On 23 September BirdWatching hosted a graphic design walk as part of the 2011 London Design Festival. In ‘celebrating the work and practices of London’s female designers’ this open studio format provided an accessible window into the working practices and environments of a selection of London’s female graphic designers. Maybe next year there will be the equivalent format for males?
According to their website Birdwatching ‘is a new platform for female graphic designers, professional practice and career development. Our aim is to develop the field of graphic design as a platform for diversity and cultural democracy by offering a forum for discovery, growth and experimentation’.
More interesting is the description of their name: ‘Bird is English slang for woman. The Watching bit alludes to the visual design element of our profession but also borrows from and paraphrases organisations such as Human Rights Watch (or Neighbourhood Watch) and means that we are here to watch out for each other and our common interests’.
And this notion of ‘neighborhood watch’ comes across vividly when you enter into the ‘nests’ of these graphic design ‘birds’. I visited two studios Marion Deuchars and Camille Rousseau share a space with numerous other practitioners on the top floor of a defunct warehouse in N1. Lucienne Roberts+ (incorporating GraphicDesign&) are secreted, Ann Frank like, in the rear of a language translation company in EC1.
The entrances to both studios had supplemented the Graphic Design Walk standard-issue signs with their own bespoke information. The contrast between the signs reveals the nature of their respective practices. Marion and Camille are both illustrators who are commissioned for their expressive and subjective mark-making, Lucienne is the objective Modernist-leaning graphic designer with a social conscience.
My first visit was to Marion and Camille, I was joined by six fellow Walkers and once we climbed the ‘Dragon’s Den’ like staircase to the top floor we were greeted with a table of pastries, cakes and a large brown vitreous enamel teapot. This is a vast space divided into subsections so that each practitioner has their own designated studio space. I noted one of these sub-divisions had its own gate, the sort that parents use to stop children going upstairs (or down). Your eyes don’t know where to focus, such is the richness of visual material that adorns every horizontal and vertical surface.
Marion tells us that all of the practitioners who share the space (female and male) prefer not to work alone, they sometimes collaborate but their is no need to, they are all different, but they share the same values and work ethic, they are all common-minded. Because of the open plan situation, they have to select new occupants who work in a quiet way, she recalls the time an industrial sewing machine was brought in and mimics it’s mechanical sound. Marion knows how to work a crowd, and we are all loving the passion and energy she exudes.
In an impromptu Q&A I raise the subject of gender and the issues associated with women having to make decisions about family and career. Marion had a stop-at-home mum but unlike her mother she has managed to create a balance of work and family life. She acknowledges that it is implicit – especially in the graphic design profession – that working life in London demands long hours which ultimately favours the single male designer, as male designers tend to devote themselves in a quasi religious sense to the profession.
Camille is French and has lived in London for six years. I wasn’t surprised to hear that she regards London as THE creative capital and was encouraged to come to England by her father. Camille’s mother was a graphic designer and she remembers growing up being taken to museums and galleries with little understanding or enthusiasm. ‘This is the Louvre, oh ok. Centre Pompidou, ok yes.’ Camille makes all of us laugh with her blasé attitude to these cultural institutions, mixed with her French accent she has won us over.
After Camille and Marion have spoken, they invite us to walk over to their designated areas, where they have displayed some of their work and we get a chance to view their materials, equipment and the everyday ephemera that surrounds them. Basic design elements such as colour, typography, photography can be found glued, tacked and tucked away. Paint pots and pens, rubber stamps and pencils are awaiting use, but always looming in the background is the iMac and the inkjet printer, a constant reminder of the opportunities and threats afforded by digital technology. Marion recalls the hustle and bustle of days gone by, phones ringing, couriers calling and faxes growling, to be replaced with the murmur of keyboard taps and mouse-clicks, and she performs one of her characteristic mimes, a room full of clicking creatives, we all chuckle.
Two hours have elapsed with Camille and Marion (how generous, given we have allocated one hour slots) and I am conscious that I need to move on to EC1 and Lucienne Roberts. When I get to Lucienne’s front door I chat to two graphic design walkers waiting outside, one is a design student at Reading, and her fellow walker is her companion, I think of them as graphic design’s motorbike and sidecar. Interestingly the male companion has a starfish balanced on his head, but as we are speaking it crashes to the ground ‘that’s the first time it’s fallen off today’ he says sounding bitterly disappointed.
Lucienne’s sign makes clear that we are not to press any buzzers, we should wait to be collected. In the spirit of this Modernist tone, we await our instructions. There is a sizable crowd, no one from my previous group has followed me here. Perhaps the illustration/typography schism is too much for some to stomach?
We are greeted by Lucienne and make our way up another lengthy staircase and slip through some narrow doors into the office of the language translation company, then a turn to the right and there behind the partition wall we all squeeze together. There is a display of books and printed matter on a table for us to see, and on the wall there is a large yellow rectangle displaying items created for GraphicDesign& the organisation Lucienne has formed with Rebecca Wright, who is standing to the side of us.
Lucienne delivers a modest two minute introduction, maybe she prefers to let her work speak for her? Lucienne’s passion for ethics, design education and work for the voluntary sector is evident, her mark-making is Modernist, it’s gridded; colourful and typographically playful but limited most often to Univers, she like rules, both visually and disciplinary.
Her latest book is Design Diaries, co-written with Rebecca. Design Diaries has since translated from print into the GraphicDesign& organisation as they were interested ‘in the process of design and less the end product’ says Rebecca. The impetus for the GraphicDesign& project also came from conversations that happened in the studio. Rebecca tells us that ‘each of them have their own practices and overlap, a bit like a Venn diagram’, they have worked with and for each other and she is keen to point out that it is a studio of practitioners not a studio of practice.
It makes economic and social sense for designers and creative types to share space, and today’s Graphic Design Walk has highlighted some similarities and differences. Overlaps and collaboration are there, as is a keen sense of independence. Like-mindedness has to prevail, a new face has to fit. I can’t imagine Camille and Marion sharing a space with Lucienne and Rebecca. The spaces become extensions of the visual language employed by their inhabitants, facilitating their occupants individual creative needs and desires. When reflecting on the day, it isn’t gender that comes to the fore, it is the drive, energy, talent and striving for – and producing – excellence that links them all.
This reminds me of a brief conversation I had at the start of the Graphic Design Walk in Base Camp. The lady minding the bookstall said that her mother, a librarian, had once conducted an experiment where a group of children were asked to identify themselves by selecting one of two labels, fantastic and brilliant. All the girls chose fantastic and all the boys chose brilliant. We then had a brief chat about the how males can easily be labeled a genius but females rarely if at all – the Guerrilla Girls made this clear in 1988 with their Advantages of Being a Woman Artist poster. This lady (I wish I had got her name, my apologies to her) thought that genius was too limiting, ‘it narrows your field’.
Thank you to the practitioners that I met on my Graphic Design Walk – you were brilliant.