Initially reviewing a book like Women of Design: Influence and Inspiration from the Original Trailblazers to the New Groundbreakers offered trepidation because, well, I'm a man, and I thought my opinion might be suspect. Recently, though, the New York Times Magazine (coincidentally a periodical designed by Janet Froelich, profiled in the book) included a thought-provoking article "What Women Want", by Daniel Bergner, about female sexuality and the very real differences in male and female perception of physical beauty and attractiveness. Early in the article, he quotes Kurt Freund, a pioneering sexologist who said, "How am I to know what it is to be a woman? Who am I to study women, when I am a man?"
I'm happy to report that while perhaps we can admit that while there are profound neuroanatomical differences between men and women and their perceptions of the opposite sex, our graphic design and art seem to be measurable by a common yardstick. The work profiled by Gomez-Palacio and Vit amply demonstrates that women produce graphic design in every way comparable to that of men. Indeed, when comparing the graphic elements introduced by masculine Bauhaus visionaries like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy with the work of Ellen Lupton like Thinking With Type (also profiled here), it's obvious that the more modern work is more scientifically thought out and aesthetically pleasing. Indeed when looking at the work of the designers profiled within, aesthetic trends show more improvement across temporal than gender lines. That said, the employment opportunities offered to the women within do seem to skew towards fashion and housework -- multiple subjects cut their chops at Martha Stewart Living, for example -- though I think that may say more about the workplace than it does about design. Looking at the actual work contained within, I couldn't help but notice that stereotypes about the feminine aesthetic seemed to apply more broadly to the client than the designer, which strongly indicates that the capacity of a designer to produce good work for a client has little to do with gender.
Rather than noticing differences in the design contained within, however, only the stories of the "Trailblazers" profiled and their stories tell the tale of workplace discrimination. Now that female designers like Ellen Lupton have risen to positions of authority in institutions as esteemed as the Cooper-Hewitt and Paola Antonelli shapes exhibits at the MoMa, I can also hope that even workplace issues are beginning to fade. Particularly by the time the reader reaches the end of the work, where Gomez-Palacio and Vit profile the most recent cohort, dubbed "Groundbreakers," I couldn't help but notice that some of the most successful design practitioners in the world were women and I couldn't imagine their gender as a liability anymore. Instead, I would hope that both potential employers (and book reviewers) would focus mostly on the work. Unquestionably, it holds its own; though when combined with a history of workplace discrimination that subtext elevates it to another level.
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Honestly if you parse it for every detail, there's all kinds of stuff like "comparable" ... maybe because words are built to fail when judged through a social lens rather than a scientific one. Men and women are just different, not better, not worse, no not even "comparable," but different, and we literally can't survive without each other. We're a species, not two warring tribes (although evolutionary psychology might say we're a little bit of both).
For any reader curious about gender and perceptual differences from a scientific perspective, this came out around the time of the review. Check it out:
And that little article is downright boring compared to most reading on the subject. Although the science of evolutionary psychology and developmental neuroscience are completely at odds with any notion of political correctness, they do offer a lot of explanatory power. I'd recommend: Nancy Ectoff's "Survival of the Prettiest," Geoffrey Miller's "The Mating Mind" and nearly anything by Helen Fisher for accessible overviews.
Harvard anthropologist Irven Devore called men "a vast breeding experiment run by women," while Geoffrey Miller describes sexual selection as "a never ending arms race of romantic skepticism and excess." Somewhere between those two extremes may be the truth. Whatever it is I enjoy it a lot.
Exploring the fundamental neurological differences between men and women is far more interesting to me than comparing outputs, but since the book adopts a "gendered" lens, it seemed appropriate to address it that way, even though it's not my voice. As for the graphic design work, the human mind is a robust enough tool that even though there are massive differences in the way that the mind works between genders, we've evolved enough general intelligence as a species that the question of whether a man or a woman completed a given task is almost absurd. It's just work, and it's work done well.
I'm realizing that while I've written a review answering the question posed by the book through a gendered lens, the above paragraph is probably what I should have written in the first place. The last two sentences were probably more true and less sexist than my entire review.
The subtext of the book was about women achieving parity in design. I shouldn't have engaged in that debate at all. Now parity in the workplace ... that's worth fighting for.
Thanks for calling me out, and thanks for bringing a little levity to a weighty topic.
I am _dying_ laughing.
Buddy, that's not a "yardstick" your holding, but you're right that both men and women are constantly being measured by it. Thank you for so hysterically, and perhaps unwittingly, illustrating the fundamental problem.
In all seriousness, I sincerely salute your bravery in writing this book review. I'm just not sure "comparable" was the rallying cry I had hoped for. Alas, women of design, we have more work to do...