Design Experts

Women in Design: A Q&A with design historian Libby Sellers

Women in Design: A Q&A with Libby Sellers

Image: Joakim Blokstrom

Design Experts

Women in Design: A Q&A with design historian Libby Sellers

Design historian and author, Libby Sellers, latest book, Women Design, explores the world of design and women's place within it. We caught up with her to discuss everything from overcoming gender disparity in the world of design to which female design powerhouses we need to know about.

We’ve come a long way, baby, it’s true. Thanks to the efforts of the many female trailblazers and visionaries who have come before us, women as a collective are a force to be reckoned with. They’re making major contributions to industries and sports that were once male-dominated, campaigning for equal pay and challenging the status quo across the board. But it’s hard to argue with the fact that there’s still so much work to be done to close the gender gap and many barriers yet to be shattered—the #metoo movement has demonstrated that we've still got a long way to go.

In her new book Women Design (Frances Lincoln, 2018), author Libby Sellers, who is a design historian, consultant and former senior curator of the Design Museum, London, explores the world of design and women’s place within it. Here, we chat with Libby about women in design, their experiences, challenges and contributions.


What's it like for women in the male-dominated world of design?

Women make up nearly three-quarters of the design student population at colleges and universities. This figure drops dramatically to less than one quarter when it comes to the actual industry. Fortunately, this gender disparity in the industry is being called out by numerous groups and associations, though it is a way to go before we reach equality.


Who are some of the great women in design? 

Design history, as well as design practice, has been a largely patriarchal industry. What’s been really interesting to see is that, with the development of a feminist design history discourse, so many female designers that had been previously relegated, overlooked or ignored are now being celebrated. There have been so many great women in design: from the early 20th century pioneers (Anni Albers, Marianne Brandt and Eileen Gray) through to the trailblazing mid-century heroines (Ray Eames, Eva Zeisel and Lella Vignelli), and then to the contemporary practitioners like Hella Jongerius, Patricia Urquiola and Ilse Crawford. What makes them all so great is their care for the things or environments that we choose to surround ourselves with.


What obstacles face women in the world of design? How can they overcome these barriers?

Just like in most industries, often the main barrier holding women back in design is an acute lack of confidence. Success has as much to do with confidence as it does with competence. Of course, men suffer self-doubt too, but its impact on their willingness to move forward is not as perceptible. At the same time, there are many women who would prefer not to be described as a female designer, believing that to focus on them as women would ultimately detract from the conversation about the quality of their work. It is a valid concern, yet perhaps by celebrating their rightful place both as a woman and a designer—stepping forward as role models—then we might be able to create a discernible difference and see the statistics change in women’s favour.


What unique influence and vision do you think women specifically bring to design/architecture, etc?

I don’t believe there is a particular or specific vision that all women bring to creative industries, but I do identify shared qualities within my own peer group. I think contemporary designers have broken the monocultures established in the twentieth century. Instead of designing for industry, they are designing for people. They acknowledge all the messiness in the world around us and try, through their designs, to offer solutions rather than ideological statements.


What advice would you give to a woman hoping to work in design ... or any career for that matter? How can men help to empower female designers in this modern era?

Frustrating accounts about unsafe and unsupportive work environments for women, lack of childcare provision and pay disparity still persist. So, while the obvious answers as to how men can help empower women are directly related to these accounts, there is also the need for women to be more collaborative and supportive rather than competitive and judgemental. Women designers are one another’s most powerful assets.



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Design Experts

Women in Design: A Q&A with design historian Libby Sellers