Women Graphic Designers

Essays by Ellen Lupton
5 231 words27 min read

A colophon is a note appearing at the end of a book that describes the volume’s design and production. From the Greek kolophon, meaning summit or finishing touch, such commentary falls outside a publication’s main body of content, belonging to the technical apparatus of end matter, along with the index and other credits. A summit is also a peak, a climax, and it is fitting that in a book about the field of design in its broadest sense, the final chapter should confront the medium of publishing itself. The preceding chapters of this book present remarkable evidence of women’s creativity in the applied arts, across a wide range of practices and over a century. The pages themselves and the cover that encloses them are also evidence of design, reflecting the efforts of a team of collaborators. The letters that have gathered together to form printed words also are objects of design, exemplars of the art of typography. Each of these elements – cover, page, type – was designed by a woman.

The book, a physical artefact and a medium of communication, offers an appropriate opening for a survey of women graphic designers. Today, women are among the most influential designers of American books, having forged key paradigms in the exterior packaging and internal architecture of jacket and page. Across the twentieth century, women found opportunities to work in the publishing world, as editors and authors as well as designers.

The printing trades had provided employment for women during the nineteenth century, especially as typesetters, although they were subject, as in other trades, to lower pay for equal work. During this industrial era, the appearance of books, magazines, and advertising was largely determined by printing technicians. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the field (then better known as ‘commercial art’) of graphic design began to emerge as an artistic discipline.

The transformation of book design owed much to the Arts and Crafts movement, which revered the book as an object both functional and aesthetic, a part of everyday life yet worthy of care and adornment. William Morris had turned to typography in the 1880s, late in his career. Reacting against the harsh, sparkling pages of spiky type made possible by nineteenth-century printing and paper technologies, Morris reclaimed the weighty, dull-edged letters of early Renaissance typography.

The Arts and Crafts movement that spread from Britain to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century nurtured a new attentiveness to the book arts promoted by the operators of small private presses as well as by designers working for commercial publishers. Margaret Armstrong’s design for Wanted: A Match-Maker exemplifies the Arts and Crafts ideal of approaching the book as a total object, from outside to inside. With its use of slender, attenuated letterforms and light colours, Wanted: A Match-Maker rejects the ponderous density of William Morris’s printed pages in favour of a more conventional and pragmatic attitude, appropriate to the book’s commercial distribution and light-hearted romantic content.

Promoting moral uplift through meaningful labour, the Arts and Crafts movement was relatively open to women, who belonged to many of the Arts and Crafts societies founded around the turn of the century. As historian Ellen Mazur Thomson has argued, membership in clubs aided designers’ professional advancement, and apart from the Arts and Crafts organisations, most denied access to women until much later in the century.

In Boston, a strong publishing industry provided fertile ground for experiments with typography, calligraphy, illumination, illustration, and bookbinding. The Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston, founded in 1897, celebrated the book arts in its exhibitions and included numerous women among its active members, such as Sarah Wyman Whitman, Julia DeWolf Addison, Mary Crease Sears, and Amy Sacker. Several of these designers ran small schools and workshops and taught bookbinding, illustration, and other skills in fields that might provide suitable employment for young women.

While the workshop of Mary Crease Sears produced hand-tooled bindings using luxurious materials, other Boston designers worked in the commercial arena. The prominent society woman Sarah Wyman Whitman designed numerous machine-stamped bindings for Houghton Mifflin, as well as interiors and stained glass windows and screens for private clients. Amy Sacker’s 1902 design for the commercial binding of The Kindred of the Wild achieves a sense of depth and drama with a minimal number of colours and simple, linear illustrations.

While the Arts and Crafts movement provided philosophical fuel for progressive graphic design in the early twentieth century, by the 1940s the formal and technological experiments of the Bauhaus and such European avant-garde movements as Futurism, Constructivism, and Surrealism had reached a small community of American designers. Fewer women gained entrance to this new American vanguard than to the fine press movement. Among them was Elaine Lustig Cohen, who married the graphic designer Alvin Lustig in 1948. Elaine Lustig managed her husband’s studio in Los Angeles and later New York, serving as an all-purpose secretary, production assistant, and draftsperson – the ‘office slave’, as she recalls. Alvin Lustig suffered from diabetes, a condition that led to blindness, and as he lost his eyesight, he increasingly relied on his wife to implement his ideas.

After Alvin Lustig’s early death in 1955 at age forty, Elaine married Arthur Cohen, publisher of Meridian Books, and established her own design practice. In her innovative covers for Meridian Books, designed from 1955 through 1961, she used geometric symbols, evocative photographs, and expressive typography. For her cover for The Noble Savage 4, she affixed a typographic moustache to a marble statue, adorning a literary journal with a Dada flourish.

Several women were leaders in the postmodern return to historical styles that reshaped the top level of commercial book cover and jacket design in the 1980s. Working in New York, designer Louise Fili literally changed the surface of mainstream publishing, rejecting the shiny finishes and garish foil-stamping that served as standard packaging for mass-market books. Fili’s designs for Pantheon used matte, laminated coatings to create mysteriously soft yet durable, highly plasticised surfaces. Her cover for Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (1983) was a lasting icon, later serving as the basis for the motion picture promotion (1992). Along with her contemporary Carin Goldberg, Fili explored historic alphabets and decorative vocabularies, assembling these elements with a modern sense of color and composition.

The neo-historical designs of Fili and Goldberg readied the publishing industry for a more flexible approach to cover and jacket design, a medium made rigid by conservative editors and marketing managers. Carol Devine Carson became art director of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, in 1987. According to Carson, the book business traditionally has made a place for women: ‘We have always done a lot of the real work in this industry. The difference in the past fifteen years is that it’s more common for women to be rewarded for the work they do.’ Carson and her core staff of gifted younger designers – Chip Kidd, Barbara de Wilde, and Archie Ferguson – transformed bookstore shelves across the country.

Knopf’s covers often impart new meanings to familiar images by changing their scale or shifting their context. Carson’s designs for books such as Damage, Degree of Guilt, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil became icons of popular culture in the 1990s. Her cover for Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red takes a distant view, its modesty undercut by the implied eroticism of an erupting volcano, heaving like a breast from the supine earth.

The interior architecture of books, and not just their facades, has also been subject to renovation. In the publishing industry, the design of covers typically is divorced from the design of a book’s content, especially in text-dominated works of literature and nonfiction. In an organisation like Random House, the interior pages often follow a formulaic design, in contrast with the glamour and novelty afforded the book’s cover. Illustrated volumes about art and architecture are a different matter, however, involving a greater level of skill to successfully combine elements. As design director at MIT Press, Muriel Cooper focused on the book as an intelligent device for storing information. In 1974 she became one of the first designers to set her own type on a computer, using an IBM system to design Herbert Muschamp’s collection of essays, File Under Architecture. The only font available was Courier, but this limitation was offset by the freedom discovered in ‘mise-en-page” typography. Cooper’s other groundbreaking books for MIT included the first edition of Learning from Las Vegas (1972), a large-format interpretation of the famous pop document, and Hans Wingler’s Bauhaus (1969), a vast archive of visual and verbal documents compiled within a massive yet eminently manageable volume over 650 pages long.

Lorraine Wild’s 1985 design for Mask of Medusa, a book of images and texts by architect John Hejduk, was published by Rizzoli at a moment when architects were producing an astonishing number of monographs, each an assertion of personal greatness and professional viability during a period of rapid stardom in the field of architecture. The acknowledged master of the architectural monograph was Massimo Vignelli. Often using a single typeface, he orchestrated his books around a consistent grid, creating a cinematic sequence of images – large views underscored with drawings and plans, full-page images confronted with generously framed details. Vignelli’s books are big, simple, and direct.

Then along came Mask of Medusa, a tribute to poetics, which asserts the architect’s pleasure with ideas rather than the construction of monuments. Wild used varied column widths and a range of typefaces to interpret a rich diversity of texts – poems, commentaries, interviews. Working before the Macintosh computer put the tools of typesetting into the hands of the graphic designer, Wild carefully customised her approach to each section of Hejduk’s work, creating a book of enormous subtlety.


The sea change signalled by Mask of Medusa expanded beyond the architectural monograph; Wild’s exhibition catalogues, designed for the Whitney Museum of American Art and other institutions, helped revise standard expectations of the museum publication as a neutral portfolio of essays and reproductions. The book, like the installation of works in a gallery, became recognised as an interpretative context. Other women designers working in the 1990s who helped rethink the art book included Bethany Johns, Laurie Haycock Makela, Rebeca Méndez, Susan Silton, and Susan Sellars.

Magazine publishing is another field where women have found opportunities to thrive. While names such as Grace Mirabella (Mirabella), Tina Brown (Vanity Fair and the New Yorker), and Anna Wintour (Vogue) have figured high on the mastheads of great magazines, women’s roles as art directors and designers have been far less prominent. An exception is Cipe Pineles, whose brilliant achievements beginning in the late 1930s recently were documented in a critical biography by Martha Scotford Lange. Pineles, a Polish immigrant who came of age in Brooklyn, began working in 1932 as assistant to M. F. Agha, art director of Vogue and Vanity Fair. Agha, testing ideas from European modernism within the heady world of New York publishing, was forging new attitudes towards photography and layout. He conducted many of his experiments with Pineles at his side but gave her considerable independence, and she designed numerous significant projects on her own. For a Vogue cover proposed in 1939, Pineles drew the magazine’s name with jewellery and pushed the model off the edge of the page.

In 1942 Pineles became art director of Glamour, a Conde Nast publication directed at younger women. The looser and more popular style Pineles crafted there was linked to modernist principles of structure and abstraction while making playful use of images and type. Her open-hearted brand of modernism continued to evolve in her work as art director of Seventeen (1947-50), Charm (1950-59), and Mademoiselle (1959-61). She paid keen consideration to the physical setting of fashion shoots and their two-dimensional impact, using typography to echo and emphasise images. Approaching the magazine as an environment with its own scale, as well as a window onto other worlds, Pineles often staged three-dimensional objects on the page, allowing samples of reality to converse with printed texts.

Although few women achieved the status of magazine art director in the 1940s and 1950s, some filled other executive positions. Estelle Ellis, a colleague and collaborator of Pineles, became promotion director of Charm, the ‘magazine for women who work’, in 1944. She had also worked with Pineles on the marketing of Seventeen. In 1951 Ellis commissioned one of the first market surveys of working women, charting women’s spending on shoes, stockings, cosmetics, and other high-status items worn in the office. Ellis worked with women designers on some of her advertising campaigns, including Helen Federico, who used modernist collages and photograms to depict the material world of the working woman.

In more recent decades, several women have served as chief designers for major magazines. Bea Feitler was art director of Harper’s Bazaar, Ms., and Rolling Stone during the 1960s and 70s. Rhonda Rubinstein has worked since the late 1980s as art director of Esquire, Mother Jones, and other publications. New York’s downtown-style magazine Paper was given its signature identity – irreverent photography and pop – retro typography – by art director Bridget de Socio during the 1990s.

Perhaps the most influential magazine of the 1990s, conceived and executed by women, has been Martha Stewart Living, which has had a considerable impact not only on publishing but on electronic media, the mail-order catalogue business, and mass-market merchandising. Launched in 1991, Martha Stewart Living revolutionised the genre of the home style magazine. Any subsequent publication dealing with cooking, gardening, or decorating, as well as any upscale catalogue devoted to home furnishings, has been forced to confront the Martha Stewart Living ethos, with its use of soft, organic colours, crisp, overlapping typography, and atmospheric photographs that seek to capture the effects of natural light, often by combining soft and sharp focus within a single shot.

The magazine’s distinctive look was created by Gael Towey, who now, as creative director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, oversees the design of all the company’s products, publications, and programs. With a circulation over 2.1 million, the magazine presents a mix of articles – at once educational and sensual – that combine detailed, original research with a romantic sensibility that provokes pleasure and longing. An article about cheese juxtaposes a photograph of a lamb against a tower of handmade cheeses, staggering in its variety and scope.

The magazine’s editorial content fuels the company’s product development. The Martha Stewart brands of paint, for example, originated in an article about decorating with colour, inspired by the eggs from Stewart’s own flock of Auracana chickens. An exclusive line of paints was put into production, and later, a less expensive grade was developed for sale nation-wide in Kmart stores. Thus a magazine, created by one of America’s most famous women, working with a largely female staff, transformed the everyday domestic environment and the way we use and imagine it.

Political and public realms
A book or magazine is an inward volume of pages reflecting out on the world of events and ideas. Designers use words and images to directly engage the physical environment as well. There is a long tradition in the United States of posters promoting social and political causes or cultural events. Graphic design also marks the landscape with wayfinding systems, commercial signs, and institutional identities, annotating public space with logos, icons, and directional cues.

Suffrage was the central issue for feminism in the early twentieth century. As art historian Paula Harper has pointed out, the suffrage posters of the 1910s (as opposed to cartoons and other graphic work) tended to be conservative in their rhetoric and visual style. While such works dated among the earliest uses in this century of the political picture poster – anticipating the medium’s widespread deployment during World War I – the strategies chosen by the posters’ publishers and designers aimed not so much to agitate as to reassure. While many nineteenth-century feminists had taken a revolutionary stance against society’s norms and institutions, the suffragists of the 1910s did so by suggesting that women’s vote would strengthen rather than destroy the existing culture.

Bertha M. Boye’s 1913 poster ‘Votes for Women’ is symmetrical in design, reinforcing the sense of serene stability emanating from the statue-like figure at its center; the orb rising behind her head is both sun and halo, suggesting unambiguous warmth and virtue. The poster’s slogan appears not as an argument or battle cry, but as an unassailable truth, an ‘inalienable right’ whose time had come.

In contrast to the 1910s, the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s viewed itself as a counterculture phenomenon, appearing within the context of the battle for Civil Rights, the protest against the war in Vietnam, the international student upheavals of 1968, and the sexual revolution. Feminism’s ‘second wave’ unfolded within – and sometimes against – the anti-Establishment freedoms promoted by these movements. Posters, buttons, and bumper stickers, carrying such slogans as ‘Women’s Liberation IS the Revolution’ and ‘Women Are Not Chicks’ suggest that feminism was its own battle within the broader counterculture.

The Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, conceived as a studio and exhibition space for women’s art and design, was founded in 1973 by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Judy Chicago, and Arlene Raven. Printing equipment – from offset lithography to letterpress – was made available as a resource for personal and political expression. De Bretteville’s 1974 poster ‘Women in Design: The Next Decade’ promoted one of the many public events organised there. Marching across a gridded landscape are eye screws fitted with bolts – translations into hardware of the female symbol that had become the movement’s icon.

De Bretteville, who worked as a successful commercial designer in the 1980s (redesigning, for example, the Los Angeles Times), as well as an educator and public artist through the 1990s, continued to assert her identity as a feminist. Few women designers have willingly used the ‘f-word,’ fearful, perhaps, of alienating their colleagues or of casting doubt on the legitimacy of their own success. De Bretteville articulated a set of design strategies in the early 1980s that reflected feminist principles, such as the attempt to represent a subject from multiple perspectives, to allow words and images to contradict each other, or to allow viewers to complete the meaning of a communication. Such strategies coincided with the theories of experimental typography and postmodernism that were emerging around the same time.

Marlene McCarty is part of a younger generation that has used graphic design as a tool of social agitation. She was part of the AIDS activist collective Gran Fury in the late 1980s and early 1990s, where she helped keep women’s issues on the AIDS agenda. McCarty also was an active member of WAC, the Women’s Action Coalition, founded in 1992. Together with designer Bethany Johns, she created posters and media-savvy demonstrations on current issues. McCarty founded the New York design studio Bureau with Gran Fury colleague Donald Moffett in 1989. During the 1990s, the firm pursued commercial work for clients such as Clinique and Elektra Records, as well as creating graphics for various political organisations. Their large-scale poster ‘You and Your Kind Are Not Wanted Here,’ promoting gay civil rights, was sniped in the streets of New York in 1994. It features birds chirping around an strangely cheerful sunburst, surrounded by an explosion of pop letterforms recalling mainstream consumer packaging.

In addition to punctuating the landscape through guerilla postings and political announcements, designers create signage that explains and identifies public spaces. Over the past several decades, information systems increasingly have pervaded the built landscape. A leader in this evolution has been Deborah Sussman, who founded the firm Sussman/Prejza with Paul Prejza in 1980. The firm has created urban signage programs for numerous cities in California, as well as environmentally based identities for corporations such as Hasbro and Apple Computer.


One of Sussman/Prejza’s most famous projects was the environmental design program for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The signs and related kiosks and pavilions needed to guide an enormous international audience through a complex space, while visually celebrating the games and the surrounding city. Sussman’s system of bright colours, striped columns, and large-scale graphics was both functional and popularly accessible. Sussman/Prejza also created signage for Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where the languages of public information and commercial iconography joyfully mingle, as Mickey Mouse peers over the top of a standard-issue highway sign.

Paula Scher also creates institutional identities that merge with the built environment. In 1991 Scher became the sole woman among over a dozen partners in the international design firm Pentagram, making her what she has called ‘the only girl on the football team.’ That doesn't make her a cheerleader or a trophy date, but an equal player in a pack of heavyweights. Pentagram brought Scher a level of visibility and cultural clout virtually unattainable to a woman working on her own, while in turn, her fresh, energetic approach earned new recognition for Pentagram, a venerable company whose reputation had begun to level off.

Scher’s work for clients ranging from museums to global corporations has grown increasingly environmental, encompassing banners, building signs, and urban advertising campaigns. In 1994 she conceived a total design program for the New York Public Theater that ranges from billboards, street signs, and lobby interiors to logos, tickets, and stationery. Scher used a rhythmic mix of sans serif letterforms, drawn from the American printer’s vernacular, to construct a visual vocabulary that is both diverse and coherent – like the theater’s programming. Many of her posters combine evocative images with dramatic typography to reflect the spirit of the production, rather than showcasing individual stars. Although print is Scher’s native medium, the impact of her work, like that of Deborah Sussman, Sheila de Bretteville, and Marlene McCarty, is felt most powerfully on the street.

Designing the institutions of design
During the last quarter of the twentieth century, women played a central role in building the discourse of graphic design. During this period the profession came of age both as a recognised business and as a field of study in university art and design programs, including at the graduate level. Women were no minority among the educators, critics, editors, and curators who defined the theoretical issues of the time. Schools and museums provided accessible platforms from which women could influence the direction of graphic design.

Many of the women already discussed in this essay as key practitioners also were influential educators, including Cipe Pineles, who taught during the 1960s at Parsons School of Design; Lorraine Wild, a professor at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California; and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, who in 1990 became director of the graphic design program at Yale University School of Art.

De Bretteville’s appointment at Yale signalled changes and rifts within the design world. Since the late 1950s, the Yale program had been entrenched in high modernist theory, associated in particular with the work and philosophy of Paul Rand, a legendary corporate designer and stalwart defender of modernist ideals of direct communication and simple form. De Bretteville arrived at Yale advocating a more socially oriented, critical approach to design that would address the needs of multiple audiences. Rand resigned after de Bretteville’s appointment and convinced other key faculty to do so as well. In an angry manifesto published in the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, Rand railed against the violation of modernism by screaming hordes of historicists, deconstructivists, and activists. Behind each of these challenges to modernism stood a powerful woman: behind historicism was Paula Scher, behind deconstructivism was Katherine McCoy, and behind activism was Sheila Levrant de Bretteville.

Katherine McCoy, co-director of the design program at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, from 1971 to 1995, promoted ideas of postmodernism and critical theory in relation to typographic practice. She developed pedagogical exercises that converted modernist grids and letterforms into vehicles of personal expression, grounded in vernacular, rather than universal, forms. She and her students developed a model of ‘typography as discourse,’ drawing on post-structuralist literary theory, that posited the reader as an active participant in the communications process. Designers at Cranbrook employed layers of texts and images to create complex, deliberately challenging compositions.

McCoy’s 1980 poster ‘Architecture Symbol and Interpretation,’ created with Daniel Libeskind, shows how the theory of postmodernism that was gripping the architectural community was finding its own life in the field of graphic design. Neoclassical forms are deployed in an unsettlingly Surrealist manner and are titled with letters that are modernist in their individual form yet wilfully disconnected in their spacing.

Many of McCoy’s Cranbrook students became prominent teachers and practitioners. Lucille Tenazas, working in New York and then San Francisco, was a student at Cranbrook in the early 1980s. Her 1986 brochure for Springhill engaged neoclassical geometry, photographic imagery, and flat, decorative patterns. Nancy Skolos is a Boston-based designer whose 1987 poster ‘Fonts,’ produced with photographer Thomas Weddell, plays elaborate games with space, pattern, and dimensionality. Laurie Haycock Makela and P. Scott Makela created the poster ‘Sex Goddess’ as a student project in 1989, revealing the turn towards more harsh, direct imagery that took place at Cranbrook at the end of the 1980s. The Makelas succeeded Katherine McCoy as co-directors of the school’s two-dimensional design program in 1997. Since Scott Makela’s death in 1999, Laurie Haycock Makela has filled the post on her own.

Rebeca Mendez is another designer who built a remarkable career while working within an institutional setting. Born and raised in Mexico City, she studied design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. While serving as the school’s design director from 1991 to 1996, she created numerous publications and posters for the school and other institutions. Mendez combines typography and photographs in delicate, permeable layers, exploiting the possibilities of digital production in ways that engage the physicality of surfaces.

In addition to their roles in schools, women occupied positions of great influence in museums during the late twentieth century. Mildred Friedman, as design director at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis from 1970 through 1991, set an international standard for exhibitions and publications on design. In 1989 she curated the first large-scale museum survey of graphic design in the U.S., an exhibition that greatly expanded public knowledge of graphic design. Among the legions of other women who have promoted design awareness through their museum work and publishing during the 1980s and 1990s were Karrie Jacobs, Dianne Pilgrim, Chee Pearlman, and several of the women contributing to this volume. Such critics and curators laboured hard to raise the level of public discourse about design.

Design for screens
While the printed word provides an apt opening for discussing design in the twentieth century, the screen suggests a view to the future. Designers have produced graphics for film and television since the inception of these media, and new genres have continued to emerge with the explosion of interactive and networked technologies.

One of the great pioneers of film title design was Saul Bass, who, beginning in the 1960s increasingly collaborated with his wife, Elaine Bass, on film design. In the 1990s they jointly created several stunning film titles. Their opening titles for Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991) and Casino (1995) were conceived as films-within-a-film, narrative sequences that set the tone for the drama to follow, in a language that is at once set apart from the main film and compatible with it. In Casino the spinning wheels and flashing lights of Las Vegas mix with a surreal image of a body thrown from a burning car and drifting through space. Younger designers for film include Karin Fong, an art director at Imaginary Forces in Hollywood, whose witty titles for Dead Man on Campus (1998) consist of a meandering pan across a page of primer-style instructions for committing suicide. Emily Oberman and Bonnie Siegler, co-founders of Number 17, a New York studio, have created numerous graphics for television, as has the Los Angeles designer Margo Chase.

A pioneer of design for digital media was Muriel Cooper, who founded the Visible Language Workshop, part of MIT’s Media Lab, in 1975. Cooper worked with her students to create an electronic language for building ‘typographic landscapes‘ – complex, malleable documents in real time and three-dimensional space. Cooper gave concrete functions to such principles as layered information, simultaneous texts, and typographic texture. April Greiman’s film Inventing Flight carries forward some of Cooper’s ideas about text as three-dimensional form.

Many women are excelling today in the fields of user-interface design and electronic media, including Red Burns, head of New York University’s Interactive Technology Program; Jessica Helfand, critic and designer of interactive media; and Loretta Staples, head of U dot I, specialising in the design of graphical user interfaces (GUI). Perhaps ‘interface’ is an electronic counterpart for realms of culture that traditionally have been feminized. Office tasks known as ‘women’s work’ often involve mediating technologies. From answering phones, transferring calls, and taking messages to typing letters and making copies, female office workers historically have formed a human link between managers and machines; women have served as bodily extensions for communications equipment. The contemporary ideal of the ‘user-friendly’ electronic environment reflects the continued desire to humanise technology.

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