Real grown men realise this, the mummy’s boys need to wake up and try a coffee.

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