Some of you may recognize the five famous international women featured in our illustration who have helped change history. These women are, from left to right:
- Frida Khalo, a painter known for her many portraits, self-portraits, and works inspired by the nature and artifacts of Mexico.
- Marie Curie, a physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity.
- Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist and political activist who escaped slavery and helped rescue enslaved people via the Underground Railroad.
- Ruth Ginsburg, a lawyer, jurist, and feminist icon who served as an associate justice of the US Supreme Court for over 25 years.
- Malala Yousafzai (Malala), a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate.
And in honour of International Women’s Day 2021 and Women’s History month during March, we’d also like to recognize some of the women—maybe lesser known but no less inspiring—who’ve helped shape and form the fields of design. Our history predominantly favours recognizing male-dominated designers, but the facts show that women have—and continue to—make up half of the design industry. That being said, there are troubling statistics that only 11% of design leadership positions are held by women—even today—according to the 2019 Design Census.
By bringing light to these women and their experiences, we hope to inspire you to take a closer look at, and recognize the achievements of, the creative women who’ve come before us and work alongside us.
Our featured women in design
“You can’t get around being a woman. They’re going to see it the moment you walk in the door, and they’re going to have to go through their man thing with you, the idea that you’re theirs, that you’ll do whatever they say, like an office wife. It’s beautiful, though: if you present yourself as a professional, they really respect you for it. They know you’ve paid your dues just like they had to.”Dorothy E. Hayes (1935-2015)
Dorothy Hayes began her career in graphic design after graduating in 1957. After relocating to New York City, she started her own commercial design agency called Dorothy's Door. One of her best known works, in partnership with Joyce Hopkins, "Black Artist in Graphic Communication", was an exhibit showcasing forty-nine black graphic designers including Dorothy Akubuiro, Josephine Jones, and Diane Dillion. The exhibit was highly regarded by both US and Canadian audiences. She invested her time into supporting Black creatives in a predominantly white and male industry.
We love how Hayes took a vow in her lifetime to mentor any and all Black creatives that came to her for advice or information about the design and art industry.
“He showed me a very rudimentary Macintosh, and mentioned that he needed some graphics for it—he knew I was interested in art and graphics—and that if I got some graph paper I could make small images out of the squares, he could transfer those onto the computer screen. That sounded to me like a great project. I did it in exchange for an Apple II, although I didn't actually use the Apple II for Mac graphics.”Susan Kare
Susan Kare was a Fine Arts major and worked as a sculptor in her early career. She later found herself working for Microsoft because her friend Andy Hertzfeld—a member of the first Apple Macintosh development team—believed in her artistic abilities. He invited her to draw an icon suite and font elements for Apple, and using her traditional designs he could then develop the code. Kare didn’t have any technical computer graphics experience, but that didn’t stop her. She started with traditional illustration mockups on graph paper—each grid square representing a pixel. Kare worked alongside Steve Jobs to design the Mac and make it the most user-friendly computer in the world. Her main mission was to “make the system as close to a friend as it could be”.
We think Kare is a great example of adapting not only traditional design, but also taking a human-first mindset and applying it towards digital user outcomes.
“I was told that there wasn't a chance to get into that [stained glass] workshop because there were so very few chances to execute a stained glass window. And there was one man that was already there; that was all. So the only thing that was open to me was the weaving workshop. And I thought that was rather sissy.”Anni Albers, 1968
Annelise Albers was a student of Bauhaus fine art college in Germany, who shaped her career as a textile designer. In 1949, Albers had a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City—making her the first textile designer to ever have a solo exhibit. This exhibit established her as one of the most important designers of the day. In her career, she was commissioned to design a variety of bedspreads and other textiles for Harvard, and spent most of the 1950s working on mass-producible fabric patterns, as well as writing several articles on designing. In 1971, she and her husband Josef Albers (another prominent Bauhaus designer), founded The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a not-for-profit organization they hoped would further "the revelation and evocation of vision through art”.
We appreciate how Albers took a chance in her art and design career by working with the tools and mediums that were available to her—despite the constraints—to create ground-breaking work in the Bauhaus movement and beyond.
“For better or worse, the people who design the touchpoints of society determine who can participate and who’s left out. Often unwittingly. A cycle of exclusion permeates our society. It hinders economic growth and undermines business success. It harms our collective and individual well-being. Design shapes our ability to access, participate in, and contribute to the world.”Kat Holmes, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design, 2018
Kat Holmes has become a leader and strong voice in the field of designing for inclusivity. She is the author of Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design, and the former Principal Director of Inclusive Design at Microsoft. Holmes previously led a multi-disciplinary team in the development of the Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit, which Fast Company described as a “radical evolution of design thinking and practices”. The toolkit was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. She joined Google in 2018 where she continues to make advancements in inclusive design for some of the most influential technologies around the world. Holmes’ career achievements led her to found Mismatch.design, an online community dedicated to bringing awareness and advancing inclusive design.
Holmes’ core values of putting people at the lead of technology and having fun with your team and in your work resonate with us.
“Her applied learnings, expertise, and community impact have served as a basis from which we’ve built a lot of our own understanding about designing for inclusivity at OXD.”Deborah MacKenzie, Sr. User Experience Designer, OXD
Supporting women in design
Whether in our professional design work or our personal artistic endeavours, these are a few of the amazing examples of creative, innovative, and powerful women who’ve made a difference in our design culture. There are many more women who’ve created groundbreaking traditional and digital design that we haven’t mentioned—but we hope we can contribute to changing the narrative on the inequalities of women in design leadership.