Embracing change is not easy but it’s inevitable. I’m of the generation of graphic designers who had to change from Quark to InDesign then from print to digital. I took the leap from aesthetic values to user-centred ones. Then I took another leap from industry to education. It is here that I’ve changed from teaching at TAFE to higher education and from degrees to PhDs.
Most recently I’ve changed my name as well—from Ms to Dr Jane Connory. Having successfully passed a PhD, I am now a researcher, writer and educator more than a practitioner. My recently published exegesis explored this changing nature of graphic design but also focussed on the effect it has had on the visibility of women.
FYI I’m a graphic designer is a YouTube video. It edits together people commenting on graphic designers in movies and TV shows like Juno and The Office. It hilariously shows how much people just don’t get it. Design historians believe we don’t really understand ourselves either. We apparently have an “identity crisis” and a “crisis of design” because we have changed our name and what we do so often. We’ve gone from commercial artists to graphic designs to visual communicators and beyond.
It is also no surprise that this litany of names has made all of us a little invisible. It is women however that are the more invisible in comparison to men in our history. Christopher Frayling, a design writer, has looked back through history and agrees saying we have been perceived as “pipe smoking boffin[s]” who tend to be men. If you’ve ever picked up A Fine Line: A History of Australian Commercial Art you’ll see the cover pictures a commercial artist as a white Aussie bloke, wielding a brush. Yet, we all know the current stereotype of a graphic designer—men wearing black skivvies and dark rimmed glasses. It is rare to see women portrayed in our industry.
Design awards, conferences and Hall of Fame platforms continue this tradition of making women invisible in our industry. Even more so for people of colour, those with different abilities, the LGBTIAQ+ and Indigenous communities and for those from struggling socio-economic backgrounds. My research has shown that across the world women are graduating from the university pipeline at an enormous rate in comparison to men. Yet these platforms that offer authorship to designers have undervalued the contribution that diversity can have. They leave this pipeline of women with few role-models and heroes to look up to.
Things have to change to fix this problem. There are many initiatives designed to do exactly that. Two contributors to Word—Form have made admirable efforts to give women more visibility in graphic design. Gabby Lord curates an online list called Broads Downunder and Bonnie Abbot facilitates a similar open-source list called A Reparative List For Your Male-Dominated Design Conference. I have also designed the website #afFEMation.com to profile women in Australian design and celebrate their work and significant contributions. It acts a space for the next generation of designers to find heroes they can relate to.
Change is happening and every effort is making an impact. In the four years that it took me to complete my PhD there has been many positive changes to the visibility of women in Australian graphic design. The AGDA (Australian Graphic Design Association) Awards has achieved gender parity in its jury and added three women to its Hall of Fame, where there was originally only one. These women are Dahl Collings, Alison Forbes, Annette Harcus and Lynda Warner. The DIA (Design Institute of Australia) has a female CEO, Jo-Ann Kellock and has had its fifth female President, Claire Beale. This year Harriet Edquist from the RMIT Design Archives was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia for her significant service to architectural history and design, and to higher education.
These stories are all positive and show we need to embrace change. It is not easy but it is inevitable.