The Pentagram Papers

18/06/2012 — Leave a comment

BOYS CLUB

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Pentagram. I’m not sure if that’s the ‘proper’ thing to say as a design student, I’m not sure if some tweed-blazer’d bespectacled Design Police are going to come and snatch me at any minute for not kissing the ground they walk upon. Ever since I looked down at a Sylvia Plath book jacket in an English Lit class, and saw the words ‘Cover Designed by Pentagram’ I naively decided ‘I want to work for them.’

To me they were the yardstick by which all other studios must be measured, and I understand exactly why. It’s things like The Forty Story, which not only show off their amazing portfolio and life-span, but their willingness to still maintain an element of playfulness, which is undoubtedly why they’ve stayed at the cutting edge for so long.

Could you pick one of them out of a line-up?

Pentagram just happen to perpetuate a stereotype in design that I think can be damaging: It’s the middle-aged-middle-class-white-male starched shirt face of design that is just so boring it makes me want to cry. Undoubtedly there is a ‘glass ceiling‘ for women designers, that somehow limits us from getting into the upper echelons too easily, which is why it’s so odd that in the classroom the numbers are in reality much closer to 50/50 than anything else.

Out of nineteen Pentagram partners, four are women (two very recently added) and two are non-white. Michael Bierut himself argues that the glass ceiling is an issue because it’s about Celebrity, and not the talent, and he has a point. At Offset festival this year, out of the 25+ speakers, two were women. Two. Those women were Paula Scher and Jessica Hische.

Miranda Hobbes: The only two choices for women; witch and sexy kitten.
Carrie Bradshaw: Oh you just said a mouthful there sister.

Shamefully, this reminded of this Sex and The City quote. Are women designers destined to be pigeonholed into either a Paula Scher or a Jessica Hische?  Are we really reduced to the binary of bolschy power-dressing ball-busters and twee teen girls? These are the two most notable women speakers in design at the minute, and I feel that their is a risk of women designers changing their work to fit into a on-stage persona in order to be ‘accepted.’

Scher’s corporate work is bold in aesthetic, and her personal work on Maps may not be as rigid, but is still just as gender neutral (Maps reminds me most of a Basquiat piece) where as Hische carved out her niche in overtly feminine filigree; her site comes with a ‘Teen Girl Mode’ and she cut her teeth under Louise Fili, whose clients include Good Housekeeping magazine and a Manhattan artisan Jam maker…

This is not to say I am not a huge fan of both designers, (One of my most prized possesions is a Hische print, and Scher’s Serious Play TED talk remains in my Top 3 Ted Talks of all time) it is more that as increasingly they’re the only women on design talk line ups and I fear that young female designers will look at this and feel like they have to adapt to either of these ways of working if they want to be a ‘Superstar’ designer.

I very very briefly spoke to Sandy Suffield —who has worked for Pentagram and whose personal work involves stitched artworks— about gendered design, and she said though she hasn’t ever felt like being a woman has held her back in design, she has suffered from ‘positive discrimination’ in that she has been grouped in with ‘the girls’ of the studio. Maybe I’m guilty of this by singling out Paula Scher and Jessica Hische, but if design talks continue to be so lopsided with their male:female ratio, I don’t think I’m out of line for drawing attention to it.

Perhaps my real issue with all this is that I’d like to be taken seriously as a designer without ever having to wear a suit or a dress.

This was part of the Boys Club series

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