As a graphic design student, I looked up to many renowned designers. Through reading my textbooks and seeing my professors mention examples of designs, I realized there was one common denominator. It was a man's world. There would be mentions of a few female designers like Paula Scher and Debbie Millman, but that's about it.
I remember being aware of this, and I became obsessed with finding other female designers who had made an impact on our world. I knew there would be more than just a handful that deserved recognition, so I embarked on making my own list of female graphic designers.
In this article, we'll highlight 12 female designers who in one way or another have made waves, not only in the design world but also in communities outside of it. Let's take a look:
Gail Anderson is a graphic designer and writer who graduated from the School of Visual Arts. She’s co-authored 16 books and has been awarded Lifetime Achievement Awards from AIGA, and she's the first African American to receive the Cooper Hewitt National Design Awards. She also became the third woman to win the award.
It doesn’t stop there, however: she has served as a board member for Adobe, the Society of Publication Designers, and the Type Directors Club. Her love for typography started from her passion for words. She was taught by the legendary Paula Scher during her time at SVA and trained with Fred Woodward at Rolling Stone for many years. Her typographic style is conceptual, playful, and clever.
Gail’s work ranges from publication design to posters and branding. She has worked at Rolling Stone magazine and Globe Sunday Magazine, and she designed the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation stamp for USPS.
Marian Bantjes is a Canadian designer who uses intricate patterns and typography. Her work is detailed and inspired by ornamentation seen in old manuscripts. Marian started out as a book typesetter and later joined the Canadian design studio Digitopolis. In 2003, she left her studio and the world of strategic design to pursue her own interest after a year of sending out promotional materials. She’s worked with Pentagram, Stefan Sagmeister, AIGA, and The New York Times.
Her work includes extremely intricate typography, illustration, and ornamental but also experimental work. While her work is complex and highly detailed, it is also precise. There’s a sense of care in each line.
Irma Boom is a Dutch graphic designer who has designed over 300 books and been described as The Queen of Books. Her approach to design is experimental, not only when it comes to layout but also to the book as a tangible object. Irma started her career at The Government Printing and Publishing Office by doing an internship. There she did most of the work that put her on the radar in the design industry. The postage stamp books were incredibly experimental by creating an unusual layout, using translucent paper and Japanese style binding. In the early 1990s, she went on to establish her own studio, Irma Boom Office in Amsterdam.
Content and form relationships are the main characteristics in Irma’s books. Readers are welcome to experience a sense of discovery and interaction with her highly conceptual work. Her clients include Chanel, Sheila Hicks, The Museum of Zurich, and many more.
Carolyn Davidson is an American graphic designer, known as “the logo lady”. She started at Portland State University as a journalism major and later switched to design. Phil Knight was a teacher at the university and asked Carolyn to do some work for Blue Ribbon Sports, Inc. In 1971, Phil was introducing a new line of running shoes and needed a logo that had something to do with movement. Carolyn sketched on a napkin over a drawing of shoes and came up with five different concepts. One of them was the Swoosh inspired by Nike, the Greek Goddess of victory. She was paid $35 for the logo and continued working for Blue Ribbon Sports, which became Nike in 1972, until it grew to require more designers.
A few years later, Phil presented Carolyn with 500 shares in the company. Carolyn retired in 2000, and Nike has now removed the word from the logo and uses the Swoosh as a standalone representation of the brand.
Jane Davis Doggett
Jane Davis Doggett is one of the most prominent wayfinding system designers in the Modernist era. A visionary in the 1950s, she made use of graphic design to create clean and efficient directional signs in many major airports and stations, as well as Madison Square Garden. She was trained at the Yale University School of Art and Architecture, and her first job was working alongside industrial designer George Nelson. Jane’s first job designing wayfinding systems was for the Memphis airport in 1959. She was a pioneer in developing and standardizing the use of a single font throughout airports. She trademarked Alphabet A, a font that could be easily read from a long distance.
Jane also was a pioneer in using color-codes and letters (A, B, C, etc.) to identify terminals at airports. Her process doesn’t just begin at the airport building—it all starts from the highways that lead into it. She advocated for an easy process to get to the airport and keep drivers safe, while eliminating unnecessary signage. She also started the concept of including geographical and cultural aspects inside the airport. Jane has designed wayfinding systems for 40 major airports, more than any designer in the world.
Louise Fili is a graphic designer based in New York. Her work is typography-based and characterized as elegant, timeless, and modern. She taught herself calligraphy and later joined Skidmore College to study art. In the late 1980s, she opened her own studio to focus on restaurant-related brand identity and food packaging.
She finds inspiration in typefaces from the Art Deco era and incorporates them in modern compositions. Louise's passion for food label ephemera of the 1930s enticed her to move from book covers to food packaging. The result of her inspiration is a light, elegant and refined aesthetic that can’t be matched. Louise has designed over 2,000 book covers and has co-authored many books with her husband Steven Heller.
Sylvia Harris was a graphic designer, strategist, and educator. She was the founder of Citizen Research & Design, focusing on improving the use of public spaces through design. She felt a real public responsibility to make anything easy to understand. By addressing issues in communities, Sylvia and her team redesigned the wayfinding system at NYU that resulted in organized maps. Sylvia and her team took on several large hospitals, universities and government agencies to strategically plan better and more accessible systems.
She’s known for her work at Central Park Zoo in New York and as part of the USPS Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee. Sylvia also took on the 2000 U.S. census strategy to involve more citizens to take it.
Dorothy Hayes was a graphic designer from Mobile, Alabama. After graduating from Cooper Union in 1967, she was determined to work professionally and become a respected designer.
Different experiences led her to become a role model for people of color and create experiences to spotlight their work. In 1970, Dorothy organized the exhibition Black Artists in Graphic Communication, which profiled 49 young black designers. Dorothy founded her own studio, Dorothy’s Door. She worked for big corporate companies like AT&T and CBS Radio.
Anoushka Khandwala is a graphic designer based in London. Diversity is an important part of her career, and she’s passionate about empowering minorities to achieve diversity in the creative industry. Anoushka has written a number of articles emphasizing the lack of women of colour in the design industry. She’s become involved with different organizations such as Ladies Wine Design to co-curate a panel to discuss her ideas.
Anoushka’s work is extremely colorful, something that can be attributed to her pursuit of diversity in the design industry.
Zuzana Licko is a Slovak-born American graphic designer and typographer mostly known for co-founding the graphic design magazine Émigré and designing fonts like Filosofia and Mrs. Eaves. She studied architecture, photography and computer programming before joining the University of California at Berkeley for graphic communications.
In the mid-1980s, Zuzana and her partner Rudy VanderLans founded Émigré Graphics. There, both released the magazine and Zuzana contributed with original fonts. She was first introduced to Apple Macintosh before it was aimed at designers in 1984. Then, she would design bitmap fonts just as experiments, and that’s how the magazine came to be. The magazine became a platform to showcase Émigré artists, and it is considered as having created the new era of experimental design.
Zuzana’s typeface Filosofia was inspired by her interest in Bodoni. Filosofia was developed to be used in long forms of text as Bodoni was difficult to read at small sizes. She lowered the contrast between thick and thin and included details like making the serifs slightly rounded. Zuzana has designed over 20 typefaces, and her contribution to the design industry is invaluable.
Astrid Stavro is an Italian graphic designer who specializes in editorial design and typography. Her love for books encouraged her to move from Madrid to Boston, where she studied English and Philosophy. When a friend showed her Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, she realised that that’s what she wanted to do. She went on to study at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design and the Royal College of Art.
In 2005, she co-founded her own studio Atlas with Pablo Martin. At Atlas, Astrid worked with anything ranging from wayfinding systems to brand design but focusing most of it on print. In 2018, she joined Pentagram, making her the second female partner at their London office.
Astrid’s work is concept-driven—she deconstructs complex ideas into simple and clear solutions. Her work is typography-based, but there’s a sense of craft and perfection. Her work has received over 200 international awards, and she has judged many high-profile design competitions.
Kelly Walters is a multimedia designer who is inspired by graphic design and the power it has to affect people around the world. She graduated from the University of Connecticut with a dual degree in Communication Design and Communication Sciences. She also received an MFA in Graphic Design from RISD. She has worked as a designer for the RISD Museum, SFMOMA, and SOMArts, to name a few.
Kelly is the founder of the studio Bright Polka Dot, focusing on print, digital, pattern and textile design. Her work is focused on the cross between black cultural identity and its representation in mainstream media. She feels her role as a designer is to investigate how the socio-political structure affects sounds, symbols and styles of people of color.
In this article, we highlighted 12 female graphic designers who have made and are making waves. This list covered a wide range of approaches and levels of experience in the design world. We hope this article encourages change for the good. Who are the female designers you admire? Let us know in the comments section!
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