You launched the website Badass Libre Fonts by Womxn, which shares open-source fonts designed by women. What were the challenges of creating this online resource? As I work more and more with a feminist approach, I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of the tools and the materials that graphic designers use, including where these tools and materials come from, who designed them, and how. When I realized that I was mostly using fonts designed by male designers—which I selected on platforms showing collections of open-source fonts, also mostly by male designers—I started building my own collection of fonts by woman-identified designers, as I felt it was so hard to find them. This quickly grew into a big collection! But having them in a folder in my computer wasn’t the best way to preview, compare and test them. So I built this website, which I can share with colleagues and students.
The challenges are to make women font designers more visible in a domain in which they have been made invisible. Users can meet these challenges by using these designers’ fonts, crediting the designers, contributing to their projects and hiring them. Through open-source projects, I am not encouraging free labor—which would be even more wrong when it concerns women who are still paid less than men.
How did you get started working on hybrid and digital publications? In my MA at École de Recherche graphique, known as erg, in Brussels, I specialized in editorial design and publishing practices in a traditional way—I worked mainly on paper publications. I was already interested in expanding the notion of publications in oral, performative and experimental ways, but I saw digital publications as something “other” than what I was doing.
It’s through meeting people involved in the collective Open Source Publishing and in the Berlin-based Hybrid Publishing Group that I was introduced to the field of digital and hybrid publications. It was like a whole new landscape opening in front of me! It almost felt like an unexplored field that graphic designers don’t pay much attention to. That got me excited to dive in, learn HTML and CSS, and start working in digital publishing as a researcher. My background with experimental publications also made me question the “genres” of publications—to go beyond the supposed dichotomy of printed versus digital—and see how they interact together in today’s rich publishing ecosystem.
It says on your site that you’re “inspired by open-source practices—release early, release often.” Why do you think it’s important for designers to make their work and research freely available in the 21st century? The principles of free and open-source software are complementary to a feminist approach: making things transparent; showing how they are constructed; opening them for deconstruction, changes and suggestions; making them available and inclusive; and considering them as works in progress and not just final results.
Open source has to do a lot with shaping a creative community in which people empower each other. I feel the graphic design world would definitely benefit from such an approach.
What was your point of entry to working as a graphic designer with a feminist perspective? While I was organizing an event at Corner College, an artist-run space in Zürich, I attended another event led by artist Caroline Palla. She invited us to collaboratively edit female artists’ pages on Wikipedia in order to improve their coverage on the platform, as women are underrepresented there. I found it such a fascinating experience that linked to my interest in new forms of publications and collaborative editing that I organized a similar event in Brussels. There, the amazing artists and designers Mia Melvær, Myriam A. Goulet and Sarah Magnan suggested we should keep on working with such topics. The collective Just for the record was born, and we continue to organize events and interventions around the gender imbalance on Wikipedia. What started as a side project now informs all facets of my work, my design, my teaching… in a super positive way!
Working with the collective has also expanded my attitude. Whereas before I felt pressure to make new things in order to be visible in a saturated and competitive field, activism has made realize that there are other stakes.
How does design aid activism for gender equality, and how does it hurt activism for gender equality? Graphic design is a position of power because as a designer, you get to create representations. You can use this position of power in different ways—and one way is to show more inclusive representations, empower others and, of course, use your design skills for activist projects!
In relation to gender, graphic design has a specific history. Women working in this trade were unaccepted, invisible and undervalued… and this was until about 1980, which is so recent. In Briar Levit’s wonderful documentary Graphic Means: A History of Graphic Design Production, one of the interviewees mentions an expression used in the ’50s and ’60s: you could use a “girl” to do typesetting, which in the trade’s jargon meant a nonunioned, inexpensive worker.
The representations we are used to seeing and producing as graphic designers—that we consider natural—are informed by this history and the broader society we live in, which is patriarchal, sexist, racist, classist, ableist… Intersectional feminism, which considers these intersecting fields, is useful in addressing these issues.
Do you feel that you’ve been able to achieve anything as a teacher that you wouldn’t have been able to do as a designer? Teaching is also a position of power, with such responsibility—it’s almost frightening!
I’ve become aware of this since I’ve started teaching history and theoretical classes, for which I have to select works that will become my students’ references and history. The way you present things can have such an impact in this context. I try to take a critical approach to whatever secondary sources exist—if they do!—so that my students become used to being critical of every discourse—including mine.
When I started teaching a class on the history of artists books, I went back to my own history classes from when I was a student, which almost only showed works from male artists. It was a shock for me to realize this years later—so I decided to build another curriculum. I’ve had to do a lot of research, gathering things hidden in archives, and I even made a trip to New York and Los Angeles to visit specific archives, from the Woman’s Building to a women artists book exhibition curated by Lucy Lippard, titled Speaking Volumes.
What impact do you think the current wave of female political activism is having on the design industry? I hope it can help place women in higher, better paid, more visible positions. About that last point—I would like to stress the responsibility of festival and conference organizers and exhibition curators to pay attention to gender balance when it comes to giving visibility to people and projects. I sometimes hear that it is artificial to look at gender in a curated selection, but we live in a world that is extremely constructed, and what we might think of as natural is, in fact, already very much biased. I am part of the organizing team of a graphic design festival, and this year, we addressed this issue as a challenge, which led to a beautiful program.
Such reflection can have a positive impact on the field of graphic design and help people rethink the power relations between the different actors of the graphic design ecosystem, bringing more solidarity and empowerment into a field which sometimes hides gender issues since “it’s hard for everybody.” It’s a vicious circle.
What are you looking forward to seeing developed in the future? I’m very excited by a project started by designer Roxanne Maillet on nonbinary and inclusive typography, through a workshop in which other people work together to create new ways of writing in a gender-inclusive way, with new ligatures and letters. Just imagine the excitement of creating not only new typefaces, but also new letters! That’s what the future looks like to me.