Curated by Thilini Perera, a multidisciplinary designer from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Currently, she is the Design and Communications Manager for the Geoffrey Bawa Trust. A short bio of Thilini can be found after the reading list.
What is design? And who decides what “good” design is?
In its simplest explanation: graphic design is about using visuals like fonts, pictures, colours, and arrangements to share ideas and feelings. Designers make things like logos, websites, posters, books, and ads (to name a very few) look good and organised using colour theory, image-making, illustrations and typography. They also solve problems to make information easier to understand, online and offline (print and digital). Graphic design is important for how we see and use information and how that information is visually presented to us.
Examining graphic design from a feminist perspective means using design to explore gender equality, inclusivity, and social justice through visual communication. It counters stereotypes, empowers marginalised groups, and engages in social and political activism. This approach prioritises diversity, intersectionality, ethical standards, and collaboration to craft designs that align with feminist principles and questions the ‘global’ standards and practices.
This compilation showcases womxn and BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of colour) visual communication and graphic designers who have played significant roles in a predominantly western/male-dominated field. They’ve challenged conventional notions of quality design and influenced its development. It’s essential to note that the initial part of this list mainly highlights designers and makers from the Global North, while recognising their achievements, it encourages us to question the industry’s dynamics and broader aesthetic politics.
Gender + Design
While there isn’t a specific manual or formal theory on becoming a feminist designer, one might argue that understanding and critically examining the role of Design in society, as well as considering the intended audience, can naturally bring gender and design issues to the forefront during your journey as a designer.
Rather than compiling a list solely featuring talented designers creating aesthetically pleasing works, I invite you to join me in exploring a different approach. Let’s shine a light on both well-known and lesser-known creative practitioners who have challenged and questioned the very essence of good design. We’ll ponder whether it truly matters who the design is intended for and emphasize the importance of focusing on the impact of design, alongside its visual aesthetics.
Going back to the early 1900’s we come across Söre Popitz, who studied typography with tycoons such as Jan Tschichold, and design with László Moholy-Nagy + Herbert Bayer. The Bauhaus, a German art school functional from 1919 to 1933, was significant for its transformative influence on art, design, and architecture. By uniting art with functionality, it pioneered the concept of creating objects that were not only visually appealing but also useful. Söre is known as Bauhaus’ only known woman graphic designer, this in itself is a huge accomplishment as the Bauhaus initially reflected the patriarchal norms of its time, with women often confined to certain workshops (weaving was the only workshop women could join in). However, notable woman artists like Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl also made significant contributions and challenged traditional gender roles at the Bauhaus. As the school evolved, it became more inclusive, opening doors for women in various disciplines and contributing to greater gender equality in art, design, and architecture.
Moving from Europe to America, you find (one of my favourites) Sylvia Harris. Sylvia was an African-American graphic designer and design strategist and has been considered a pioneer in the field of social impact design. Born in 1953, Sylvia attended a newly desegregated school and recalled firsthand accounts of prejudice and encounters with the KKK. Because of her experiences, she became interested in creating more opportunities for representation and including voices from underrepresented communities.
As the Incomplete Design History podcast puts it ‘Sylvia Harris has been described as a public designer, her own words, and a citizen designer, but whatever you want to call it, Harris was dedicated to designing for the good of the people. She was committed to creating designs that helped people to navigate their world.’
Also in America, the innovative educator and designer Muriel Cooper left a remarkable, yet often overlooked, mark on contemporary media, technology, and design over her impressive four-decade tenure at MIT. I particularly recommend watching her insightful TED talk from 1994 on information landscapes, which provides valuable insights into the intersection of media, technology, and design.
“Information is only useful when it can be understood.”
Susan Kare is another notable contemporary American graphic designer. In the 1980s, she developed interface elements for the Apple Macintosh. She later worked as a creative director at NeXT, a company founded by Steve Jobs after he left Apple. This talk on icons and designs is an informative video that explores her work.
The list is quite endless and by no means complete. I encourage you to check the following designers and their works to understand the depth of which this field expands to. Designers like Paula Scher, Jessica Walsh and Leta Sobierajski are still leading the American design fields with their incredible eye for art direction, typography and all things graphic design, along with design educators like Gail Anderson, and Ellen Lupton–do check her reels on Grids and Rules which are fun and informative!
This article on Elizabeth Friedlander talks about her commission from the then Frankfurt-based Bauer Type Foundry in 1927, where Elizabeth Friedlander became one of the first women to design a typeface.
In Canada, typographer and designer Marian Bantjes draws from a deep well of inspiration to create unique lettering, intricate patterns, and unconventional designs. Watch her TED talk on Intricate Beauty by Design.
In our local context, Dr. Sumanthri Samarawickrama plays a significant role in researching the development of the Sinhala script. Her research is effectively showcased in these informative videos  . Meanwhile, the independent design studio, November, based in India, offers valuable insights into post-independence Indian design education and the dynamics of the design culture in the region. You can gain a deeper understanding of their work by reading this insightful article on Pluralism and Power Dynamics in Indian Design.
If you are interested in lettering and typography, Women in Type is a great place to start exploring.
On making books
In the world of book design, the ‘Queen of Books’ Irma Boom put it,
‘I compare my work to architecture. I don’t build villas, I build social housing. The books are industrially made and they need to be made very well. I am all for industrial production. I hate one-offs. On one book you can do anything, but if you do a print run, that is a challenge. It’s never art. Never, never, never.’
Today, a budding designer would face insurmountable challenges in attempting to imitate Boom’s career. Boom’s books stand out from the typical paperbacks, yet they don’t fall into the category of coffee table books either. They serve a practical purpose, designed for a broad audience, a parallel she draws to “social housing.” They fully encapsulate the essence of any concept or subject they explore.
In the realm of book creation within our local community, we find publisher and curator Sharmini Pereria, leading Raking Leaves. This nonprofit, independent publishing organisation is committed to producing artist books, with a focus on exploring the geopolitical and cultural landscapes of South Asia. Raking Leaves explores innovative approaches to redefine the concept of a book itself. Works such as “The Incomplete Thombu” and “The Speech Writer” (crafted as a set of ten flip books encased in a slipcase) have profoundly reshaped my perspective on book design and long-form storytelling.
One of the most important projects to have been developed recently is the People’s Graphic Design Archive which is a crowd-sourced virtual archive that aims to expand, diversify, and preserve graphic design history. Archival projects such as these are important to understand certain trajectories of graphic design and its makers.
This was developed by a trio of women designers, including graphic designer Louise Sandhaus. After speaking with local designers who had stored boxes of their lesser-known design work out of sight, Louis recognized the need for a digital archive. Keeping a physical archive of design work requires space, time, and money that not everyone can afford, and without an easy way to document it digitally, this valuable history could be lost. This article brings to light how the archive is helping us rethink graphic design history.
“Sometimes the best solution is not to design anything at all (though telling a maker not to make is not quite simple).”
Design and/for advocacy
Shifting our focus back to this part of the globe, we have incredible designers from the region like Mira Malhotra. Her work primarily revolves around image-making, with a variety of thematic undertones such as self-publishing, politics, music, feminism, and mental health. Her distinguishable style of hand-lettering; a bright, offbeat colour palette; a visceral use of line and movement comes from many inspirations.
Shezil Malik is a designer/illustrator with a focus on socio-political topics, women’s narratives and feminism. She works on social impact projects through digital art, publications, textile and public art. Her protest posters for the Aurat March (Women’s March) that takes place annually in Pakistani cities such as Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Peshawar and Quetta to observe International Women’s Day. Her recent project Can the Internet be Feminist? is a way of asking how women and gender minorities navigate digital spaces in Pakistan- and to pair it with the way they navigate public spaces in their offline lives.
Other designers like Kruttika Susarla skillfully combine illustration and graphic design in her work, creating a harmonious blend. She’s also a dedicated advocate for various social justice causes, using her design talents to make a meaningful impact on important societal issues.
From designers to collectives–Fearless Collective employs murals, art, and design as tools for fostering broader discussions and carving out room for collective imagination, creative thought, social dialogue, and beauty, even in times of crisis and urgency. Established in 2012 by artist Shilo Shiv Suleman, this organisation engages in public art initiatives that involve women and marginalised communities worldwide.
Shivani Parasnis’ exploration of typography and graphic design offers intriguing insights into innovative design approaches. Meanwhile, Tereza Bettinardi’s work in Brazil stands as a compelling representation of design from the global south. To delve deeper into her work and ethical perspectives, you can explore her article on Futuress, which serves as a valuable resource.
Politics of Design + Doing good design
To gain a deeper understanding of your role as a designer and how your ideas and graphic design skills can significantly influence the world around you, the platform Futuress offers a valuable resource. The platform provides a collection of insightful articles that serve as an excellent starting point for those interested in delving into the social implications of graphic design. These articles include “On Caste,” which delves into issues of caste discrimination, “A Resource Hub for Decolonizing Typography,” which explores the decolonization of design practices, “Classism and Design: On the Social Implications of Studying Design,” which examines the impact of class on design, and “A Designerly Inventory,” which takes a holistic look at the designer’s role in shaping society.
Moreover, for those curious about how graphic design can be harnessed to serve broader societal causes, there’s a compelling article on how feminist movements utilize graphic design as a means of self-expression. This article highlights how graphic design can be a powerful tool in advancing social justice and amplifying the voices of marginalised groups.
By delving into these resources, you can gain a comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted role graphic design holds in shaping the social and political landscape. It reveals how design is not just a visual pursuit but a potent force for advocating change, challenging norms, and advancing social justice causes. Whether you’re interested in the intersection of feminism and design or the broader impact of graphic design on society, these resources offer insights into the transformative potential of design in the contemporary world.
Feminist Designer: On the Personal and the Political in Design
Edited by Alison Place
The Politics of Design
Centered: People and Ideas Diversifying Design
Citizen First, Designer Second
Rejane Dal Bello
Incomplet Design History
The Incomplet Design History podcast is to explore the overlooked, underrepresented, or ignored areas of graphic design history, tell those stories, and make graphic design history a little less Incomplete.
Design Matters by Debbie Millman
The world’s first podcast about design and an inquiry into the broader world of creative culture through wide-ranging conversations with designers, writers, artists, curators, musicians, and other luminaries of contemporary thought
My Life In Design Podcast
Listen to how did some of the some of the world’s best designers, strategists, and agency leads, got into design and how they knew it was even a thing they could form a career around
Paula Scher, Liza Enebeis
Conversations with creatives to uncover the secrets to success, and all the practical advice, funny stories and honest wisdom that will help you build a booming creative career.
Louis Sandhaus, Marina Willer, Gail Anderson, Shanti Sparrow, Annie Atkins
Reverberations by Zara Arshad
The Reverberations podcast was created to discuss marginalisation, underrepresentation and erasure in the UK’s cultural and creative sectors. Organised around three key themes — “institutions”, “divergent models”, and “decolonising design and culture” — season one of the podcast broadly focuses on history making, particularly in relation to design history. https://zara-arshad.com/Reverberations
Also, Everything made by Laika
LAIKA is a stop-motion animation studio that is home to a community of storytellers, artists, inventors, technicians &…
The Universe of Keith Haring (2008)
Can the Universal Be Specific? — Ruben Pater: The Politics of Design
Milton Glasser: To Inform and Delight
John Berger, Ways of seeing
S01.E06: Paula Scher — Graphic Design
S02 E01 · Olafur Eliasson: The Design of Art
S02 E06 · Jonathan Hoefler: Typeface Design
Intercultural and decolonial: exploring frameworks for typographic practice with Rathna Ramanathan
About - Graphic Means
Briar Levit ( Director + Producer), is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Portland State University. Her…
Typography in Exhibition Design — Irina Koryagina
Linotype: The Film
Linotype: The Film is a feature-length documentary film centered around the Linotype typecasting machine invented by…
Virgil Abloh Everything in Quotes
Virgil Abloh Insert Complicated Title Here
Paula Scher: Great design is serious (not solemn)
Thilini Perera, a multidisciplinary designer from Colombo, Sri Lanka, has over 15 years of experience collaborating with global human rights and feminist organisations such as Frida Fund, Urgent Action Fund, and CREA. Her expertise spans graphic and editorial design, data visualisation, theatre set design, art direction for films, exhibition design, and web projects. She serves as the Art Director for the Museum of Religious Freedom, Sri Lanka’s first virtual museum. Currently, she is the Design and Communications Manager for the Geoffrey Bawa Trust, where she leads various projects, including the Bawa 100 programme and exhibition of the Geoffrey Bawa archive presented in Colombo and New Delhi and designed the publication Geoffrey Bawa: Drawing from the Archives in collaboration with Swiss publisher Lars Müller Publishers.