Autumn 2021

Rebalancing the design canon

Elizabeth Resnick looks at the practitioners and educators intent on revising our understanding of women’s roles in design history

ShandyGaff ‘healthy food’ hot spot in San Francisco with supergraphics by Marget Larsen, 1971.

In 1991, in the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, US designer, design educator and historian Martha Scotford published her seminal article ‘Is There a Canon of Graphic Design?’. She chose five books that were considered the best historical surveys at that time and applied a statistical analysis to question their inclusion criteria. Later, in Eye 68, she wrote: ‘When I researched my 1991 article by counting images, I claimed that the authors of the five books involved had unintentionally created a canon.’

But is there a genuine canon of graphic design history?

‘Graphic design history is, generally speaking, a history of professional practice,’ wrote US designer and design educator Aggie Toppins in an article for AIGA Eye on Design.

‘In text books, at conferences, and for college courses, design historians and educators explain the development of the industry through the example of pivotal figures, canonical works, and dominant styles.’

‘Errata: A feminist revision to Portuguese graphic design history’, Gabinete Gráfico, Museu da Cidade, Porto, from 27 August to 23 October 2021. Exhibition design ID-AE studio. Installation photo: Alexandre Delmar.

The first historians to show an interest in graphic design were professionals seeking greater recognition.

Toppins writes that this ‘movement … saw a need to create a history to elevate graphic design above an amateur’s knowledge, decouple the industry from trade disciplines, and position the field as an equally important cultural player alongside architecture, fashion design, and the fine arts.’

Ruth Sykes, a UK designer and design educator, believes this to be an unfortunate consequence of an otherwise positive step. ‘Graphic design history has largely foregrounded the achievements of male graphic designers,’ she says, ‘leaving the contribution of female graphic designers underexamined.’ Keenly aware of this oversight, Sykes says: ‘If graphic design history were revised to include more of the accomplishments of female graphic designers, it would be one part of the process of achieving equal industry status for female graphic designers.’

Italian designer and design educator Silvia Sfligiotti offers a different perspective. ‘Expanding the canon by adding more “masterpieces” designed by women, or names of female “masters” would not solve the problem of a lack of critical attitude,’ she argues. ‘Talking about how a canon is created is more interesting.’

‘We have a vested interest in dismantling the canon,’ adds US designer and design educator Katie Krcmarik. The people with the power wrote the history books and unsurprisingly wrote about people like themselves.’

Since 1990, there has been a disproportionate influx of female students entering design courses. ‘Women have made up a good amount of the student body in graphic design programs, but their professional work seems to be underrepresented in popular canons,’ says Louise Paradis, a Canadian designer and design educator. ‘What has happened to all these female designers?’ A feasible riposte is that female graphic designers often combine teaching with their practice, resulting in a substantial increase in both part-time and full time female faculty members in colleges and universities over the past two decades.

‘When I started working as a graphic designer and talking to other female designers,’ recalls Tereza Bettinardi, a Brazilian designer and design educator, ‘I realised how few female references we had during our education and early professional lives. I believe the canon of graphic design history is still very male and white. But I hope this will change in the future.’

US designer and design educator Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton says: ‘Design history plays a huge role in my research, and lately I have focused on Black women graphic designers.’

Expanding a ‘canon’ fully to embrace the accomplishments of female graphic designers is being addressed by an international cohort of professional female graphic designers and design educators. To tackle this biased imbalance, they have shifted their professional practice towards researching, writing and curating exhibitions on marginalised, overlooked and underappreciated female designers. Collectively, they aim to question and challenge the widely accepted pantheon of established male figures and, by doing so, reinvigorate the canon of graphic design.

Seeking role models
Hall of Femmes is a project founded in 2009 by Swedish designers and design educators Samira Bouabana and Angela Tillman Sperandio. It includes lectures, exhibitions, interviews, podcasts and the Hall of Femmes book series (see Eye 94). Each book in this series features a designer and her work via in-depth interviews and previously unpublished images. ‘The project started as a personal desire to find female role models in graphic design – a field where women’s contributions to developing the profession had not been documented or had enough recognition.’ A book on Rosmarie Tissi, their tenth, is promised.

Australian affirmation
#afFEMation: Making Heroes of Women in Australian Graphic Design is a website created by Australian designer and design educator Dr Jane Connory (see Eye blog, July 2018). Her PhD research focused on women’s visibility, diversity in design and gender equity in Australian graphic design. She created #afFEMation ( – a network of women in Australian graphic design – to help young designers develop their networks and find mentors to build their careers. ‘When today’s design educators question the existing canon and seek out or create resources to widen its scope, the students benefit on so many levels,’ Connory says. ‘Graphic design graduates coming out of universities and colleges across the globe are mainly women, which is ironic considering the dominance of men in senior roles out in the industry. Some of these actions can include bringing together teams of people to write the biographies of women graphic designers on Wikipedia.’

Defying the dumpsters
US designer and design educator Louise Sandhaus says: ‘On completing my book, Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires and Riots: California & Graphic Design 1936–1986 (see Eye 90), it was clear that the history I’d spent considerably more than a decade compiling was just a crumb of a crumb of California’s graphic design history,’ she says. ‘I knew there was a wealth of designers and projects I had overlooked because of my own biases. Among the designers still in need of research were women, of which California boasted a particular abundance, thanks to the freedom that they may have enjoyed here. […] It took three years of research, writing, photography and design to realise the book A Colorful Life: Gere Kavanaugh, Designer (see Eye 99) by Kat Catmur and myself. And Kavanaugh had an archive of her work. Few archives specialise in graphic design, and so, with no place to go, much of this history ends up in dumpsters.’

Images from ‘Errata’, Porto, 2021. ‘The process of documenting and remembering is inherently misogynistic,’ write curators Olinda Martins and Isabel Duarte in the exhibition catalogue. Eva magazine, 1933. Cover design: Guida Ottolini. Courtesy Biblioteca Silva.

Alda Rosa’s catalogue cover for ‘Conferências Proferidas durante o Colóquio sobre Design Industrial’, 1971. Client: INII.

Portuguese traces
Errata is a relatively new project founded by Isabel Duarte with Olinda Martins. The Errata website ( states: ‘Errata is a para-academic research project concentrating on the visibility of women in Portuguese graphic design history. Disseminated through public exhibitions and events, an ongoing series of podcasts and publishing, the Errata project engages with criticism, education and research to uncover the invisible stories of women designers in Portugal and facilitate dialogues exploring methods of improving gender representation in graphic design history.’ The first public exhibition of the Errata research project took place in the Gabinete Gráfico of Museu da Cidade in Porto from 27 August to 23 October 2021. ‘Through collecting, documenting and displaying the works of Portuguese women graphic designers from throughout the twentieth century, this exhibition will bring to the fore practitioners who have been overlooked by canonical design history.’

Harper’s Bazaar January 1968. Art direction: Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler. Photograph by Bill Silano.

Shift in perception
The first book by Briar Levit, a US designer and design educator, is Baseline Shift: Untold Stories of Women in Graphic Design History (2021). Its fifteen essays address subjects such as the book design work of Ellen Raskin; Ho-Chunk indigenous artist and designer Angel De Cora; Harlem Renaissance designer Louise E. Jefferson; South African typesetter and anti-apartheid activist Norma Kitson; San Francisco designer Marget Larsen; and Bea Feitler. ‘Graphic design history has become the centre of my academic research after making the documentary Graphic Means: A History of Graphic Design Production’, says Levit. (See article in Eye 95.)

Truck with Marget Larsen’s Parisian Bakerie identity, 1960.

Changing the frame
In 1994, US designer, design educator and historian Martha Scotford wrote ‘Messy History vs. Neat History: Toward an Expanded View of Women in Graphic Design’, published in the journal Visible Language (28:4). Scotford states: ‘For the contributions of women … to be discovered and understood, their different experiences and roles within the patriarchal and capitalist framework they share with men, and their choices and experiences within a female framework, must be acknowledged and explored. Neat history is conventional history: a focus on the mainstream activities and work of individual, usually male, designers. Messy history seeks to discover, study and include the variety of alternative approaches and activities that are often part of women designers’ professional lives.’

Elizabeth Resnick, design educator, curator, writer, Massachusetts, US

First published in Eye no. 102 vol. 26, 2021

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.