A week ago, I was the moderator of a presentation and panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y, "The Art of the Book: Behind the Covers." The panelists were Milton Glaser, Chip Kidd and Dave Eggers. The organizers seemed pleasantly surprised by the turnout: over 900 people showed up on a Monday night to hear three people talk about book design.
After a visual presentation from each participant, all three joined me on the stage for questions submitted from the audience. There were seven questions in all. The fourth question to the all-male panel was as follows: "Why do you — all three of you — suppose there are so few female graphic designers — or at least so few female 'superstar' graphic designers? Is there a glass ceiling in graphic design?"
I read the question to the panel. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. What would your answer be?
You may have heard already what happened next. Chip Kidd made a quick joke about Larry Summers, who lost his job at Harvard partly by ruminating a little too freely on a related topic. After another pause, Milton Glaser offered an answer. Jill Priluck reported it on Gothamist, with an update several days later:
[Glaser said] that the reason there are so few female rock star graphic designers is that "women get pregnant, have children, go home and take care of their children. And those essential years that men are building their careers and becoming visible are basically denied to women who choose to be at home." He continued: "Unless something very dramatic happens to the nature of the human experience then it's never going to change." About day care and nannies, he said, "None of them are good solutions."
The crowd was silent except for a hiss or two and then Eggers piped up that he and his wife both work from home and share child care responsibilities — but added that maybe New York was different (although we don't think Eggers really believes this). Then it was clear to everyone in the room that it was time to move on.
On stage, I remember feeling...well, I remember feeling there sure are a lot of guys up here. As I recall, I eventually volunteered that, in fact, cover design was a part of our field that had provided a route to success for several notable female designers, including Louise Fili, Carin Goldberg, Knopf's Carol Carson and Barbara deWilde, not to mention (as noted by our questioner) my own partner Paula Scher. There didn't seem to be much else to say. Luckily, there were other, and easier, questions to answer. Next?
I began getting emails about the event, and particularly its "Larry Summers moment," the next day, as well as links to other reviews that raised the same question. On Youngna Park's blog, Glaser's comments were rendered like this:
There are no women at the top of the [book designing] field because women give up that time to have babies and families. [ed. note: Milton! whatttttt are you talking about?!!]
Now, it occurs to me now that I might have also said that evening that three of the world's best book designers — no, make that the three best book designers in the world — are all women: Julia Hasting, Lorraine Wild, and Irma Boom. But this misses the point. Because the issue isn't about talent, or ability, or accomplishment. It's about celebrity.
"Superstar" designers — and that's what we're talking about; read the question again — aren't just good designers. They're celebrity designers. And celebrity is a very specific commodity. It certainly helps to be good at what you do to be a celebrity designer (although celebrities in other fields don't always seem to have this requirement). But that's only a start. You also need to develop a vivid personality, an appetite for attention, and a knack for self-promotion. Accept every speaking engagement. Cough up a memorable mot juste for every interviewer. Make sure they spell your name right every time. This is time consuming work, particularly on top of your regular job, which presumably consists of doing good graphic design. Naturally, if you choose this route, it helps to be free of the distractions of ten to twenty years of caring for children, to say the least. In many ways, Milton Glaser's observations were shocking only in their obviousness.
We all know that women face challenges in the workplace that go far beyond being denied spots on panel discussions. According to a 2004 study, women make only 75.5 cents for every dollar earned by men. Last year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission handled over 23,000 charges of sex-based discrimination. Just a few months ago, the London School Of Economics estimated at it will take 150 years to eliminate economic inequality based on gender worldwide. These are real problems.
Yet, you have to start somewhere. Glaser answered the question on the card, but the real question was the unspoken one: "Why is it that you guys up there are always...guys?" There is no good answer for this, and it doesn't seem we should have to wait 150 years to come up with one. It's depressing for a profession that's more than half female to keep putting up 100% male rosters, at the 92nd Street Y or anywhere else. And I say this with no small degree of self consciousness, as a member of a firm where only 10% of the partners are women. This is what made me squirm last Monday night, and it's what makes me squirm today.
Celebrity is good for certain things. It puts the butts in the seats at the 92nd Street Y, for instance. But it's not the only thing, and based on the reactions of those people in the audience last week, it might be time for something more.