Feministing at 10: Re-designing the field of design

women in architecture

Click here for full infographic.

Ed. note: In celebration of Feministing’s 10-year anniversary, current and former members of the Feministing crew are offering their reflections on the changes of the last decade. First up is this take on women in design by editor emeritus Courtney Martin. Read the whole series here. And consider giving us a birthday donation to ensure Feministing is around for another 10 years. 

Ten years ago, I didn’t even know what design was, truth be told. If anything, I associated it with graphic design or web design and mostly only noticed either when they were egregiously bad (see almost every “woman’s organization” logo of a leaping, shapely female figure.)

Turns out, there’s a reason I didn’t know about design back then…if you look at the top line statistics on the field of architecture and design, they tell a decidedly un-feminist story. Only 21% of architectural staff are women, and that number has actually fallen in the last few years. For a breakdown, check out Megan Jett’s awesome infographic, here. When it comes to racial diversity, design is failing miserably, too. Barely a few percent are persons of color, and there are all of 300 African-American women architects in the entire country. There aren’t even statistics on socio-economic background, ability, etc. 

The design professions have major work to do around the recruitment, retention, and education of anyone who isn’t a white dude with cash to spare. Licensure is especially burdensome financially and in terms of time, and practically impossible for anyone without a seriously strong safety net of some kind.

Not to mention the fact that most people can’t afford design services. This is why I had no idea what design was ten years ago. I simply thought it was something other people—rich people—benefited from. But then I met my partner and he opened me up to this entire new way of looking at the world and what I deserved—regardless of my socio-economic class.

In fact, a justice-oriented, unapologetically diverse parallel field is taking shape and, though it may not use the language of feminism, it’s definitely using its values.

Human-centered design, popularized by IDEO and its nonprofit spinoff IDEO.org, is essentially about showing up in spaces where people have historically not been given the benefit of design and asking questions. The designer, like an anthropologist, is first and foremost a listener and pattern seeker. They observe and hear the needs and assets already alive in a particular context, and then iterate designs based on that—not their own ego.

To me, this practice is our old adage—“the personal is political”—dressed up in brightly colored Warby Parker glasses. It has led to all kinds of amazing products, places, and system re-designs that are benefiting people in the Global South. And even more interesting, it creates a dynamic by which “south-to-north” learning happens all the time. When Western designers shut up and listen, they learn a lot about what the historically stereotyped “third world” is actually doing better.

Finally, this parallel field focused on the public good is exciting because it’s almost entirely led by women. Some of my favorite movers and shakers whose work you should check out: Catherine Bracy of Code for All, Marika Shiori-Clark, Emily Pilloton of Project H, Jocelyn Wyatt and Patrice Martin of IDEO.org, Liz Ogbu, Krista Donaldson of D-Rev, and so many more.

Don’t sleep on these women re-designing the field of design. We’re all going to be better off for it.

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/gerwitz/ Hans Gerwitz

    Even in the business of human-centered design consultancies, there is a strong compartmentalization of skills. The “researchers” who are supposed to go learn how users think are often women (in line with the empathy stereotype) who later hand off responsibility to product designers (physical or software) who are still in a male-dominated field.

    It might fit the stereotype to say this is because these designers must work closely with engineering (which itself is male-dominated for all the well discussed reasons), but at least in software that doesn’t ring true; it’s a failing of the field these days how few of them understand the material they purport to design with.

    What does match the stereotype, though, is how “bro business” these groups often are, where success is correlated not with quality of work, but with the ability to sell it, to rationalize it, and to take credit for success.

    (My wife and I both have spent a lot of time around and within these agencies, and as a result have started our own boutique with the aim of diluting this Taylorist compartmentalized approach to product design. Not intentionally, this stance has led us to being 80% women.)

  • http://feministing.com/members/ladylikesailormouth/ Kathryn

    Wow! That infographic is eye opening. I cannot believe there are so few women in the architecture and design field. It just goes to show we still have academic fields where sexism is alive and well. The fact that almost half the women polled think they’d get paid more only if they were a man proves we need to work harder toward integrating male dominate fields of study and work.