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If you browse through most books on the history of design, you will find that they are dominated by the narratives, contributions and stories of men. In fact, one might assume that, at least until modern times, there were no female designers at all.

While it’s true that 20th-century society held women back – in design, as in most professions – that doesn’t mean there weren’t women who broke through. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of design history is the number of pioneers, visionaries, and rule breakers who accomplished the seemingly impossible and not only went on to have successful careers, but also earned the respect and admiration of their peers and created work that has endured for decades.

Yet even today, many of these names remain largely unknown and overlooked in the design industry. A new podcast from Nice People Design Agency shines a much-needed spotlight on their innovative work, artistic brilliance and the diverse perspectives they have brought to our world.

Honoring the pioneers

“Women Designers You Should Know” is the passion project of creative director Amber Asay, founder of Nice People, an award-winning brand studio based in Los Angeles.

What began as a popular video series on Instagram in March 2022 sharing the forgotten stories of creative women had over 190,000 followers. When the series reached an impressive three million accounts, Amber saw an opportunity to evolve the concept into a full-fledged podcast dedicated to the unsung heroines of design.

“We started the podcast as a platform to celebrate the incredible talent and stories of female designers,” says Amber. “We want to inspire the next generation of creatives while honoring the trailblazers who have shaped today’s design landscape. With these episodes, we aim to cover every discipline from graphic design, industrial design, interior design, architecture, fashion design, textile design, photography and illustration when it comes to commercial use with clients and creative briefs.”

Where are the women?

So how did she come up with the idea? “It all started when I was a design student, when I was learning about design history in class and we would read books like A History of Graphic Design by Phillip J. Megg,” Amber answers. “As my career progressed, I started to wonder: where were there women from the past who could be considered counterparts to legends like Paul Rand, Massimo Vignelli and Saul Bass? Where were the female versions of these household names?”

As Amber dug deeper, she began to uncover a rich, little-explored world of design pioneers like Barbara Stauffacher Solomon (1928-2024), the American designer best known for her large-scale “supergraphics” for interiors and the outdoor signs of Sea Ranch, a private estate with a utopian vision in Sonoma County, California.

“It was a total shock to me,” Amber recalls. “I had never heard her name in my entire career – nothing even remotely like her name – until I started this project. So it was born out of a personal desire to find those inspirations and historical figures that were neglected in mainstream design education and discourse.”

Past meets present

Cleverly, each episode takes a dual approach to exposure. First, Amber invites a contemporary designer as a guest. Then, together, they uncover the remarkable journey of a historical figure, highlighting her innovative designs, challenges and triumphs.

“The whole concept is to talk to the designer of today, living and breathing and in their career, in each episode,” explains Amber. “At the same time, we also talk about a designer from decades past, who was typically a designer sometime between the 1950s and 1980s.”

These intergenerational dialogues allow guests to reflect on how the groundbreaking work of previous visionaries has influenced or paved the way for their own creative paths and practices, creating a stimulating dialogue between the past and present of design that is highly entertaining to listen to and a far cry from the kind of dignified and serious academic discussion that some might expect.

“It was really fun to talk about these women’s work and lives,” Amber enthuses. “And we might not have been able to rave about them quite as much if I had actually interviewed them on the show.”

Overcoming adversity

One of the most interesting aspects of these discussions is the insight they provide into the social barriers placed on creative women in the 20th century. Their stories demonstrate the amount of perseverance, resilience and willpower required to break through entrenched systems of sexism, inequality and deep-rooted cultural biases against women as artists and visionaries.

But it’s not as simple as “women good, men bad”: in reality, things are much more nuanced. “Some of these women have said publicly that they don’t consider themselves feminists,” Amber points out. “Sometimes that’s really surprising, but that’s also because it’s a different era and feminism in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s meant something different to what we see today.”

It’s also fascinating to hear about the different and inventive strategies they used to establish themselves. “Many women from the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s were what I would call designers with many different skills,” she notes. “It seems like the only way women could really break into the market was to do many different things and wear many hats because that gave them more opportunities. Gere Kavanaugh, for example, took on work in interior design, textile design, furniture design and architecture, even though she didn’t have a real architect’s license.”

Inspiration for all of us

Despite these enormous challenges and discriminatory barriers, Women Designers You Should Know reveals an encouraging truth: Brilliant artistic visions, informed by diverse perspectives and human experiences, often find a way to leave their decisive mark on the world.

And that should inspire us all. Because even though many of the barriers women faced in the 20th century have been removed, it is still not easy to succeed in graphic design for a variety of reasons. In short, regardless of our gender, race or economic background, such stories can be a great inspiration and help us overcome the difficulties we currently face.

“We believe diversity fuels creativity, and our podcast is a celebration of the unique perspectives and experiences that make our industries successful,” Amber affirms. “We hope to foster a more inclusive and equitable design landscape where everyone feels seen, heard, and empowered.”

Published regularly, Women Designers You Should Know is an important educational resource and inspirational repository for all designers seeking to fill their creative minds with fresh perspectives.

And according to Amber, the exhibition could go on indefinitely because of the wealth of under-researched stories of marginalized designers throughout history: “This project could go on for years. That’s the exciting thing about being part of it: who knows how big it will be?”

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