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A Design Matriarchy?
Guest Editorial by Allison Goodman

Knowing that I had been asked to write a review of the recent Schools of Thoughts 2 conference in Los Angeles, I dutifully took notes during all lectures and breakout sessions. But those notes don’t actually apply to what I’m going to write about. Because what struck me most, what I thought was most notable, was the evidence of a Graphic Design Matriarchy at the conference.

I’ll admit that I may be a bit slow on the uptake regarding this one… clearly Katherine McCoy, Lorraine Wild and Meredith Davis, among others, didn’t just appear this past weekend (and I must also admit that I don’t go to too many AIGA events or conferences…my bad). But even if I am a bit behind the realization curve, it was a wonderful thing to witness. The spirit of the conference seemed as non-hierarchical as possible. The proceedings approached education as a shared responsibility. The ideas of sharing, of education, of giving birth to the next generation of graphic designers… it all seemed so perfectly feminine.

Certainly, the presence of the McCoy, Wild and Davis brought back memories of the now defunct American Center for Design, which although it didn’t survive, certainly acted as a shot across the bow of a then-very-phallo-centric AIGA National.

Not wanting to seem too gyno-centric, I do want to disclose that on the Saturday of the conference, I had lunch with a male conference attendee/panel leader. Over sandwiches, I dared to expose my fascination with the very feminine tone of the conference with my Art Center Colleague, Peter Lunenfeld. I even expressed my hunch that the bent toward preserving a more complete sense of graphic design history, female or otherwise, seemed like byproduct of that very Matriarchy. The work of so many male designers (Lissitsky, Rand, Bass, etc…) is so well documented, so well preserved. The work of women designers, much less so. But rather than blame Phil Meggs or whine in some other fashion, it seems that the leading women designers of today are taking on that challenge, for themselves, but also for others.

At the conference alone, there was Katherine McCoy’s presentation of the history of KCAI, which while wrapped around the tenure of Rob Roy Kelly, also helps us to understand Inge Druckery and April Greiman’s formative years. Aaris Sherin of The University of Northern Iowa presented her collaborative online database of women in Graphic Design during one of the two “Approaches to Teaching Design History” breakout sessions. And in the closing address, Meredith Davis disclosed an ambitious book project that will include one volume on Design History that she will write in concert with Lorraine Wild and Martha Scotford (who herself is the author of the book on Cipe Pineles — one of the unsung heroes of the early/mid-century design community). Inasmuch as Peter Lunenfeld was once my thesis advisor, he’s never too quick to completely agree with me. But he did consider my postulations regarding The Matriarchy… and then… agreed that it might indeed be a possibility.

Allison Goodman is the author of The 7 essentials of graphic design (How Design Books, 2001) an entry level text for aspiring graphic designers as well as the graphic design curious. She has worked in the offices of Sussman/Prejza & Co., Inc. and Richard Saul Wurman. Currently, Goodman is a professor at the Art Center College of Design where she has taught since since 1990.

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ARCHIVE ID 2247 FILED UNDER Design Academics
PUBLISHED ON Mar.18.2005 BY Speak Up
Armin’s comment is:

The notion of a Design Matriarchy — in the academic field — is very true. What I find interesting about this is that it doesn't apply to the professional world. When you think about the women who are leading these wonderful and myriad programs across the country it's — I think — literally impossible to draw an equally strong parallel in the professional realm. This, by no means, is an insult or delievered as offense to women — nor is this good or bad. Equally, a Design Patriarchy in the academic field is not as obvious or defined, but when it comes to the "leaders" (and I put this in quotes to avoid a discussion on who/what is a leader in design) of the professional world it's faster to name men than women.

So one could come to a very non-scientific, inconcussible conclusion that women create the best academic environments for men to flourish in the professional world…

On Mar.18.2005 at 02:37 PM
Rebecca Gimenez’s comment is:

For those who haven't read it, Eye Magazine published a conversation between Laurie Haycock Makela and Ellen Lupton in 1994 called Underground Matriarchy in Graphic Design that engages the issues touched on here.

On Mar.18.2005 at 05:13 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:

In its last few years, under the leadership under Katherine McCoy, the American Center for Design may have been perceived as less phallocentric than the AIGA (which had a woman president earlier in Nancye Green). However, for most of its history the ACD (nee STA), like the AIGA, was dominated by men.

On Mar.18.2005 at 08:36 PM
Steven’s comment is:

"inconcussible conclusion"

Nice alliteration, Armin. Seriously.

Getting back to the central focus of the topic at hand...

While not promoting stereotypical gender roles, I'm just throwing out this notion for discussion.

Teaching is related to nurturance, which (traditionally) is more feminine; while business is related to dominance, which (traditionally) is more masculine.

Another related way of seeing this Matriarchy is that while the men have been focusing their efforts saturating their presence in the business world, they've left the academic world (relatively) open for women to make inroads.

BTW, I am in no way advocating a sexist system with these statements, but just trying to make an observation. I would prefer if the design profession, and indeed commerce and governance, were more integrated and even. On the other-hand, I don't think it's necessarily so bad when we exhibit behaviors that are stereotypically related to our specific gender.

(Damn, it's hard to be a liberal sometimes!)

On Mar.18.2005 at 09:10 PM
marian’s comment is:

Hmmm. Certainly the women you mentioned (and don't forget Brenda Laurel) are among the top educators in design, and having them at this conference together seemed significant. The conference was organized by two women—Louise Sandhaus and Petrula Vrontikis—which is either further indication of the matriarchy, or of a possible bias in programming.

But lest anyone think this was an estro-fest, let me just say that men were well represented, and may have outnumbered the women. I'm too lazy to do a count of names male/female from the sepakers' list... but I do wonder if the women aren't just standing out in our mind because we're not used to seeing them there. It's like, you enter a boardroom of 10 executives, see 3 women and think, "Hmm, lots of women here!"

I'm not saying there isn't a matriarchy, but don't forget, there's still this.

I'd be interested to see who the up-and-coming educators are. Who will be shaping the future of design education? And further, if there is a matriarchy, now or in the future, what difference, if any does it make? Do women teach differently than men; do they have different agendas; do they produce designers with a different focus?

On Mar.19.2005 at 12:56 AM
Derrick Schultz’s comment is:


I think industrial design, which, without it actually saying so, is what the DSchool is classified as, has a much larger gender gap than graphic design. I can think of only handful of "signature" female industrial designers.

Even in Graphic Design there is a split -- "digital" designers (web, motion, and interactive if you will) tend to be heavier on the male side. The more traditional graphic subcategories tend to be more female from my observation.

Neither a patriarchy or matriarchy is good. If women are supposedly the nurturing half, and men the more forceful and demanding half, then a leaning towards one or the other in education or profession will create overly passive or overly agressive designers, neither of which is good for clients or our profession as a whole.

On Mar.19.2005 at 02:32 PM
david v.’s comment is:

While an increase in gender parity in the design world is something I heartily advocate, and will contribute to however I can, I have to admit I wince when I see statements like:

The spirit of the conference seemed as non-hierarchical as possible. The proceedings approached education as a shared responsibility. The ideas of sharing, of education, of giving birth to the next generation of graphic designers… it all seemed so perfectly feminine.

It just seems like dangerous ground to start ascribing certain behaviours and styles of working to one gender over the other, since implicit in that is the assumption that there are other tendencies and skills which men possess more than women on some inherent level. And then the next thing you know you're the president of Harvard and you're saying that the reason there are so few women in science is...

On Mar.19.2005 at 05:39 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

OHMYGOD! I hadn't noticed. Gender indifference - if there is such a word - is when you don't really give a #$%@ who is wearing pink or blue as long as you get to work. And right now all the designers I know aren't buying much illustration work but getting cheap click art. (And I've made such cute pictures.) The majority of designers I work with are women, now that I count them, and each has a different personality, but I would never have thought "Matriarchy/Patriarchy" not even once. Each is rigorous designwise in their own way and I'm glad for it. It would make as much sense to divide the design world into serif and sans serif people...

On Mar.20.2005 at 08:24 AM
Matt Waggner’s comment is:

Just to toss out another tidbit from the conference -- there was an interesting presentation by Aaris Sherin from RIT, who talked about a historical research course designed to generate [original] research and writing specifically about "Women Pioneers in Design." Most of the site is behind a password wall for copyright reasons, but it can be seen at http://womendesigners.org for the curious.

On Mar.21.2005 at 11:25 AM
lst’s comment is:

when it comes to the "leaders" (and I put this in quotes to avoid a discussion on who/what is a leader in design) of the professional world it's faster to name men than women.

Why is this?

Design isn't alone in this. I think it would be hard to name 5 famous female guitarists? Architects? CEOs?

While women have made gains over the past century, we still are not equally represented in positions of power.

But why?

On Mar.28.2005 at 01:38 AM
Joshua Trees’s comment is:

I didn't attend 'Schools of Thoughts 2' but on March 1st I went to the 'Design Strategy Workshop' hosted by the Institute of Design at IIT.

During the Q&A, an audience member from Razorfish studio asked the all-male panel, "Are designers 'butch' enough to be CEOs?.... in America there’s an affiliation between design, creativity and femininity.... male designers are considered 'nancy boys' unless you’re Italian".

The discussion that followed the Razorfish guy's question was so disappointing and unproductive because people don't regularly acknowledge the difference between gender (masculine or feminine) and sex (male or female).

Despite the best efforts of feminism and fine art, we still use the terms interchangeably as if the mean the same thing. And as a result, the discussion defaults into a battle of the sexes (women are from venus, men are from mars) and the so-called essential traits that come with being born with balls or boobs (whereby females own femininity and nurturing, males own masculinity and domination) when in my experience people actually span the gender/sex spectrum. What I mean is: the intersections of gender and sex are more grey than is commonly admitted. Don't you think?

Not that I think that there aren't differences between men and women, I just don't think those differences (should) determine our leadership/relationship styles. In fact, I think both 'parenting' styles (matriarchy and patriarchy) can be said to be equally harmful. I'm all for non-hierarchical models of learning/practicing, but I definitely don't believe non-hierarchical models are necessarily a constant or essential trait of matriarchies.

On Aug.24.2005 at 10:27 PM