The Hidden Women of Design initiative showcases and supports women working in the field of Design. In July, they hosted an event at University of the Arts, London and invited female designers to share tips on how to get into and progress within the design field as a woman.
This blog captures and expands some of the ideas shared at that event by:
Tori Flower, Creative Director at Shift
Naïma Ben Ayed, Font designer at Dalton Maag
Sarah Boris, independent graphic designer
My Five Tips: Tori Flower, Creative Director at Shift
One for whatever stage you’re at. If you’re looking for a job: meet as many people as possible who are doing things you are interested in. Ask for, really listen to and follow their advice (if you respect it…). Get recommendations of opportunities they know about and other people to meet. Throughout your career: it’s invaluable to continue to speak to other designers and people working in related fields in order to swap tips on the projects you’re each working on and get help with the career questions you’re grappling with. Seek out advice from people more senior than you too, either as a mentor or less formally. And then pass it on: help others below you.
Learn from doing different things
Expand your role. Do more than what you were hired to do. And not only more of the same, but more of different things. Even if you end up doing stuff that isn’t exactly what you trained in or the direction you thought you’d go down, so often doing different types of work will enhance your design skills. Whether it is doing some project management or user research, getting involved in budgeting, copywriting or managing developers – whatever other opportunities there are in the company you work for – embrace them and learn from them.
Know your rights
It can be an awkward to bring these things up, but don’t be afraid to ask your employer about when you’ll be considered for promotion and get a pay review, what professional training they are able to offer you and if you accrue any rights (think extra holiday, rights to sabbaticals etc) as you progress within an organisation. These things tend to be performance related (it’s always easier to ask about a pay rise after you have completed an awesome piece of work), but annual reviews are also appropriate places to talk about these things. In terms of your employee rights (whether its maternity pay, pension schemes or anything else), it’s worth knowing what you are entitled to – do a bit of googling, ask friends in other organisations about their set up and, if possible, get advice from people who know about HR issues.
Do what you’re passionate about
I think it’s important to do what you’re passionate about and this may mean having to change sectors, find a different organisation to work for or go it alone as a freelance. It can be hard to leave something comfortable, but knowing the right time to move on is an important life skill. You need to have confidence in your own worth – if you’re good you will get another job. There are things you can do to help ensure leaving goes as smoothly as possible – make sure you keep your portfolio up to date, get industry recognition like awards as an indicator for your worth wherever possible and always maintain good relationships with everyone you’ve met and worked with.
Work hard vs work efficiently
“Work harder than anyone else in the organisation” is the usual advice given to designers at the start of their career. Whilst this is may be true, as you progress it’s often more important to work as efficiently or effectively as possible. As you get more senior you need to work out what you should be doing yourself and what someone more junior should do. These aren’t always simple decisions as it’s enjoyable and also important to do the craft, but also necessary and beneficial to do the strategy and oversee the craft. It’s also necessary to prioritise tasks and opportunities: some things may have to go. Some women work part time for parts of their careers and when doing this it’s particularly important to think critically about the best use of time in the studio.
My Five Tips: Naïma Ben Ayed, Font designer at Dalton Maag
Make work that is relevant
Uniqueness and innovativeness if achieved, great. More importantly, aim to be relevant. Do a work that is relevant to the time of today and the world we live in. Think beyond trendy. Be generous and meaningful. Find singularity in how you execute your practice. Have a reflection on your practice.
Archive and take care of your work
Keep visual traces of all your projects. Archive those you made and those unachieved (sketches, drafts, etc). Good ideas resist time so keep them safe. Document your processes with pictures, notes, drawings. Date your sketches and printouts. Name consistently the different stages and version of your design. Keep the brief. Mark the released version distinctively. Package your InDesign folders. Make copies. Archive first your graduation projects and keep doing it. This is to facilitate the making of your portfolio and presentations. Importantly, looking at the body of work you have produced keeps you aware of your achievements and helps you identify what’s missing, what’s next?
Being confident in what you do is as important as what you do
Confidence is key to convince an audience. Prepare well whether you are meeting with new clients or giving a talk. Believe in what you say and communicate your passion even if you are intimidated. When doing a presentation, rehearsing is great to nail the key ideas. Be precise in the time you have. Have a solid intro and conclusion. Speak clearly, look at your audience. Be dynamic and eloquent. If you lack self confidence, work on it. Don’t rest on this isn’t for me. Organising your knowledge in order to share it makes you aware of your own knowledge. It is a great exercise. Play confident. Taking it as a role play can help. The more you do it, the better you get at it.
Be on top of things
Working in the design industry can mean tight deadlines, late hours, challenging projects. Don’t get overwhelmed. Learn to manage your schedule really well. Start by making a list of what you have to do during the day. Take some time on Friday to plan the coming week so to make Monday an efficient day. The challenge can be to balance management/admin and design tasks. Make sure you get enough focused time for the design and you don’t postpone the admin part. Coming earlier to the office or working from home can help, consider it. Good sleep, a regular sport practice, social and cultural times are key to keep you and your work fresh. Don’t underestimate their benefits.
Be out there
Only 8% of women working in the design industry are comfortable promoting their work…* Make sure you are one of them. Get out of your comfort zone. Have a good visibility online. Make sure your virtual self is up to date, especially on your website. If you work for a company and are not allowed to promote the work you do there, find a way around it. Don’t disappear. Keep a website. Keep a personal practice. Apply to give talks at conferences, give workshops, etc. Be active on social medias. Promote your work. Write. Talk. Have. A. Voice. Women in design need space and visibility. Take it. Have it. Be supportive. Be aware.
* Graphic Designers Surveyed, 2015
My Five Tips: Sarah Boris, Independant graphic designer
Developing your portfolio during your studies
When I studied, it was a fabulous time for experimentation, I did photography, installations, giant bound books, sculpture, screenprinting and much more. They were all in response to graphic design briefs. Little did I realise at the time that it would be very hard to find a job with such an eclectic body of work. University is a great time to experiment but it’s also important to keep in mind where you want to work once you graduate and who you will be showing your work to. Your future employer will want to see a focused body of work. It’s important to balance work produced at university. I never really thought about my portfolio until I graduated. It was a steep learning curve. I entirely redesigned my portfolio after several unsuccessful applications and took on work placements and freelance jobs. The work I produced then complemented my more experimental body of work and made me more ‘employable’. I would recommend always keeping your portfolio up to date during you studies and showing it to designers in the industry. Going to portfolio reviews such as the ones organised by The Dots (https://the-dots.com) is a good way to come out of university prepared. I admit I was quite clueless at the time and had to work extra hard to land my dream job and overhaul my portfolio.
Giving it a second chance
One thing I have learned over my career is that not receiving an answer for an application does not always mean it’s a definitive ‘no’ or fail. If you are really keen to work with someone or somewhere, I would recommend giving it a second chance. That said the second approach is critical. If you did not hear back the first time or if you received a negative answer, it means that the person was too busy or simply that your work was not good enough or that you did not fit the role. In this case you need to step back, be self-critical, assess your first application and approach and then reinvent your presentation. Sometimes an update with new work and news may be enough. As designers we have the tools to ‘repackage’ our work and address things differently. I have heard many stories of designers landing their dream job by reinventing their approach.
Don’t forget it’s work and this means business
It’s often hard when you start out to set fees and know what to charge, even more so if you set up your studio or work independently. I have learned a lot about setting my fees and drawing up contracts thanks to other designers. As with many other aspects of a career as a graphic designer, there is a lot you don’t learn at university so asking around is crucial. Money can often be a taboo subject but a lot of designers are much more open than you think and will happily talk about how they set their fees. Also don’t be afraid to negotiate and mainly, however small the job always do contracts. It will help clients take your work more seriously and will only bring more respect. I would even recommend doing contract with people close to you. Friends should take your work as seriously as any client. Setting clear terms in writing at the outset can avoid sticky situations further down the line as well as making sure you don’t get exploited.
I have met a lot of women designers who shy away from showing their work online or speaking of their achievements. They are also very critical of people doing it, making self-promotion sound like something dirty and out of place. If you don’t show your work and if you don’t speak about it, no one will hear about it. You don’t have to show everything but when you are starting out self-promotion is essential and I have found it extremely useful. Don’t be afraid to put your work out there. Self-promotion plays a big part today through social media and you would be surprised by the number of conversations and collaborations that can come out of it.
Time and time again people have told me I should dress in certain ways before giving a talk, wear heels, go to the hair dresser, straighten my hair etc. I agree the way we look goes a long way into telling a story in an industry where aesthetics play an important role. Nevertheless I have worked hard for people to accept me the way I am and that includes the way I dress. Yes presentation is important but the most important is to feel good and confident with whatever you are wearing and your work will speak for itself, not the heels.
More about Hidden Women of Design
Hidden Women of Design is a project that resulted from this research question: ‘Who are those that sit in the blind spots of design and have transformed design paradigms over the years?’ It soon became apparent through research that those ‘people’ may just be women and trying to find influential female designers of the past was not as easy as you may think!
We wanted to create a campaign that would raise the profile of female designers of the past and look towards future talent and their representation. Our goal is to build a community that is supportive, encouraging and questions; what are the issues that women face in the industry? How can we acknowledge them and tackle the changes we need to make? How do you make that transition from student to designer? And how can your job have longevity and balance your life choices?
Lorna Allan, Founder, Hidden Women of Design
Useful links and platforms