10 Trailblazing Women Who Changed the Graphic Design World
In the world of design and visual arts, the achievements of men are well documented, but those of women are often left untold.
Art history is full of women whose work has been overshadowed by the work of their male counterparts (think Lee Krasner, wife of Jackson Pollock). Even in the literary world, many female authors from the past wrote under male pen names in order to get their voices heard. Throughout the history of design, many female graphic artists had to fight for respect, despite their amazing achievements. However, today the design world is becoming a more inclusive space, and we have these women to thank.
In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re spotlighting 10 famous and lesser-known women designers who made lasting contributions to the design world.
Here are ten stories of women in design who helped shape the future of the industry.
Carolyn Davidson is an American graphic artist best known for designing the iconic Nike Swoosh logo.
She came up with the design in 1971 when she was studying at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. During that time, Davidson was offered a job creating charts and graphs for Blue Ribbon Sports, Inc. (now known as Nike), which then led to her designing posters and ads for the company.
After proving her skills in visual design, Davidson was then tasked with designing a logo for a new line of Nike running shoes. She was asked to come up with a design that “had something to do with movement.” She presented five different designs (one of which was the Swoosh), hand-drawn on tissue paper. Her now internationally recognized design resembles a wing and pays homage to Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.
Davidson was originally paid $35 for the Swoosh design, which is the equivalent of around $217 today. Then in 2015, the designer was given 500 shares of Nike stock, which meant she was able to retire and focus on her hobbies and volunteer work. Davidson is now known as “The Logo Lady.”
Susan Kare is an American graphic designer celebrated as one of the most significant technologists in history.
She’s known as a pioneer of pixel art and computer interface design. Kare is perhaps most famous for the interface elements typeface contributions she made to the first Apple Macintosh between 1983 and 1986. Inspired by mosaics, needlepoint, and pointillism, she hand-drew several pixel icons on small grid graph paper. Many of these designs remain as the icons for many computer graphics tools today. For example, the Lasso, the Grabber, and the Paint Bucket were all designed by Kare and are still used.
Kare also designed the Chicago typeface, which was used for the user interface of the classic Mac OS and the first four generations of Apple iPods. She later went on to become a designer for NeXT, where she created more icons and fonts for Microsoft and IBM. In 2015, Kare joined Pinterest, and she's now the creative director of the company. What a boss!
With a career spanning four decades, Paula Scher is an American graphic designer who revolutionized the industry with her iconic designs.
She’s been described as a “master conjurer of the instantly familiar,” since her bold imagery and illustrative typography brilliantly capture pop culture and showcase her background in fine art.
Scher has designed over 150 album covers, plus made graphics for a wide range of clients, including the Public Theater, the Museum of Modern Art, the High Line, the Metropolitan Opera, and Tiffany & Co. She’s also created some of the most iconic images of our time, like the Citibank and Windows 8 logos. Scher has received hundreds of industry honors and awards, including the distinguished AIGA medal. And today, she’s a partner in the renowned design firm Pentagram.
Elizabeth Friedländer was the first woman to create two typefaces—Elizabeth-Antigua and Elizabeth-Kursiv—for Bauer Types in 1927.
However, her initial success took some unexpected turns. As a jew in Germany during the war, Friedländer suffered from the anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws of 1935. She fled her home country to Italy, where she worked for two years before harsh Italian Antisemitic Laws meant she was displaced yet again.
She eventually moved to London where she worked on producing counterfeit Nazi documents and materials for the British black propaganda unit of the Political Intelligence Office.
After the war, she designed patterned papers for Curwen and Penguin Books, decorative borders for Linotype, printer's flowers for Monotype, and calligraphy for the Roll of Honour at Sandhurst. Friedländer was also responsible for many of the post-war designs of Penguin Books, and she even designed a special Penguin logo in celebration of the company’s 25th anniversary. In the early 1960s, Friedländer retired to County Cork, Ireland, where she died in 1984.
Russian artist and designer Valentina Kulagina worked during the 1920s in the old Soviet Union.
She was a central figure of the Constructivist avant-garde movement alongside her husband Gustav Klutsis. She produced countless imagery that captured Soviet revolutionary and Stalinist propaganda, made by combining graphic photomontages with hand-drawing and painting and typography.
One of Kulagina’s most famous works is a poster she designed for International Women Workers Day, titled “A Battle for the Proletariat” (Mezhdunarodnyiden’ rabotnits—boevoi den’ proletariata). She used figurative painting and photomontage techniques to portray female soldiers, workers, and farmers, as well as a group of women fighting with police in the streets.
Kulagina’s distinct, limited color palette is what many people love about her work, but it wasn’t a creative choice. At the time, there were major paper and ink shortages, which meant she and other photomontage artists of the era had to limit their color palettes.
Brazilian graphic designer Bea Feitler was once described as “the pioneering female art director you’ve never heard of.”
Despite not being a famous name, her work throughout the 1960s was hugely influential. Feitler worked as an Art Director and Designer for Harper's Bazaar, Ms. Magazine, Rolling Stone, and the first issue of Vanity Fair.
Her striking, colorful work in editorial design reflected the political and cultural change of the ‘60s. But it wasn’t just her aesthetic that made her stand out. Feitler gave a voice to feminism through her work, and she especially strived to empower women of color. In 1965, she placed Donyale Luna—the first Black supermodel—on the cover of Harper's Bazaar. This is nothing out of the ordinary today, but back then, it was the first time a woman of color was featured on the cover of a mainstream fashion magazine. The decision lead to public backlash and loss of business, but Feitler stood by her decision. It wasn't until several years later that Black women began regularly featuring in fashion magazines.
Zuzana Licko is a type designer and visual artist who was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, and emigrated with her parents to the U.S. in 1968.
She, together with her husband, Rudy VanderLans, founded Emigre Graphics in 1984. They self-published the hugely influential Emigre magazine and Emigre Type foundry.
Licko was an early adopter of new technology and used the first Macintosh computer to create some of the very first typeface designs and digital page layouts. Her impressive library of digital typefaces features at least three dozen font families, including the popular Mrs. Eaves, Modula, Filosofia, and Matrix.
When discussing her move from traditional typefaces to digital ones, Licko explained her process:
“I started my venture with bitmap type designs, created for the coarse resolutions of the computer screen and dot matrix printer. The challenge was that because the early computers were so limited in what they could do you really had to design something special. Even if it was difficult to adapt calligraphy to lead and later lead to photo technology, it could be done, but it was physically impossible to adapt 8-point Goudy Old Style to 72 dots to the inch. In the end, you couldn't tell Goudy Old Style from Times Roman or any other serif text face.”
Dorothy Hayes was a hugely influential designer from Mobile, Alabama who fought to win respect for female designers, but especially women of color. As a Black woman herself, she arrived in New York City in the 60s but struggled to find other women who she could relate to in the design industry.
In a bid to give people of color a voice in the design world, Hayes organized the groundbreaking exhibition, Black Artists in Graphic Communication, which profiled 49 young Black designers, including Dorothy Akubuiro, Josephine Jones, and Diane Dillion. Haye's also founded Dorothy's Door, a commercial art and design company that made work for clients such as CBS Radio and AT&T.
Gail Anderson is an American graphic designer, writer, and educator who is best known for her hand-lettering, innovative typography, and poster designs.
When she first started designing, her mentor was Paula Sher (who we mentioned earlier), who influenced her uniquely playful style.
Anderson has worked as a designer for Rolling Stone magazine and Globe Sunday Magazine, and she even designed the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation stamp for USPS. She’s co-authored 16 books and received multiple awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from AIGA. Anderson is also the first African American and the third woman ever to receive the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award.
Jane Davis Doggett
Jane Davis Doggett is a legendary graphic artist who created groundbreaking graphics systems for airports.
The American designer’s first job was for the Memphis airport in 1959. She was tasked with designing a standardized font to use throughout the airport, so she created a typeface called “Alphabet A” that was perfectly legible from far away distances. Due to its success, the font was then used in other airports, including Tampa International, George Bush-Houston, Baltimore-Washington, Newark, Miami, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, and Cleveland-Hopkins.
Doggett also designed visual Airport wayfinding systems that are now commonly used in airports and public spaces around the world. Through her clever use of color, typography, and symbols, Doggett’s signage has helped guide millions of people through complicated infrastructures.
Thanks to these women from history, today's generation of designers are empowered to bravely put forward their creative ideas. The Vectornator community is full of amazing women designers, and hope you’ll join us in supporting them. We’ll be showcasing their amazing work on our social channels during the next few days, so follow us to stay updated!
We just highlighted 10 female designers from history in this blog, but there are countless more that deserve recognition. From history, there was also typography legend Louise Fili, design strategist Sylvia Harris, and feminist powerhouse Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. And today, there are countless inspiring woman designers who are leaders in their field, including Jessica Walsh, Jessica Hische, Marta Veludo, Kelli Anderson, and Anna Kuts, just to name a few.
Who is your favorite female designer? Let’s celebrate those that inspire us—not just on International Women’s Day or throughout Women’s History Month—but every day!