10 trail-blazing women in design to be inspired by

Illustration of a woman in a pool

To mark International Women’s day, we’re celebrating 10 of the world’s most inspiring women in design. These are the glass-ceiling-shattering trailblazers who inspire us to be better designers. 

Their work crosses disciplines and breaks boundaries. And looking at the incredible women here, it seems hard to believe that the design industry still lacks diversity.

But according to a 2016 report from the Design Council, a staggering 78 per cent of the design economy is male. "Male designers seem to be concentrated in the highest paying sectors. 83 per cent of the total male design workforce earns an average of £606 per week or more, which is above the national average," continues the report. 

Meanwhile, only 3 per cent of creative directors are women, adds The 3% Movement.

The 10 women we’ve highlighted here haven't just made an incredible contribution to design: they're also important role models to designers around the world – both female and male. Read on to be inspired… 

01. Paula Scher

Paula Scher

Paula Scher has been a partner at Pentagram since 1991

Paula Scher is a multi-talented partner at Pentagram's New York office. Having started out by designing album covers for Atlantic and CBS records, including the distinctive Boston UFO sleeve, Scher quickly found recognition - not to mention Grammy nominations - coming her way.

In design circles Scher is best known for her dynamic use of outmoded typography that echoes Art Deco and Russian constructivism. This work, which featured on posters for the Public Theatre, helped to reposition the institution as an accessible space for people who would not normally attend the venue.

Public Theatre typography poster

Scher's typography work has been often imitated over the years

Described as both an "unabashed populist" and a "master conjurer of the instantly familiar", Scher's varied career has seen her work with top brands including Coca-Cola, the Museum of Modern Art, and Microsoft, as well as co-founding design studio Koppel & Scher. Speaking to Creative Bloq, highlights the benefit of stepping out of your comfort zone: "I try to force myself to grow by doing things I don't know how to do very well. Sometimes I fail utterly at it; sometimes I make breakthroughs."

02. Neri Oxman

Neri Oxman portrait

Neri Oxman, photo by: Noah Kalina, 2017

How can we describe the work of Neri Oxman? She's ahead of her time, labelled as "shatteringly different" and even had to coin the phrase "material ecology" to define her own creations. It's fair to say that summing up Oxman is no easy feat.

The American-Israeli architect, designer, and professor at the MIT Media Lab is renowned for her creations that blend technology and biology. In a recent talk at Design Indaba 2018, Oxman said that her goal is to augment the relationship between built and biological elements.

Biological underwear

Oxman's 3D printed wearables are inspired by organ systems

“Nature doesn’t assemble. It grows,” she told the Design Indaba audience. “We’re at a point in time where there’s a clash between the world of culture and the world of nature. It’s a slow process, but they’re colliding.”

With designers becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impact of their work, Oxman is leading the way when it comes to re-evaluating how we design and the materials we use.

03. Mina Markham

Mina Markham

Mina Markham was a key figure in Hilary Clinton's presidential campaign

Frontend architect Markham shot to success last year thanks to her incredible work on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. A key figure in crafting Clinton's digital presence, Markham created and maintained the brilliantly named Pantsuit pattern library, as well as various supporting microsites. 

At a time when politicians weren't known for taking pushing the envelope in the digital space, this online campaign showed the possibilities a well-crafted, open and versatile online presence could have on a campaign.

"Campaigns move at an incredible pace. You could have an idea on Monday and it would be live on Wednesday," Markham said of her experience in an interview with net. "Pantsuit was completed in about two months, and I felt bad taking that long. Deadlines tended to be more urgent and unyielding. If you were working on something for the caucuses, you have to be done on time – otherwise, the project is useless."

Hillary Clinton's college plan page

Markham worked on Pantsuit, the pattern library that fuelled much of the Hillary Clinton campaign

Since finishing work on the campaign, Markham has upped sticks from New York to California, where she's now working as a senior engineer at Slack. 

Alongside her day job, she's also active in initiatives such as Girl Develop It and Black Girls Code, partly prompted by the lack of support and encouragement she experienced when embarking on her own career in coding.  "When I was attempting to start my career in tech, I felt very alone and like I was stumbling around," she said. "If I had something like Black Girls Code to show me that women, black women, can be developers, it would have made a world of difference."

04. Es Devlin

Mirror Maze

Es Devlin in her 2016 Mirror Maze

If you've seen live music performances from the biggest artists over the last few years, chances are you've seen the stunning work of Es Devlin. A set design mastermind, Devlin has worked with the likes of Kanye West, Beyoncé, and U2 to create jaw-dropping backdrops and stage sculptures.

Preoccupied with exploring the boundary between stage design and art, Devlin's impressive portfolio also includes kinetic stage sculptures for the London Olympic closing ceremony and the Rio Olympic opening ceremony.

Like Neri Oxman, Devlin also spoke at Design Indaba 2018.

London Olympics closing ceremony

Es Devlin designed the amazing London Olympics closing ceremony

Her career started with an art foundation at Central St Martins College of Art and Design. From here she went on study set design before creating small experimental pieces for London theatres such as The Bush and The Gate. Over the years as her profile has grown, Devlin has been awarded the Linbury Prize for Stage Design, three Olivier Awards, the London Design Medal 2017, as well as being appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her services to stage and set design.

05. Jessica Hische

Jessica Hische

Jessica Hische is something of a typography celebrity

Fans of typography are probably already aware of Jessica Hische. The American letter, illustrator and type designer already has a legion of devotees thanks to her work on a diverse range of projects including the Love Stamp for USPS, book Covers for Dave Eggers, and revamping the typographic logo for MailChimp.

When she isn't busy working for clients such as Wes Anderson, Penguin Books and The New York Times, Hische also finds the time to create popular personal projects, such as the Daily Drop Cap and the humorous (yet useful) flowchart Should I Work For Free?

In Progress book

Jessica Hische shares her typography secrets in her book, In Progress

As if all this wasn't enough, Hische has also released a book called In Progress. Described as a "show-all romp"through her lettering and type design projects, the book also shows you how to sketch distinctive letterforms with step-by-step instructions.

06. Rachel Inman

Rachel Inman is a design lead at Google

Rachel Inman is a design lead at Google

Inman is a design lead at Google, on the Google Maps team. Last year, she worked on the new Google Earth – an update that enables users to fly through landmarks and major cities in 3D, then inspect them close up by switching to Street View, or explore curated stories from the likes of BBC and NASA through Voyager.

Her ethos as a team leader is centred around inclusivity. "Morale is high because there are no more walls,” she enthused in an interview with net magazine. “A design solution from an engineer is just as valid and celebrated as an engineering idea from a designer.”

Google Earth

Recently, Inman helped create the new-look Google Earth

Her decision to move into the web industry was motivated by a desire to create things that would make life better for others, and as well as her work for Google she teaches design classes around the world. "If my students walk away with any message, I hope it’s that they don’t need permission to create and experiment," she said of her Introduction to UX Design class at General Assembly's New York campus. "Aside from understanding their users, I really want them to feel free to keep making, testing, failing and continuing. That’s the only way they’ll get better!”

07. Malika Favre

Malika Favre

Malika Favre (image from the artist's Instagram page)

Malika Favre is a London-based French artist whose distinctive work has made her one of the most sought after illustrators in the UK. With a style that has been described as Pop Art meets OpArt, Favre's illustrations combine crisp colours with clean shapes.

Despite drawing from an early age, illustration was not Favre's first calling. After a brief stint studying quantum physics with a view to becoming an engineer, she changed course and studied graphic design and advertising. From here she completed an internship at Airside before going on to start freelance commissions.

Illustration of woman in swimming pool

Favre's distinctive work has often appeared on the cover of The New Yorker

Favre's unmistakable style has landed her work with The Yorker, BAFTA, Penguin Books and many more. And had the 2016 presidential election gone the other way, we would have seen her work gracing the cover of The New Yorker.

An erotic edge runs through Favre's work, because as she says, what is more universal than sex? This helps to combat what she describes as "a lot of bad sex art".

08. Catt Small

Catt Small

Catt Small promotes diversity in the web industry

A web designer in her native New York City, Catt Small's CV takes in some of the biggest names in web design: she's started her career as a junior at Nasdaq, where she made such an impact the company rehired her she'd finished her graphic design degree, before making waves as the NYC SoundCloud office's first product designer. Since late 2016 she's has been a senior designer at Etsy, where she revamped the payments and checkout process.

Small specialises in product design, but has a jam-packed schedule of out-of-work activities too. She plays an active role in promoting diversity within the web industry, co-founding Code Liberation and working with Good for PoC. She also indulges her love for gaming as part of Brooklyn Gamery, a studio she co-founded in 2013 after winning a hackathon silver prize.

Breakup Squad homepage

Breakup Squad is a five-player game based around keeping two ex-lovers apart at a party

"I spent much of my youth surrounded by boys who also played video games. Not being like other girls was a source of pride. When I got older and wiser, I realised the errors of the things I was trained to think," she said in an interview with net magazine.

"Women are often underrepresented in tech and games spaces. Instead of being encouraged to make space for each other, they are pressured to compete for the coveted ‘female ambassador’ position... Eventually, I felt tired of being the only woman in the room. Fielding sexist jokes and feeling inadequate drained my will to participate in activities I loved. The more I learned about the gender spectrum, the more I wanted to meet and learn about people with other cool genders as well."

09. Samantha Toy Warren

Samantha Toy Warren

Samantha Toy Warren is famous for creating Style Tiles

Samantha Toy Warren pioneered a revolutionary design system called Style Tiles, a process for developing the visual language for a website that has gained widespread popularity within the industry.

In an interview with net magazine, she explained the inspiration behind the project. A few years prior to creating Style Tiles, Warren had designed a site for a Scandinavian hotel chain. She and the client agreed that the site should somehow capture the essence of the patio area outside one of the hotels, which was filled with transparent bubble chairs that reflected the landscape.

Style Tiles

Style Tiles is a system for communicating the essence of a visual brand for the web

“They needed help getting from one to the other. So it was a matter of taking these attributes – the light, the almost invisible lines and this ethereal feeling – and dissecting and reconstructing them into things like gradients, thin lines and lots of very subtle shadows,” she explained.

“You can use it to have a conversation around what someone is imagining in their head when they say certain things to describe a visual. You can say: ‘You’re saying the site should feel light and airy; so does this line feel light and airy, or does this one?’ That’s what Style Tiles is, it’s the translation process.”

While Style Tiles is what Warren is perhaps best known for, her CV is equally impressive: she's currently an Experience Design Manager at Adobe Stock and Typekit. Prior to this, she was senior designer at Twitter (an experience she describes as “electrifying”, and “like being on a rocket ship”).

10. Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman

The multi-talented Debbie Millman is behind the popular podcast Design Matters

Debbie Millman is perhaps best known by designers as the founder and host of the podcast Design Matters. Besides setting up and running one of the world's first and longest running podcasts, Millman is also a designer, artist, curator, educator and writer.

In 2009 Millman co-founded the world's first graduate programme in branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City alongside Steven Heller. Meanwhile her illustrations have appeared in The New York Times and New York Magazine among others. Millman's work has also been featured in Print, a magazine on which she has served as Editorial and Creative Director.

Burger King logo

Millman's work on the Burger King logo helped to reinvigorate the brand

Between 1995 and 2016, Millman was the President of the Design Division at Sterling Brands, as well as being its Chief Marketing Officer. Here she worked with top name brands such as Pepsi, Gillette, Burger King and Star Wars.

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