It Has Never Been A Better Time For Women in Design

Posted by: Roy Wilbur

By Paula Scher

I began practicing graphic design 45 years ago. There were not many graphic designers around then. No one knew exactly what it was. I had entry-level design positions first, at Random House where I made mechanicals for the insides of children’s books and then at CBS Records, where I designed trade ads for records. In 1974, I was hired by Atlantic Records to design their ads because they liked the ones I had done at CBS. I took the job at Atlantic so I would have the opportunity to design record covers.

I liked working at Atlantic. The pay was fairly low, but it provided terrific creative opportunities. I designed about 25 record covers and many are still in print today. Some of them won graphic design awards and I had my work reproduced in design annuals. Then, the head art director and vice president of the very large CBS Records art department noticed my work and offered me a much bigger and somewhat higher-paying job. So I left my job at Atlantic and moved back to CBS. I was 25 years old.

At CBS, I was promoted to East Coast art director, making me responsible for the design and production of about 150 albums a year for all kinds of music. Some very good designers worked in that department and many of them were women. A woman named Henrietta Condak designed most of the classical record covers and her work was extraordinarily beautiful. The head art director used to brag that he hired women because they tended to be much more talented than men for the money. It was a blatant statement of sexism in relationship to pay, but he was clueless. He was proud of it and I was stupid enough to take it as a compliment. But, then I thought it was important for men to know that women made terrific graphic designers and I was happy when that was recognized.

At that time, in the late 70s when I was in my late 20s, I began noticing a structure that existed at many in-house art departments, like CBS Records. There would be a head art director/creative director, often with a vice president title, and then there might be a second-in-command, usually a male, but not always, and then a group of women designers underneath them. The women tended to earn very little money. At magazines, the head art director would be a man and the assistant art director would be a woman. A notable exception to this was at Harper’s Bazaar, where Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler were co-art directors and went on to become design directors at other magazines. They were the exception and were role models for me.

An interesting pattern began to develop. The women designers in secondary places, who designed most of the pieces, began entering design competitions and becoming famous in their milieu. Suddenly it became clear that women made good graphic designers. By the early 80s, economies changed. The late 70s recession caught up with many of the behemoth in-house art departments. The high-salaried men were finally fired, but usually the layoffs began with the women.

I could sense this happening at CBS Records and began to think about freelancing. My problem was that I only had experience designing record covers.

Initially, I began broadening my portfolio by designing book jackets for a number of publishing companies. Soon, I had enough work to quit my job at CBS and rented a studio space. I was hired to develop a new magazine for Time Inc. It gave me some magazine experience and reunited me with an old friend, Terry Koppel, who was a magazine designer. I asked him to help me design and produce the new magazine and that collaboration led to us working together for the next seven years.

We started a design firm, Koppel and Scher, which opened in 1984. We attracted work that was related to the music industry, the publishing industry and the magazine industry, much of it youth-oriented because of my music business experience. But by the late 80s I was entering my late 30s and I began to notice an alarming trend. We were competing with increasingly younger designers for the youth oriented work, and we could not seem to attract higher-paying corporate work that more established designers could attract. We found ourselves in an awkward situation I called “catch-40”—too old to be young enough, and too young to be wise. It is the point in a design career where you have to acknowledge you are an adult designer and are presenting yourself with reassuring experience, not youthful brashness.

I had some fame and visibility because I had developed the habit of taking on pro bono projects that afforded me the opportunity to push my design forward. I had been writing about design, lecturing and teaching all through the decade. In many ways, I did benefit from being perceived as a high-profile female designer. I was often the token female on panels or the lone female presenter at design conferences. I would get calls inviting me to speak or judge that were always followed by “It’s really hard to get a ‘qualified’ female speaker,” and I began to find it increasingly offensive.

Many of my female design peers began families in the 80s. Some of them established businesses at home and took on small projects while they raised young children. Some of them faded away professionally, but many of them produced beautiful work, yet didn’t have the time for a public presence because their lives had become so busy.

In 1990, graphic designer Woody Pirtle asked if I would be interested in joining him at Pentagram, an international design cooperative, originally founded in London, but now with offices in New York, Austin, Texas, San Francisco and Berlin.

I joined Pentagram in 1991 and was the only female partner. I joined because I knew that if I stayed on my own, every job I would get would be a lesser version of a project I had already designed, that I would be eclipsed by younger designers and my opportunities for doing large-scale corporate or institutional work would be highly limited. So I joined a group of 15 men and adapted to their culture and then finally changed it.

I have been a partner of Pentagram for 25 years. I have designed identities for giant corporations, famous art museums, mass-market chains, upscale jewelry stores, nonprofit theaters, and have become involved in New York City development projects for parks and other programs. I was acutely aware of being the sole female at Pentagram. At first, I was an oddity. I would meet with a group of clients and if they didn’t already know my work, I could feel them mentally asking themselves, “Why did I get the woman partner?” Now I am the oldest partner at Pentagram and I can feel them asking, “Why did I get the old-woman partner?” Pentagram now has four female partners and three of them are in the New York office. Two of the female partners are mothers of twins. All of them work across many disciplines and have grown and increased their capabilities since joining Pentagram.

It has never been a better time for women in design and there certainly is no doubt that women make great designers. But that doesn’t mean that the struggle is over. Men are still paid more for the same work and still hold most of the power positions. As the recent political election pointed out, it is unwise to assume that women are no longer vulnerable to the bigotry of the past. But things have improved, while there are still many territories to be conquered. Now is the best time for it.

I have always felt, even in my lowest points, that I was incredibly lucky to be a designer and make tangible, recognizable things. It meant that those things could be judged on their own merit, not because of who I was. I have never gotten tired of designing and I feel the same excitement in projects now that I did 45 years ago. Today, I see fantastic women working in every form of media and leading the industry in so many capacities, because it is no longer a secret that women make terrific designers in every form of media. So many design disciplines – graphic, new media, product, architecture and landscape design – have merged and blurred. There is tremendous opportunity for collaborative work and individualistic work at the same time. In fact, I envy everyone beginning their careers today and wish I could start mine all over again.


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