REVIEW COPY: Women of Design by Bryony Gomez-Palacio and Armin Vit

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When I’m reading books on or about Design I subconsciously ask myself if the book in front of me would make a good addition to my bookshelf. It would be hard for me to say that Women of Design shouldn’t be there, but it wasn’t an easy read for me. I really don’t like the title—I wish it had been titled something else. I’m not objecting to the idea behind the book, but it felt weird labeling it as that. On the flip side it would have likewise felt strange to have a book titled Men of Design. As this book is the first of its kind in that it just interviews women, they had to make up their own categories with out much historical context. The three categories of Trailblazers, Pathfinders and Groundbreakers seemed again a bit strange to me. In the context of design I don’t think I’ve come across anyone (female or male) described as a trailblazer or pathfinder. What I didn’t take issue with was actually how they decided to choose who they were going to include in the book. I paid close attention to their introduction where they tried to cover a lot of bases. A number of subjective questions that they mentioned were “Is the work good? Memorable? Unique? Does it stand the test of time? Or does it just signify a specific time? Are the women known within the industry or beyond? Does it matter?” and most importantly “Would we want to know and more about these women and their work, inspirations, processes and stories?” They laid out how they were going to do it, and stuck with it. The only thing I wish they had mentioned in the book was how they conducted the interviews. I had to ask the authour’s via email how they were conducted. Armin got back to me quite quickly, “All interviews except barbara Kruger were done by email. Kruger’s was by phone and transcribed.”

At times the interview questions felt a bit over the top with praise for the designers work. Occasionally the answers were also a bit predictable or felt like the designer wrote what they felt the answer should be. That can happen when questions are conducted through email as there’s a lot of time to consider an answer. What I wasn’t sure about was if there was a lot of going back and fourth between the interviews or if it was a one time conversation. I suspect that if they had been face to face some of the conversations would have taken some interesting turns and harder questions could have been asked.

A couple of the designers that I was happy to be introduced to through the pages were Ruth Ansel and Anne Burdick. I didn’t know them but after reading what they had to say I was curious to read more. Another designer that seemed like they had a lot to say was Emily King. Due to space and possibly time considerations, all the designers that were in the book were not given space for interviews. I didn’t take count but it seemed like there was fewer interviews in the section on Groundbreakers compared to the other sections. There were at least three or four people I wish they had made room for in the third section. I’m not sure whether any of those interviews were conducted or not, but if they were but didn’t make the page due to cost considerations, I think their website would have been the perfect venue to list those interviews. The other thing that I found quite interesting with the website was the Change Log where they’ve listed designers that have changed studios or companies.

The only real problem that I had with the book which I took issue with on Speak Up’s website and never got a satisfactory response was the diagram of Influence and Inspiration. I can’t take it seriously because none of the designers listed worked in a vacuum. I would have liked to have seen an equal number of male designers on the same diagram to see the interconnected influence that went back and fourth. By just showing one of the sexes it looks to me that they never influenced anyone else which I seriously doubt. But all the info design wasn’t bad—the little bar charts illustrated what they needed to and the typography pull out talking about the typeface commissioned by Barbara Dewilde for Archer and Surveyor was nice.

If there’s one real question to ask, it’s in their premise to create the book in the first place. “Why aren’t there more women represented in conferences, boards of directors, judging panels and other public–facing situations, where men always seem to outnumber them?” For the next conference you attend, take note of who is presenting. Did anyone from the book make it there? If not, are you planning to ask the conference organizer who was on their list but declined?

Title: Women of Design
Authour: Bryony Gomez-Palacio and Armin Vit
Publisher: How

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  • Joe Clark

    We’ve been through this already: Sitting on a board, judging a competitino, or whatever requires years of obsessive focus with no end in sight, and men on the whole have brains that are more suited to obsessive focus for years on end. Women, on the whole, have brains that resist putting all eggs in one basket, literally and figuratively.

    This isn’t an old wives’ tale or some kind of ideology; it’s backed up by science. Read Susan Pinker’s The Sexual Paradox and come back and tell me you’re surprised that “leaders” of the design field are, on the whole, male. It is not related to male- or female-specific talent or sexist discrimination in the workplace.

  • Paulo Pereira

    Thanks for the review, I was going back and forth about picking this book up. But maybe instead of buying it I'll read it while at Barnes & Noble drinking coffee some weekend.

    It seems a lot of design books have the tendency of asking subjective questions. But then again graphic design is very subjective.

    You brought up a good point about how they interviewed the designers through email – I like peoples first gut reactions to questions instead of doing interviews through email. People tend to give you a more sanitized version of their answer. I have done interviews through emails and didn't understand (or didn't like the person's answer) and called them up to clarify – their new clearer answers were always different from what they emailed me.


  • michaelsurtees

    I have to respectfully disagree with you Joe. My wife who's a much better designer than me is much more focused. I don't need a book to explain that.