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Designing Women, Part Two
Mothers of the Earth unite!

by DK Holland

Ignacio admits, “To me its obvious we need to do this but some people think it’s a stupid idea. Some say making juries 50/50 will affect the quality of the shows. But we’re a very conservative industry. We’ve been doing the same things since the era of the Mad Men. We need to at least try this because we need to evolve.” Ignacio adds that, to push the envelope, “We’re creating a [public] directory of the top women in the industry. This will make it much easier to find an amazing woman in the industry who may not be famous yet, but who totally deserves to be on the circuit.”

The only way to get over the challenge of public speaking is to speak in public. Part of being a judge, speaker or board member is being comfortable thinking on your feet, being able to converse with a group of your peers in an articulate, self-assured and compelling way. This takes practice and commitment. And it involves competing for airtime. Lara Galinsky, senior vice president of Echoing Green, an international social entrepreneur fellowship program, says, “Two years ago we realized too few women were being chosen as fellows so we did research that showed us that the language we were using promoted a competitive spirit, which may appeal more to men. And since men like competition they get more practice.” Echoing Green, which is run by two women, helps fellows create for-profit and nonprofit businesses to solve the world’s thorniest problems. Lara says their research led to a solution. “We provided additional support for women at the semi-finalist stage where we … realized they would often falter, and now we are almost 50/50.”

Ric Grefé, executive director of AIGA, is a big advocate of change for women, especially in design. He says, “In terms of empathy, women may have an advantage over men, sensing the human impact of design. Yet the absence of leadership training and opportunities for almost all designers may disadvantage women even more than men.” Ric adds that in this profession, which is over 60 percent female, “Women designers are often far quieter than men. As they succeed as designers, if they are on their own, they often want to downsize their practice, choose their clients and the kinds of projects they take on. This reduces the size of the podium from which they could influence the profession. Male designers, on the other hand, just keep growing their business, their influence. So the voice in the profession is largely loud and male.” 

Designer Cheryl Heller is one of the few female communication designers speaking out about tackling social issues, which she believes is key to the future of every organization. She has achieved much in her career including the creation of the SAPPI Ideas That Matter grant program and rebranding the green home products company Seventh Generation, but she says, “I’ve found that fearlessness comes with age. I stopped striving a few years ago. Suddenly the pressure of needing to prove something was replaced by the drive to create good.”

Cheryl currently heads CommonWise, a design practice whose clients include corporations, nonprofits and foundations. She says, “Creation inevitably involves chaos and the destruction of existing norms. A willingness to ‘stick your finger in the fan’ is required to start a transformation, as well as a degree of honesty that leads through disruption to regeneration.” Innovation is messy, and when it is the goal, it’s important to remember that, as actor Annette Bening once said, “balance is overrated.” Cheryl observes, “The security to take risks does not come easily. The support that has allowed me to continue to evolve my work—walking away from one career in order to begin another, continuing to change and grow, following principles instead of reacting to pressures—has come from a 30-year relationship with my husband and partner Gary Scheft. He has been unwavering in his emotional support, and willing countless times to tell me, wherever I was in the world, ‘just come home, we’ll figure it out.’”

Just when she thought she had mastered the art of not striving, Cheryl was asked to create the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation (DSI) at the School of Visual Arts, a program made up of a majority of women whose ages span three decades and who arrive at SVA with different backgrounds, from all over the globe. Cheryl and her DSI students find common ground: they share a passion for reshaping a world way out of whack, and the drive to use design as a tool for leading change. And now, as chair of DSI, Cheryl strives for her students.

Women are shaped by cultural norms that lead them to presume they can create harmony. This optimism can be a strength, but it also means that women often sublimate their own needs and opinions for what they see as the greater good. Cheryl adds, “Women are good at relationships and seeing the world from perspectives other than their own. These are critical skills, and now we have to figure out how to maintain them while introducing the kind of disruption that leads to a healthier reality.” So how can women rock the boat to effect change when they might well tip the boat over? Herein lies the emotional conflict for women: how to access your inner Kali.

Twenty-three years ago Patrick Coyne asked me to create a column for this magazine that he would entitle “Design Issues” so that “it could be about anything.” I took it as an opportunity to invite my colleagues to jump on board and rock the boat with me. This has been both an honor and privilege but now as I must move on to new boats to rock, I want to thank you for bearing with me, for reading my words. ca

    2. Ulla G. Foehr, Victoria J. Rideout and Donald F. Roberts, “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds” (2010)
    3. Marc Choueiti and Stacy L. Smith, “Gender Disparity On Screen and Behind the Camera in Family Films; The Executive Report” (2010)
    4. As of this writing, the House is made up of 18 percent women, and the Senate is 20 percent.
    5. World Bank
    6. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (New York: Random House, 2009), xvii Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.