Feminist Designer

A book that explores emerging feminist practices in design

Alison Place
Assistant Professor
University of Arkansas

Additional contributors: Jennifer Armbrust, Dina Benbrahim, Madeline Avram Blount, Elizabeth Byrd, Benedetta Crippa, Alexandra Crosby, Laura Devendorf, Rachael Dietkus, Ashley K. Eberhart, Griselda Flesler, Aimi Hamraie, Gaby Hernández, Alexis Hope, Jeff Kasper, Ellen Kellogg, Aasawari Kulkarni, Eden Laurin, Una Lee, Andrew Mallinson, Claudia Marina, Victor G. Martinez, Lauren Lee McCarthy, Margaret Middleton, Maryam Mustafa, Becky Nasadowski, Maya Ober, Nina Paim, Elizabeth Pérez, Heather Snyder Quinn, Cami Rincón, Jenn Roberts, Velvet A. Johnson Ross, In-ah Shin, Marie Louise Juul Søndergaard, Ayako Takase, Attia Taylor, Rebecca Tegtmeyer, Aggie Toppins, Ilaria Vanni, Joana Varon, Manon Vergerio, Mandy Harris Williams, Sarah Williams.

Published in September of 2023 by MIT Press, Feminist Designer: On the Personal and the Political in Design is a book that explores emerging feminist practices in design. Place wrote this book, primarily, for her students, in whom she observed strong passion for addressing feminist issues through design with little understanding of the histories and power structures that undergird them. The writing and concepts in the book are intended to be accessible for a wide audience, not just an academic one. Her own writing makes up about one-third of the book, while the rest is comprised of contributions from other designers. Contributors were solicited through an open call for proposals or by direct invitation, with a significant effort made to assemble a diverse array of identities, background, disciplines and perspectives. Each contributor was paid an honorarium, funded by an advance from the publisher.

Book Blurb

Feminist Designer brings together a constellation of voices and perspectives to examine the intersection of design and feminist theory. For decades, the feminist refrain within design has hinged on the representation and inclusion of women in the field. This collection, however, is a call to move beyond this narrow application. Feminist design is not just about who does design—it is about how we do design and why. Feminist frameworks for design activism are now more relevant than ever, as they emphasize collaborative processes that aim to disrupt and dismantle power hierarchies while centering feminist ways of knowing and doing.

The first book in nearly three decades to address such practices in design, Feminist Designer contains essays, case studies, and dialogues by 43 contributors from 16 different countries. Place engages a wide variety of design disciplines, from graphic design to disability design to algorithmic design, and explores key feminist themes, such as power, knowledge, care, plurality, liberation, and community. Through diverse, sometimes conflicting, intersectional perspectives, this book contributes new design methods informed by a multiplicity of feminisms that confront design’s patriarchal origins while ushering in new pathways for making critical and meaningful change.

Book Design

In addition to writing the book, she also designed it, which was a feminist project in itself. The three typefaces used are Bastardo Grotesk (Giulia Boggio), Cofo Sans (Contrast Type Foundry), and Fraunces (Phaedra Charles)—all created by designers who identify as women, non-binary or trans. The typography on the cover makes a loud statement with the title and subtitle in large, bold type with a spot varnish, echoing an unwavering chant of feminist protest. The addition of emoji-style glyphs on each line speak to the snarky ambivalence felt by an emerging generation of feminists. The purple hues merge the historical purple of the 20th century suffragettes, with the effervescence of so-called Gen Z lavender. In the feminist spirit of citation, the name of every contributor in the book is featured on the cover in alphabetical order, giving credit where credit is due. The interior of the book is designed for accessible reading, plus ease of skimming; sections are short, with headlines, decks, and pull quotes like a magazine.

Outcomes

The book has received much positive recognition from the media, with excerpts published in Design Observer and Fast Company; several reviews in major outlets including the Boston Globe, Metropolis Magazine, and Madame Architect; and was named one of the best design books of 2023 by both Fast Company and the Architect’s Newspaper. Currently, there are seven journal reviews in progress expected to be published next year in top journals, including Design and Culture, Design Issues, and the Journal of Feminist Pedagogy. Place has been interviewed about the book on two podcasts, Scratching the Surface and The Deep Dive, and invited to speak at DePaul University in Chicago in 2024. Though it has only been four months since the book was published, she is excited to see the conversations about feminist design that have been initiated, and she look forward to expanding and amplifying those in the months to come.

Alison Place is a designer, educator and researcher who works at the intersection of feminism and design to create spaces for critical making and radical speculation. She is the author of Feminist Designer: On the Personal and the Political in Design published by MIT Press in 2023. She is an assistant professor of graphic design at the University of Arkansas School of Art, where she also serves as the director of the graphic design program. She has held several leadership roles in the design community, including two terms on the AIGA Design Educators Community National Steering Committee, and has earned multiple national awards for her scholarship and creative work. Previously, she worked for more than ten years as a creative director and designer for nonprofit and higher education institutions. She earned an M.F.A. in experience design from Miami University of Ohio, as well as degrees in graphic design and journalism from the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning.

The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression, and Reflection 

An anthology centering a range of perspectives, spotlights teaching practices, research, stories, and conversations from a Black/African diasporic lens.

Anne H. Berry
Associate Professor
Cleveland State University

Jennifer Rittner
Visiting Assistant Professor 
Parsons School of Design

Kelly Walters
Assistant Professor of Communication Design 
Parsons School of Design

Lesley-Ann Noel, PhD
Assistant Professor
NC State University

Penina Laker 
Assistant Professor
Washington University in St. Louis

Kareem Collie
User Experience Design Lead
IBM

Excluded from traditional design history and educational canons that heavily favor European modernist influences, the work and experiences of Black designers have been systematically overlooked in the profession for decades. However, given the national focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the aftermath of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, educators, practitioners, and students now have the opportunity—as well as the social and political momentum—to make long-term, systemic changes in design education, research, and practice, reclaiming the contributions of Black designers in the process.

The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression, and Reflection (BEID), an anthology centering a range of perspectives, spotlights teaching practices, research, stories, and conversations from a Black/African diasporic lens. Through the voices represented, this text exemplifies the inherently collaborative and multidisciplinary nature of design, providing access to ideas and topics for a variety of audiences, meeting people as they are and wherever they are in their knowledge about design. BEID is a reference for students in design, communication, and related areas of study, as well as a reference for diverse audiences, including but not limited to educators and academics from cultural studies, media studies, film, sociology, psychology, history, critical theory, and other social sciences.

Of particular note is the role of Sylvia Harris’ seminal 1998 essay “Searching for a Black Aesthetic in American Graphic Design” as a foundational piece for the text. In publishing this book, the editors have responded to her call to “contribute to [the existing] body of knowledge and support a generation of designers hungry to see their people and experience reflected in the mirror of our profession.” At least a portion of the wide range of work and research undertaken by Black designers has been codified in this text that we as design educators, practitioners, and former students wish we previously had in our collections and need for our own teaching, scholarship, and practice.

At the time the book was conceived and published, moreover, it was the first of its kind. The editorial team was inspired by a number of books on related topics, yet no other text captured both the diversity and breadth of Black contributions to design history and creative practice—past, present, and future—in one resource/anthology. Ultimately, The Black Experience in Design serves as both inspiration and a catalyst for the next generation of creative minds tasked with imagining, shaping, and designing our future. As author and critic Steven Heller noted, The Black Experience in Design is “A long time coming.”

The Writing/Publication Process

The publication of The Black Experience in Design began and ended in the midst of the 2019 Coronavirus pandemic. The entirety of the editorial team process and book production, consequently, was conducted via email and Zoom meetings across three time zones and with the aid of Slack and Miro applications.

The starting point for the project was a special issue journal focused on Black designers. However, as a result of editorial team conversations, discussions shifted away from a particular venue or format to focus more squarely on our collective goals, i.e., what we hoped to achieve through our efforts. Namely, reaching a diverse creative audience and covering a wide range of topics. A book provided the flexibility needed, and we subsequently developed a table of contents that spoke to the range of subjects we aimed to address.

BEID grew from approximately 50 contributors to 70, nearly doubling the size of the manuscript. Yet, the outcome reflects only a portion of the month of outreach undertaken, including interviews and rounds of feedback and editing. Importantly, we strived to build connections among contributors and editors during a period of cultural, social, and political upheaval; by meeting with contributors within our respective chapters and hosting writing sessions, we provided support and promoted a sense of community.

The Design Process

The initial illustration concept stemmed from the idea of Black designers being trapped within a box. No matter how hard we try to reshape or reform that box, it still remains present. The goal, subsequently, was to demonstrate this concept visually; the illustrations represent variations of reclaiming or breaking free from the aforementioned box. Each chapter has its own themes and related motifs that accompany introductions and individual essays within each chapter.

The typography of the book was thoroughly researched and considered to meet the needs of a massive, complex system. The moments of dialogue leave ample space to pause and reflect on the words and mimic the feeling of an actual conversation. The chapter introductions use a large, lean serif that dances around the illustrations. All components work together as a system to help the reader digest the information and enjoy the experience.

Impact + Outcomes

  • The retail store Target pre-ordered 8,000 copies.
  • The School of Visual Arts (NY, NY) donated $2,000 to help cover publication costs.
  • We launched a Kickstarter campaign that garnered nearly 300 backers and raised over $21,000, exceeding our $15k goal.
  • BEID has been acquired by colleagues at the following institutions and organizations: California College of the Arts, Cleveland State University, The College of New Jersey, CUNY College of Technology, Drexel University, East Tennessee State University, Inneract Project, Kansas City Art Institute, Kent State University, Lesley University, Maryland Institute College of Art, National Museum of African American History and Culture, University of Notre Dame, North Carolina State University, Parsons School of Design, Penn State University, Pentagram, Princeton University, Rhode Island School of Design, San Francisco State University, Tennessee State University, University Arts London, University of Connecticut, University of Michigan, the University of Texas at Austin, Virginia Tech, Washington University in St. Louis, Yale University
  • Via Kickstarter, BEID has been shared in the following countries internationally: Australia, Canada, Germany, Greece, Great Britain, Kenya, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden.
  • As of mid-October 2022, BEID has sold approximately 5,000 copies.
  • An audiobook version of The Black Experience in Design is currently in production.

Biography

Anne H. Berry is a writer, designer, and design educator at Cleveland State University. Her published writing includes “The Virtual Design Classroom” for Communication Arts magazine and “The Black Designer’s Identity” for the inaugural issue of the Recognize anthology featuring commentary from Indigenous people and people of color. She is also co-creator of the award-winning project Ongoing Matter: Democracy, Design, and the Mueller Report and managing editor of The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression, and Reflection.

Jennifer Rittner is a writer and educator currently serving as Visiting Assistant Professor at Parsons School of Design. She has been published in the New York Times, DMI: Journal, and AIGA Eye on Design; and in 2021 served as guest editor for a special issue on design & policing for Design Museum magazine. A daughter of women, Jennifer centers the voices of her near ancestors Bernadette, Aurea, and Dianqui in her practices.

Kelly Walters is a designer, educator and founder of the multidisciplinary design studio Bright Polka Dot. Her ongoing design research interrogates the complexities of identity formation, systems of value, and the shared vernacular in and around Black visual culture. She is the author of Black, Brown + Latinx Design Educators: Conversations on Design and Race published by Princeton Architectural Press and a coeditor of The Black Experience in Design. Kelly is an Assistant Professor of Communication Design at Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel focuses on equity, social justice, and the experiences of people who are often excluded from design education, research and practice. She promotes greater critical awareness among designers and design students by introducing critical theory concepts and vocabulary into the design studio e.g. through The Designer’s Critical Alphabet and the Positionality Wheel.

Penina Laker is a designer, researcher, and educator at Washington University in St. Louis. Her practice and research is centered around investigating and applying methodologies that utilize a human-centered approach to solving social problems, locally and internationally. She is currently broadening the scope and access of design education to young people in Uganda through her DesignEd workshops and My African Aesthetic, a podcast she cohosts.

Kareem Collie is a designer, strategist, and educator specializing in collaborative and human-centered design approaches to capture, reveal, and produce visual narratives and user experiences. He is the former Director of Design and Creativity at the Rick and Susan Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity at The Claremont Colleges and is now a Global Design Lead at IBM Consulting.

Slowing Production, Increasing Socio-Political Context: Beyond “Spreading Awareness” in the Design Classroom

A feminist base motivates us to engage questions around power relations, knowledge production, and systems of violence

Becky Nasadowski
Assistant Professor
University of Tennessee at Chattanoo
ga

In recent years, many universities have embraced “diversity” with oblique statements of support. Related, design educators have rightfully sought strategies for inclusive pedagogy, increasing representation and working toward ensuring the classroom is comfortable. But inclusive is not synonymous with anti-racist, which requires antagonism and a reckoning with the pervasive inequities baked into our different fields and methods, the university, and our social relationships and histories.

In this presentation, I will provide an overview of my studio-seminar course Politics and Ethics of Design, where a feminist base motivates us to engage questions around power relations, knowledge production, and systems of violence. A substantial reading list frames sustained conversations on the politics of race, class, and gender as it relates to the field of design, creating a critical foundation for design practice. Select topics include data feminism and counter cartography, the designer’s role in constructing notions of citizenship, the limits of empathy in design thinking, and the neoliberal entanglement of work and passion. 

By providing an anchor through reading and conversation, I ask design students to consider in their studio practice urgent questions: How do we respond to historical omissions? How do we interface with social movements? How do we act with an awareness of history that complicates liberal concepts of empathy as paramount? If we want students to engage power and sincerely explore what an anti-racist practice and education look like, then we need to fully engage in how design has traditionally played—and continues to play—a role in bolstering social inequity.

This design research was presented at Design Incubation Colloquium 9.2: Annual CAA Conference 2023 (Virtual) on Saturday, February 18, 2023.