The Daily Heller: Designing Women Get Their Due

Posted inThe Daily Heller

If you are looking for a rehash of the women whose work appears frequently in design annuals and exhibitions, look elsewhere. Instead, be sure to read Briar Levit’s Baseline Shift: Untold Stories of Women in Graphic Design History. The essays featured within are not the greatest hits of the greatest-known designers. Rather, most of the names will be unknown to you, and some will even seem a few steps removed from the conventional definition of graphic design.

We’re in a period where the canon is changing and the dominant historical players are being reevaluated. Women represent the largest population in design schools and firms, studios and offices today, although arguably there were nearly as many 100 years ago. The difference—or the “baseline shift”—is that they are finally receiving the recognition that is due them for their substantial contributions to the field. 

Levit is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at Portland State University, and made the popular feature-length documentary Graphic Means: A History of Graphic Design Production, which follows production from manual to digital methods. She has delved deeply into cultural design and historical studies—particularly those not in the canon—and currently collaborates with Louise Sandhaus and Brockett Horne on The People’s Graphic Design Archive. I asked her to discuss this new book, which is a must for design history coursework today.

There have been a few books on women active in design but never such a deep dive into this panoply of graphic genres and professions. How did the book come together?
I was actually invited to work on a book that was to be profiles of famous women designers—a trend in publishing right now. That project didn’t pan out, but it also didn’t feel right to me to continue to reinforce what was already pretty well-known and appreciated. I wanted to share what I was seeing my colleagues researching and discussing at conferences and elsewhere—rarely heard histories that considered more than just form and that helped frame the experience of women in design and allied fields throughout many eras. 

What was your editorial method?
I’m an accidental professor who came to history “late” and now wants to bring the stories that I find exciting to as many people as possible, rather than let them remain in the hidden corners of academia. Baseline Shift stems from my interest in design professionals outside of the established canon, which I think started for me when I was making [the film] Graphic Means. The more I learned about the processes of production before the desktop computer, the more I understood just how many people are behind a single job. From the person who had the concept to the person who set the type to the one who pasted it all up on a board, and then of course even more people at the press who made sure it was properly prepared for print—this is a group effort. Of course, this collection of creators and technicians has always been there, but as someone who learned on a computer from the start, it was fairly abstract, and not something I considered in a holistic sense.

The book’s organization follows an interesting blueprint. What criteria did you choose to have your subjects come to the foreground?
At the most basic level, I was looking for interesting and little-heard stories of women working in the field of graphic design (or whatever it was called in their context). Understanding our discipline’s history can partially be about the firsts and the so-called solo geniuses, but to get better understanding of history you need to look at all arenas of communication and how that work served different aspects of society (something Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish do an incredible job of explaining in their book, Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide). 

For Baseline Shift, researchers were looking at women who worked in famous movements, who were overlooked by male contemporaries. But they were also looking at women, for example, who were using design as a tool to effect political change in a grassroots way—not necessarily in the pages of design annuals. In addition to the design work itself, researchers were looking at the social fabric of life as a woman working in the design field/trade—creating unions, planning around motherhood, coping with harassment, reconciling with racial identity and creativity.

When building a new history, many decisions are made regarding what is relevant to the history. How does your book differ from, say, Hall of Femmes? (I ask, in part, because you have an important piece on Bea Feitler, one of a few contemporaries who have been covered in the male-dominated histories.)
Right! Feitler is by far the best-known designer featured in the book (though I’d argue not a household name). I was thrilled to have Brazilian researcher Tereza Bettinardi write about her with the feeling that she might offer some regional perspective. It was also important to me that we showed examples of Feitler’s works that weren’t the same few images that are reprinted again and again. 

Hall of Femmes are fantastic volumes that offer deep dives into women who have been given some—but definitely not enough—recognition for their work (I can’t wait for the Rosmarie Tissi book!). They are filling in the massive gaps of these stories that have often existed as side notes in history books. In contrast, Baseline Shift covers a broader range of work and people. It is interested in work that goes back much further, and that doesn’t always sit in a commercial space. For instance, who were the women responsible for creating the visuals/printed material for the Suffrage movement? Who was the first Indigenous American woman to work as a graphic designer? And any student of graphic design history knows that printers were the graphic designers of their time. So what about the women printers of Colonial America? Weren’t they designers too?

When writing about graphic design legacy, it is sometimes like shooting fish in a barrel—there is just so much to be covered that has not been known. Did you have this “problem” of riches? Or was the opposite true?
I think it’s a little bit of both. There is so much to cover, but I also wanted to include a cross-section of stories, backgrounds and identities here. It’s certainly possible that there could be a book full of women Modernists who have rarely or never been covered. There could also be a full book of women who were printers in the British Colonies. But I was interested in the breadth of places women have existed in graphic design and allied roles. The beauty of an edited volume is that you can include many ideas and stories in one place, and I went as far as I could with that!

Of course, much of what you cover is new to me—what was a surprise for you?
There are a lot of little surprises in these essays! As a Bay Area–raised and educated person, I was surprised to see these iconic brands and environmental graphics by a woman I’d never heard of: Marget Larsen. The design of Louise E. Jefferson—rooted in the Harlem Renaissance—is so vast and thrilling to see. I am excited to see where Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton takes her research from here. I had lots of little surprises in my own research about illustrator, designer and YA author Ellen Raskin. Perhaps most interesting to design audiences is that she designed the original jacket for the classic speculative fiction A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

You write about “messy history.” We are at a time when so many untold stories are coming forth. Do you see a time when our history will not be messy? Or will there always be impactful discoveries?
I think history will always be “messy.” There are no straight lines. History continues to be studied and reevaluated. Even the most well-trodden stories, like goings-on at The Bauhaus, bring new information to light, which allows new angles to be considered. This is a critical reason that I work on The People’s Graphic Design Archive. New materials can be uploaded, discovered and written about. It’s not about just collecting stuff (though I admit I like that bit too). It’s about what comes from the study and then synthesis of these new crowdsourced materials that are found in The People’s Graphic Design Archive (and others, of course) that make it so valuable. 

There is certainly more than enough waiting for future sleuths and scholars in design, illustration and lettering. What are your future plans in this realm of discovery?
If I had my choice, there would be another edition of the book telling more unique histories with an even broader worldwide reach. It’s not something I would do alone by any means. I saw myself as a producer of sorts on this collection, collating the work of others (while including some of my own research as well).  

In your research did you find, as I’ve found with male-dominated history, that there are particular demographics that emerge more often than others? I ask particularly regarding Press & Production?
One of our discipline’s first historians into women in graphic design is Martha Scotford (who wrote the afterword, by the way). Scotford notes that because women were often unable to join in certain arenas of society or the professional world, they may have done work that might not be considered graphic design, or as you are saying, is in a way ghettoized to one area that was deemed acceptable for women to be in. 

Publishing is historically one of the places that has been welcoming to women, and in terms of design and illustration, it’s no exception. Not surprisingly, the publishing section of Baseline Shift has the biggest concentration of essays. From there, I would say activism and social design is another arena that women have found a space to work. They have long been a part of grassroots organizing in social movements from abolition to suffrage, healthcare and more, so it makes sense that they would use their skills—whether formally trained or not—to support that political work.