The Design that is not One: Engendering Design Discourse

The design that was not one: engendering design discourse

This is an exercise in applied theory: a test, an experiment. I’m asking a relatively simple question: To what extent might feminist theory be helpful in understanding graphic design practice?

The title of this paper derives from – parodies? – Luce Irigaray’s famous essay “This Sex Which Is Not One,” first published in French in the 1970s.

The text of my abstract on the other hand proposed an engagement with Hélène Cixous’ notion of écriture féminine, a notion most famously elaborated in her manifesto “The Laugh of the Medusa”, first published in French in 1975.

These two pieces are not so distant from one another that we cannot attempt to read them together, to commingle them.

Why these two? Why only these two? Might we not have set out from other classic texts of feminist theory? Are these two necessarily the most fecund for our purposes simply because they are among the most famous?

In avoiding these questions, I will admit a certain naiveté on my part, a certain ignorance and inexperience with feminism. These are not the faults of a dogmatist, nor those of a specialist. I am speaking today as an amateur, a non-specialist. Thus there may be questions that I might raise that I cannot hope to answer, issues related to the topic of feminist design that I cannot address and about which I can only speculate.

This ignorance will be peculiar in that the materials under consideration are themselves so well known. Yet it is also appropriate to them. I am not speaking as a “master” of these pieces.

This caveat in mind, let’s return to my textual sources. They date from the 1970s, which we might now look back upon as an “heroic” era of feminist struggle, not the only heroic era, surely, but one among them.

That we may look back suggests a certain distance from that era, and perhaps from its concerns and struggles. This distance is part of our topic today. To what extent were the struggles of that era the struggles of a different generation? As always, we must be attentive to this historical difference. If the struggles that produced these texts were the struggles of a different generation, how might the texts still be generative for us, for our concerns, for generating design discourse today?

If, on the one hand, yesterday’s problems still remain problems today, why should we return to yesterday’s (theoretical) solutions? On the other, if yesterday’s solutions really were solutions, if they did effect change in their day, what might we make of them today? Are these texts artifacts from a by-gone age, like armaments kept in a museum, or might they still have something to teach us, something that we haven’t yet heard?

Our task then: the re-inscription of a certain theory of writing as a theory of design, attentive to the status of that re-inscription as repetition or redirection.

Female/ Feminine/ Feminist

Toward this end I propose a schematic historical account of women in graphic design and graphic design writing, a theoretical exposition of Hélène Cixous’ notion of écriture féminine and of Luce Irigaray’s notion of the “sex that is not one”, and a discussion of feminist design as it has been presented by one design writer in particular, Maud Lavin. A presentation in three parts then.

My paper bears a subtitle: “Engendering design discourse”. This phrase is programmatic, the articulation of a purpose, but it may also serve as a first premise. Gendering and engendering are not at all the same thing. In what follows I appeal to feminist theory to substantiate the claim that these two terms are in fact mutually exclusive. To the extent that one is interested in gendered discourse one is not interested in engendering discourse. One irony of écriture féminine is that it defines an open field rather than a closed one.

Insofar as design is celebrated as the authoritative creation of a singularly heroic creator, whether male or female, and promoted as a singularly successful vehicle of clear communication, it is representative of the repressive phallogocentric Western tradition.

More significantly still, I think, by reading graphic design through écriture féminine, I propose a means of subverting the dominant discursive (I won’t say critical) approach to graphic design in our time – subverting the ideology of communicative clarity – and thereby shifting critical debate about graphic design and its place in contemporary culture. Put plainly, the dominant discursive approach to graphic design in our time stipulates that graphic design objects be understood primarily as circumscribed by a communicative function. This ideology is, of course, an extension of the phallogocentric tradition that écriture féminine, among other strategies of poststructuralist cultural creation and critique, subverts. As a theoretical model for the creation and interpretation of design objects, écriture féminine encourages us to view graphic design objects as inherently open, multiple, and heterogeneous, rooted in physical materiality but signifying much more than can be summarized in the “messages” they communicate.



Before we begin our theoretical exposition we should recall the history of women in graphic design, however schematically.

Fortunately, this task has already been undertaken on several occasions by feminist design historians. Maud Lavin, for example, produced a portfolio of women in design in the mid-1990s that we will return to. Already at that time, a decade ago, Lavin could report that women outnumbered men in graphic design. This fact is obscured to some extent in the standard design history books due to their focus on highly influential or iconic works – masterpieces in the traditional and problematic sense of this term. I suggest however that the history of women in graphic design is only partially obscured by the traditional approach of history books as one can in fact find numerous women designers among those celebrated for work produced during the past thirty years, since the 1970s in particular when women entered the design fields, among other fields, en masse.

It would be foolish to attempt an exhaustive list of prominent women in graphic design but it would be similarly foolish to deny that a number of women should be considered among the most significant leaders in the field at the present time. Paula Scher, April Greiman, Katherine McCoy, Lorraine Wild, and Ellen Lupton are only a few of those who spring immediately to mind.

Another measure of the presence of women in graphic design can be read in the contents of the “Looking Closer” series of volumes collecting recent and “classic” writings about graphic design. The series is edited by a small group of primarily male designers, all closely linked to the New York based American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and Allworth Press. Five volumes have appeared thus far. Volume three collects ninety years of “classic” design writings from 1893 to the 1980s. Of the fifty seven chapters, five including contributions by women: less than 10%. Volume two, by contrast, collects writings from the mid-1990s and sixteen of its forty-three contributors were women; almost 40%; a phenomenal increase.

Yet one might nevertheless wonder why – if women were more numerous than men in the field by the mid-1990s – this number was not higher. And one might offer several generous but facile reasons for this. Many of those women might have been relatively new to the field and still too junior and therefore too busy to spend time writing about it. Or women might have been too busy balancing their responsibilities as workers, wives, and mothers to have free time to write. Maybe they were busy simply doing other things. After all, why write? None of these answers is quite satisfying.

I maintain unequivocally that there is such a thing as marked writing; that, until now, far more extensively and repressively than is ever suspected or admitted, writing has been run by a libidinal and cultural – hence political, typically masculine – economy.         Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa, 249

Put forcefully, and speaking to the main point of this paper, writing might fundamentally be a masculine activity, particularly writing in and for the public sphere. Cixous proposed écriture féminine as a diagnosis of this situation and as a solution to it.

Cixous’ argument is not only that men dominate the libidinal, cultural, and political economy in which writing – including writing about design – appears, but that that economy is fundamentally a masculine, phallogocentric economy.

To conclude our historical survey, we might observe that women are visibly present in contemporary graphic design practice but that they have not yet been spoken for.



The first paragraph of The Laugh of the Medusa

I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do. Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies – for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement. The future must no longer be determined by the past. (Cixous 245)

The Laugh of the Medusa is a manifesto for écriture féminine and as such it contains a fair amount of polemic. Some of Cixous’ claims fly in the face of good philosophy more so even than she intends. She intends to dismantle nothing less than the entirety of the repressive phallogocentric Western tradition, but her polemic occasionally reverts to the kind of essentialist thinking that is her primary foe. I would rather not get bogged down accounting for these faults of militant rhetoric. The essential point is that Cixous’ thought challenges the binary thinking that is the basis of Western civilization, and indeed of many other civilizations as well. Cixous’ project, in other words, continues a tradition of radical cultural critique, a tradition she shares with many male and female writers.

The phallogocentric tradition can be summarized through a series of binary oppositions that form its core values. The terms on the left are praised, those on the right denigrated.

mind / body
sacred / profane
logos / pathos
communication / ambiguity
idea / instance
presence / absence
activity / passivity
sun / moon
culture / nature
day / night
father / mother
head / heart
intelligible / palpable
function / form
center / margin
man / woman
masculine / feminine
phallus / vagina
heterosexual / non-heterosexual
white / black
speaking / writing
high / low
masterpiece / minor work
homogeneity / heterogeneity
unity / diversity
singular / plural
art / design

Cixous’ work is feminist to the extent that it extends this critique to areas of specific concern to women.

Cixous’ challenges these oppositions not simply by proposing to shift the emphasis from one term to the other, though this does occasionally occur. Rather, she undermines oppositional thinking in general by proposing medial terms and writing in such a way as to undermine any certain emphasis on one pole or another of the binary opposition.

Where masculine writing, in her model, is logical, argumentative, discursive, certain of itself, clear and unambiguous, écriture feminine or writing in the feminine is on the other hand at once potentially the opposite of these things and, for this reason, capable of undermining the very duality itself. Ecriture féminine is an anti-logos weapon (Cixous 250)

Whereas masculine writing is a writing of the mind, écriture féminine is writing with the body (Cixous 251). As such it is radically heterogeneous and plural. It is plural at least in part because the mind is part of the body. As every body is distinct, every instance of this writing reflects the radical uniqueness of each body. Masculine writing aspires to the denial of the material instance of its enunciation. Writing in the feminine aspires to include that materiality along with its message.

Writing in the feminine must be understand on the model of a both / and proposition – as both material and communication – and as such as a means to inspect the process of communication itself (Cixous 254).

Similarly, writing in the feminine should be considered bisexual in the sense that it is based upon the non-exclusion of difference and of the multiplication of the effects of the inscription of desire (Cixous 254). Writing in the feminine affirms desire beyond the phallic signifier, beyond the genital, beyond the fetish, beyond the singular form.

Here we are proximate to Irigaray’s notion of “This Sex Which Is Not One”.

Woman does not have a sex. She has at least two of them, but they cannot be identified as ones … her sexuality, always at least double, is in fact plural. Plural as culture now wishes to be plural?             Luce Irigary, This Sex Which Is Not One, 103

The labia are twofold and do not themselves exhaust or complete the organs of a woman’s pleasure. A woman has sex organs just about everywhere. She experiences pleasure almost everywhere (Irigaray 103). A woman, in Irigaray’s description, is much like Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a desiring machine: a networked conduit for the desire of the other.

All of this in mind, I think écriture feminine offers us a helpful model for thinking about graphic design. Graphic design objects are always already plural. They communicate information by giving visual pleasure. They are the material form of ideas. They always send mixed messages. They are writing with the body. Graphic design gives multiple forms of pleasure: the pleasure of the thought, the pleasure of the instance, the pleasure of allusion, for graphic design objects generally signal or point to something beyond themselves. Graphic design cannot be understood as representational, to be evaluated in isolation from the networks of information and event which support it. Indeed to appreciate design as a pure formal construct, as if it were Fine Art, is to misunderstand and under-appreciate that design. In this sense, and again as in écriture féminine, graphic design is always available for the desire of the other. It aspires to be meaningful for you rather than in itself.

I will not attempt an exhaustive survey of these similarities…



Maud Lavin’s “Portfolio: Women and Design” in her book Clean New World presents the work of several female designers who are, she claims, “known for their self-generated work and / or authorial voices”(109). She cites a survey conducted by Martha Scotford to substantiate the notion that “women designers are more likely to use design for personal, political, or social agendas,” but allows that “pressures of time and money make most design practices client-service dominated… [while] only a small subset of designers [male or female]… make ‘personal, political, or social agendas’ a high priority”(109).

These statements beg at least two key questions: Just what exactly does Maud Lavin mean by the word “design”? And what ideology or hierarchy of cultural values is at work in her portfolio of women in design?

Before we answer these questions, we should admit that Lavin’s piece probably wasn’t intended to bear the cultural freight that I’m granting it. Though published in hardcover by The MIT Press, and supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, it is really only a loose collection of anecdotal statements from a more or less randomly gathered group of female designers from the 1990s. Only the almost total absence of genuinely critical writing about graphic design elevates it to a status worthy of our current attention. By taking it more seriously than it was meant to be taken I am liable to be considered a bully beating a straw-man.

Graphic design, for Lavin, seems to refer to any creative endeavor which combines words and images. Elsewhere in her writing she subscribes to a more traditional definition of design but in her treatment of women and design she loosens that definition substantially. And I’m not sure we can be satisfied with this loose definition of design. The main problem it poses is also bound up with the ideology at work in Lavin’s list. She explicitly praises “self-generated” work with an “authorial voice”, particularly work that prioritizes “personal, political, or social agendas”. These are her values. Martha Scotfeld’s survey findings were thus pleasantly convenient. Women designers make these kinds of works more often than men do, so the survey says.

Author-ity is a cultural construction.

Lavin complicates the notion of authorial voice later in her piece. “Since virtually all [design] work is for a client,” she says, “… the concept of a lone creator so popular in the art world rarely applies.” Thus her notion of “authorial voice”, which accounts for the unique stamp of a particular design sensibility even when the design might have been produced by a team of designers and at the behest of a client (110). This approach is similar to Roland Barthes’ statements about authorship in his famous essay “The Death of the Author.”

To my mind, Lavin’s admission that virtually all design work is client-driven undermines her interest in and emphasis on “self-generated” or personal design work. Why, in short, focus so much attention on self-generated or personal work if that work represents only an almost very small portion of the design that is produced?

Lavin’s complication of the notion of authorial voice also challenges this focus on personal work. Why focus on personal work if the very notion of authorship is inappropriate to the work under consideration?

Barbara Kruger is among the most problematic figures included in Lavin’s portfolio, so we can take her inclusion and her work as an example.

Is Barbara Kruger a designer? She works with images and texts. But her work is rarely client-driven, particularly in the strong sense of this phrase, which claims that the work must communicate a client-generated message to an intended target audience. Kruger’s work poses banal pseudo-philosophical questions in a flat and potentially ironic manner intended as a pastiche of media culture. Her project reached its apotheosis, I think, when “I am because I shop” was printed on shopping bags, her activism effortlessly integrated into the spectacle. So much for cultural critique, for political or social messaging.

Is the work personal? Not really, not in the expressive sense of this term. But does it have a strong “authorial voice”? Yes, in that Kruger developed an highly characteristic, high impact but low fi style. Anyone, in other words, could make a Kruger by aping her style.

Art in service is not art at all.

All of this in mind, I am personally more comfortable calling Barbara Kruger an artist, or better yet a “postartist”, than calling her a designer, feminist or otherwise. Her art is, of course and in its way, art in the service of an idea. And art in service, according to Kant, is not art at all.

Yet graphic design is almost always in service to something. It is by nature client driven. Its purpose is to convey a client message to an intended target audience. Kantian categories don’t seem to apply.

Perhaps Kruger is a designer after all. But if so, she is an a-typical one and not particular good (because her work is almost completely opaque). All of this suggests that, to the extent that design critics, like Maud Lavin, focus their attention on self-generated or personal work, they are not really focused on design.

What then of feminist design? Feminist design, I think, must be understood as graphic design done for a client who might be described as motivated by feminist concerns. Undoubtedly such design exists, some of it good, some bad.

The crucial question however is whether or not a feminist designer effect can social change by working for a client whose project is itself anti-feminist. If this were in fact possible, design would indeed be a powerful social weapon.

Many factors inhibit such a fantasy from becoming reality. What might, for example, bring such a situation about? Why would an anti-feminist client hire a feminist designer in the first place? If such an occurrence did come to pass, then we might also assume that the client might already be predisposed toward listening to that designer and thus perhaps also to changing the nature of the project. The scenario is pretty far fetched. Clients hire designers they like and trust and designers thrive when working with clients who respect them. The designer-client bond is a communal one.

The confusion surrounding all of these terms – designer, client, community – and around the very nature of design itself – as a specifically material form of communication – suggests that design writing has a long way to go before it understands its object and purpose, in particular as these relate to the history of art.

Put bluntly, the question of feminist design is probably the wrong question to ask about design. By wrong I mean that it is not the most significant question that we might ask and, worse, that it is a misleading question. It is a question that prioritizes the personal, when design is by nature communal, that prioritizes the political – the ideational and the ideological – when design is explicitly material.

The question of feminist design is thus in many ways the opposite of that of écriture féminine. It seeks to reduce design history to another episode in the history of representations, a history that has closed and that for many reasons has been superceded by design itself. The question of feminist design seeks masterpieces, enduring works among the ephemera of design culture. It seeks to replace the gynophobia of the phallogocentric tradition with an equally hegemonic gynophilia.

If their goal is to reverse the existing order, even if that were possible, history would simply repeat itself and return to phallocratrism, where neither women’s sex, their imaginary, nor their language can exist.            Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 106.

Insofar as design is celebrated as the authoritative creation of a singularly heroic creator, whether male or female, and promoted as a singularly successful vehicle of clear communication, it is representative of the repressive phallogocentric Western tradition.

Fortunately, this celebration has very little to do with design practice. Design practice is, like écriture féminine, always already plural, always already open, always already communal, always already heterogeneous in content and context.

Writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures.             Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa, 249

We might replace the word “writing” in this quotation with the word design. Design is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures.

Along these lines and retrospectively, we might reread the history of graphic design as the history of a repressed material culture, a community under erasure, an unconscious history of our culture. Such a history of graphic design has yet to be written. If we continue to fetishize the personal, the political, and the masterwork, it won’t be.

Select Bibliography

Maud Lavin, “Portfolio: Women and Design” in Lavin, Clean New World: Culture, Politics, and Graphic Design (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001).

Jean-François Lyotard, Postmodern Fables (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. New French Feminisms: An Anthology (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press; New York: Schoken Books, 1980). Cited by author and page number.

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