Pioneering Women of Graphic Design

Guest Post by John Clifford

Today, women make up around half of the graphic design profession. This wasn’t always the case. I wrote Graphic Icons: Visionaries who Shaped Modern Graphic Design to highlight the pioneers of the field, from El Lissitzky to Stefan Sagmeister. It surprised me that so many of the historic designers I considered influential were male. Fortunately, there were several women who challenged the status quo and paved the way for today’s female designers. Here are a few:

Cipe Pineles  (1908–1991)

Above, Charm cover, 1954; Charm fashion spread, 1957

When Cipe Pineles was looking for her first design job in the 1940s, prospective employers were interested in her portfolio—until they learned that the unusual first name belonged to a woman. She kept at it, though, and eventually became art director at Glamour in 1942, the first female to hold that position at a major American magazine.

Pineles moved on to be art director at Seventeen, a magazine for teenage girls. While competing titles saw young women as frivolous husband hunters, Seventeen considered its readers smart and serious. By commissioning fine artists like Ad Reinhardt and Andy Warhol to illustrate articles, Pineles rejected the idealized style typical of magazine illustrations at the time, and exposed her audience to modern art.

In 1950, Pineles became art director at Charm, a magazine targeting a new demographic: working women. She designed fashion spreads showing the clothes in use—at work, commuting, and running errands. “We tried to make the prosaic attractive without using the tired clichés of false glamour,” she observed in a later interview. “You might say we tried to convey the attractiveness of reality, as opposed to the glitter of a never-never land.” Her work helped to redefine the look of women’s magazines, while also furthering women’s changing roles in society.

During a career of many firsts (she was also the first female member of the Art Directors Club, and the first female elected to its Hall of Fame), Cipe Pineles led with her work and she led by example.

April Greiman (born 1948)

Women-of-GD_Greiman“Does it Make Sense?” Design Quarterly, 1986

April Greiman uses different words to describe what she does: “hybrid imagery,” “transmedia,” “visual communication.” But not “graphic design.” She feels the term refers exclusively to print, and her work combines elements from different types of media. Greiman thinks in terms of space when she designs, not in terms of a page. This is probably why designing digitally has been such a good fit for her.

New Wave typographer Wolfgang Weingart encouraged Greiman, while in graduate school at Basel, to break free from a grid-based approach to design—to layer type, and to float it in space. She brought this knowledge to New York and, after growing frustrated by the rigid limitations imposed by East Coast clients, she moved in 1976 to Los Angeles and opened a studio. She began teaching at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 1982 and gained access to the school’s computers and video equipment.

The new technology opened so many possibilities for Greiman, enabling her to combine print, video, and type into multiple layers that were previously impossible to create. She felt strongly that these new tools weren’t just a means to arrive at the same old solutions, but that they should lead us to explore ideas and create something new.

When Greiman designed an issue of Design Quarterly for the Walker Art Center in 1986, she blew up the traditional magazine format, creating a 2-foot-by-6-foot folding collage that combined a nude portrait of the designer overlaid with multiple layers of images and text. While the fact that Greiman used a computer to create the work hardly seems noteworthy today, consider that the computer had one megabyte of RAM and a monochrome 9-inch display. Like much of Greiman’s work, the project wasn’t just about technology, it was personal.

As the world continues to change, so does Greiman. More recently, she’s been creating web design, branding, signage, and public art, and consulting on color, finishes, and textures for architectural projects. She continues to teach, and believes in always being open to new ways of doing things.

Muriel Cooper (1925–1994)

Women-of-GD_Cooper“Information Landscape,” MIT Media Lab’s Visual Language Workshop, 1994

Muriel Cooper had two design careers: first as a print designer and second as a groundbreaking digital designer. She was the art director for MIT Press, where she designed classic books such as Hans Wingler’s Bauhaus. She designed the first edition of Learning from Las Vegas; authors Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour hated what she did, but many graphic designers loved it.

Cooper took her first computer class at MIT in 1967, and it bewildered her. However, she could see the computer’s potential in the creative process, and soon began the second phase of her career: applying her design skills to computer screens. With Ron MacNeil, Cooper cofounded the research group Visible Language Workshop in 1975, which later became part of MIT’s Media Lab. Cooper didn’t write code; she was the designer and the thinker. She encouraged her students to use technology to present well-designed information.

Cooper presented the group’s research at the influential TED5 (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in 1994. For the first time, computer graphics were shown in three transparent dimensions, which moved, changed sizes, and shifted focus, instead of the standard Windows interface of opaque panels stacked like cards. She made a big impact: Even Microsoft founder Bill Gates was interested in her work. Unfortunately, she died suddenly soon after, but her legacy in interactive design continues.

Zuzana Licko (born 1961)

Women-of-GD_LickoOakland type specimen, now part of the Lo-Res type family; Mrs. Eaves type specimen

Apple broke new ground in 1984 when it introduced the Macintosh computer. Designers Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko did the same (albeit on a smaller scale) with Emigre magazine. While many designers initially resisted the computer, VanderLans and Licko embraced it, though in different and complementary ways: VanderLans liked the freedom it gave him in designing layouts, while it gave Licko a disciplined method for designing type.

Emigre magazine quickly became a forum for designers, especially those interested in experimentation and technology. It featured in-depth articles and visual essays, in layouts that broke all the rules—with varying type sizes, overlapping layers, text columns crashing into each other, and distorted letterforms, all techniques that the Mac made easier. Business partners and spouses VanderLans and Licko sold their type designs to fund the magazine (which meant they didn’t have to cater to advertisers).

The typefaces were an important part of the magazine’s design as well. After the first two issues, the magazine was set exclusively in Emigre fonts. Licko began with rough, pixilated typefaces, like Oakland, and progressed to more versatile fonts, like the popular Mrs. Eaves.

The magazine ceased publication in 2005, but Licko continues designing fonts, and VanderLans designs the type specimens.

Paula Scher (born 1948)

Women-of-GD_ScherPublic Theater poster, 1995; New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) environmental graphics, 2001

As a design student, Paula Scher couldn’t get the hang of formally positioning type in a layout. Then her teacher, Stanislas Zagorski, suggested that she think of type in a more conceptual way, using it as the main image in her work. That simple direction helped Scher establish herself as a master of persuasive, expressive, even aggressive type.

As art director at CBS Records and Atlantic Records during the 1970s, Scher worked on big-budget album covers, but she found the small-budget projects more interesting, because they required her to create her own artwork Because she hated the sterility of the typeface Helvetica, she experimented with older type styles—art deco, mid-century modern, constructivism—and combined them. Not because she was a postmodernist, but because she wanted to create something more expressive than Helvetica.

Scher joined the influential studio Pentagram as the first female partner in 1991. Three years later, she took on a defining project: a new identity for New York City’s Public Theater (formerly known as Shakespeare in the Park). Director George Wolfe wanted a visual identity that looked nothing like Shakespeare, and Scher designed exactly that: a big, bold typographic language that was loud and urban and distinctive. Scher’s street posters for the show Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk pushed this in-your-face style even further, with brash type that actually looked noisy. Scher’s design became so popular that it changed theater advertising, as more groups tried to capture the youthful vigor of her work for the Public.

Scher is a very intuitive designer—her first or second idea is usually her best. That doesn’t mean it’s easy: For her, the best way to grow as a designer is to take on projects for which she’s not qualified. After making a big splash with the Public, she was approached to design architectural signage for other performance venues. She had no experience in that field, but the work forced her to think in new ways; her fresh approach resulted in innovative and successful signage for projects such as Symphony Space and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

For more information on women in graphic design, see the blogs Birdwatching and Women of Graphic Design.


John Clifford is the author of Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design, and the creative director of NYC design firm Think Studio, focusing on identity, digital, publishing, and print design. Keep up with him on twitter.

This post was excerpted from Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design by John Clifford. Copyright © 2014. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and Peachpit Press.