Sitting with the mess is a research project by Nina M Gibbes for the fulfilment of the Master of Communication Design degree at RMIT University in Melbourne. The project investigates how designers are making space to address the inherent gender and cultural biases present in the canon of graphic design and in the wider industry. This research project comprises a series of interviews with design educators and designers, as well as the development of a practical workshop for designers and students to engage with messy design history through the construction of crossword puzzles.

While this website houses the completed project for my master’s degree, I must acknowledge that this is an ongoing project and a constant work in progress. It is a space that will shift and change over time as I learn, discover and talk to more people. If you would like to speak with me or be involved with this ongoing project please get in touch, I would love to talk and make work with you.


Interview: Catherine Griffiths

Catherine Griffithis is an Aotearoa based graphic designer, typographer, artist, educator, writer, activist, and feminist. She has worked on many large scale projects and her award winning design work has received international acclaim. Amongst her many accomplishments is her founding of the platform Designers Speak (Up), a democratic and open platform for New Zealand designers to have a voice. The platform was launched after a protest Griffiths initiated to call out the gender imbalance present at awards platforms in New Zealand. Its mission is to create a diverse and inclusive design scene for all design voices in New Zealand.

I spoke to Catherine about how this extraordinary project began, her thoughts on the necessity for a diverse design landscape and how she brings her fierce, fearless, feminist values to her work and her students.

Nina Gibbes: I’d like to start off by asking why, do you think, we don’t see much graphic design history of women working in Australia and New Zealand? There is a history there, but in my time as a design student it has not been spoken about to a great extent.
Catherine Griffiths: It’s something that I’ve been looking at and have been aware of for some time. You may be aware of some of the work that I had started, one of the things is that the governing body of the design community—The Designer’s Institute—here in Aotearoa has systematically, and I would say systemically, written women out of design by not recognising them. I think the gatekeepers of design are part of this problem, actually a big part of the problem.

The other issue would be that historically, women haven’t been the numbers in design. If we go back to the 60s or the 70s and look at some of the published material from then, we would see a few graphic designers as women, the majority being men, and that has continued so they don’t reach the higher rungs of design. They are rarely the decision makers in those roles of senior positions. The reason is probably common amongst the people you are talking to – we have been in a male dominated space as practicing designers and women have not been necessarily regarded or recognised through those systems.

Nina Gibbes: A lot of the education I have had has been quite focused on the European design history and that narrative is told that we know as the design canon, and I haven’t learned too much from lectures on Australian and New Zealand design history. Do you think universities in our countries need to do a bit more work to decentralise that history and move away from being so eurocentric?
Catherine Griffiths: Yeah, that’s another interesting one because eurocentricity is part of design history so I understand that but the decentralisation of that is very important so that we’re actually looking at here, there and everywhere rather than the same point of view. A lot of the activity that is still going on out there is that we still look to Europe and we look to America as well. That’s changing, but there needs to be much more of an effort to look closer. Design’s history – what is design history? We have to ask that question as well.

Historically, the western view of design, which is a western term, has a very strong history coming out of these places but their roots lie much deeper. The root of design would be something interesting to look at, and to find out what happened – how did it become eurocentric and how do we return some of that back to say perhaps indigenous culture or other cultural makeups for where design may be stemming from in its non westernised terminology?

“Historically, the western view of design, which is a western term, has a very strong history coming out of these places but their roots lie much deeper.”

Nina Gibbes: Can you tell me about your project Designers Speak (Up)? How did that start and what does it involve and have you seen any responses?

Catherine Griffiths: So do you want the long story or the short story?

Nina Gibbes:  How much time have you got? *laughs*
Catherine Griffiths:  *laughs* Right! Well I will give you a bit more of a sense of it and its context. So Designers Speak (Up), and the (Up) is always in brackets when we use that title and I will go back to why that is.

Designers Speak (Up) came out of a protest I made against gender imbalance with three posters that I put out into the world in response to The Designers Institute announcing their jury for the awards in 2018. That jury displayed very clearly a gender imbalance. I think it was about 15 women and 46 men and this was a problem that I had seen over a number of years and finally in this particular year, I felt I needed to do something about it. Of the convenors, eight out of nine convenors of the categories were men and when we looked further, there was an award called The Value of Design Award, and there were no women on the Jury. So as I drilled into all of this, I thought “right something needs to happen, this is unacceptable and can’t go on again.” 

The other part to it was that for the twenty years of these awards, they award two black pins which is the topmost award. Over this two decade period 43 black pins have been awarded, 40 have been received by men and 3 by women, and of the women one of them was the CEO of The Designers Institute, another one went to the fashion designer Karen Walker. Fashion itself is not actually a category at the Designers Institute, at the time there was only Spacial, Graphic and Product as the categories at the time that Karen Walker was awarded her black pin, so she may have won it through successful branding of her brand at the time. Anne Robinson was the other woman who was awarded a black pin and she is actually a glass artist. Where do these women fit? They fit, but where is graphic design? Where is product design? Where is spacial design? Where are the women? So I made these posters in response to that and that sparked the attention of the design community here in New Zealand. So Designers Speak (Up) was created as a platform to hold these posters and to start the conversation and open up a democratic space for all designers in Aotearoa to speak.

“Designers Speak (Up) came out of a protest I made against gender imbalance with three posters that I put out into the world in response to The Designers Institute announcing their jury for the awards in 2018. That jury displayed very clearly a gender imbalance. I think it was about 15 women and 46 men...I felt I needed to do something about it.”

To a certain extent that has been taken up, and we’ve done some really interesting projects. It’s not attractive to all of the design community, it attracts certain voices that want to express themselves and open up the conversation, but there’s a whole other part of the community that doesn’t want anything to do with it because it’s uncomfortable.

The name Designers Speak (Up) itself is a reference to the very first series of talks that started in the early 2000s, and it’s a series that I started with The Designers Institute’s support. Things were a bit more positive then and they were very keen to have me as a new award winner with a big project that I had done in Wellington back then called the Wellington Writers Walk which had won a top graphic design award at the time. I originally called the series Designers Speak and this was a name that my partner actually came up with, which was a lovely wordplay and it was so successful because this was really the first time the Designers Institute had really done anything where we would have public talks by designers and their practice working at the top of their game. The series was so popular that The Designers Institute wanted to run with it as a continuing series, with the promise of acknowledging the co-founder and where this had come out of, giving me some acknowledgement in the crediting of the series.

That didn’t happen.

Around 2010, they registered the name Designers Speak and put a little r in the circle, which looked like ‘Designers Speakr’ which was kind of funny. And I thought, how odd. Why would they do that? Why would you suddenly want to claim a space and register it? I thought that was strange given they didn’t have the conversation with me. That coincided with the fact that they chose not to support TypeSHED 11, which was a very large symposium that I had curated and co-organised with an Italian-based designer Simone Wolf. It was an international symposium, the first of its kind in New Zealand and was hugely successful. We had 17 international speakers including Experimental Jetset, who at the time said they didn’t ever really travel more than 3 hours. We had Paul Elliman, David Bennewith and many designers and speakers from Aotearoa. It wasn’t gender balanced but we made an effort in that space but it wasn’t something at the time that we were so cognisant of.

So the Designers Institute actively did not support us other than mention us in the bottom of their newsletter. I’m giving you the background here because there was this slow build up of evidence-based lack of support from our Designers Institute. You have to ask, why would that be? So Designers Speak (Up) was a reclaiming of that name and a response saying we’re going to actually speak up now and become more of an activist space where we start to call out and address these issues.

“So Designers Speak (Up) was a reclaiming of that name and a response saying we’re going to actually speak up now and become more of an activist space where we start to call out and address these issues.”

Nina Gibbes: I had no idea it had that back story to it, and it just makes it seem more powerful, the activist approach to reclaiming that space. I spoke to Jane Connory who is a designer and lecturer in Melbourne, and she has been doing some interesting research into the extreme gender inequity at the AGDA Awards here in Australia. It’s really surprising to see how some of these statistics are so bad, but now there’s a voice and people are actually shining a light on this gender inequity...
Catherine Griffiths: It’s interesting isn’t it, they’re starting to change because we’ve had to stand up and do something about it. What’s great about the Designers Speak (Up) space and the activity that I initiated and pushed on with, and the things that we’ve done because of that including a very public poster project exhibition called Present Tense: Wāhine Toi Aotearoa, got international recognition. You’re lucky, because in a sense, Australia is doing way better than over here because the institute here is run by someone who is not of the mindset and I think it will be very difficult for us to make the changes as rapidly as we’d like.

The changes that they have made have been made as a reluctant shift to save face rather than really wanting to make that change. For example, this year’s jury hasn’t been announced at all and I’m curious as to why that is. I looked at the board makeup again, and it’s still sitting at 4 women and 7 men so the imbalance is still there and there’s been no attempt to re-address that. Hopefully Australia will influence New Zealand to make more change at that level. The Designers Institute are the gatekeepers and that is the problem. Alternative spaces are another way around all of this and navigate elsewhere to bring people on board to do different things.

“Alternative spaces are another way around all of this and navigate elsewhere to bring people on board to do different things.”

Nina Gibbes: Some of the other conversations I have been having with designers in European countries has been about the necessity for designers to engage with informal knowledge exchanges through groups like workshops and discussions and symposiums or festivals (if there’s funding for festivals), to provide more space for these under acknowledged graphic designers. Do you think that these kinds of activities need to happen more in New Zealand and Australia so that it’s not just one gatekeeper?
Catherine Griffiths: Yeah, absolutely. The more groups doing things and making opportunities, having the conversations and working in different spaces the better. It makes sense. What would be really nice would be if these things could happen but if people could share more. It’s this lack of sharing and the lack of support, for example we have Design Assembly here in Aotearoa and it was set up around the same time as the TypeSHED 11 symposium and they have become a really strong space for the younger generation. They are starting to attract more established groups as well, and you need that range of history as well as the new. They’re also becoming more interested in Maori and Pacific and other cultures working in design. At the moment they have a very strong series at the moment with a woman named Desna Whaanga-Schollum who is writing for them. She is a brilliant mind and the chair of Nga Aho, which is a Maori design space.

Design Assembly is quite a big organisation now and has a big community with it, but the smaller ones are very important as well. There are a lot of small collectives like the Zine Collective, that are doing things that are really important and feed into more of a community of design, and that has to happen more. When you have more of these communities you get more of a mix of thought you don’t have to have groups trying to be everything, so you might have a more focused group working in a space that can then languish you in another space, so the fabric of the design community could be much more interesting if there was a lot more going on.

“When you have more of these communities you get more of a mix of thought you don’t have to have groups trying to be everything...the fabric of the design community could be much more interesting if there was a lot more going on.”

Nina Gibbes: Are there any other projects of yours that address issues of gender inequity in graphic design that you could tell me about?
Catherine Griffiths: Well, the biggest project is Designers Speak (Up), and in a way the Present Tense project is another project that I initiated to build this platform space to show the posters and try and find all the women and non binary people in design in New Zealand. Trying to find the people on the edges who are left out that don’t fit, in the end it’s trying to create a space where it’s not the usual space of a male dominated scene. That project was enormously successful, we took the project and opened it in a smaller city south of Auckland and launched it there as an exhibition and continued the poster call, so every couple of months we would have a deadline for the poster call and you could submit. Every submission was included in the project there was no competition and no criteria other than you had to work within a template, it could be any social, political, or cultural discourse that you wanted. So we moved around Aotearoa and south to Dunedin, and then north to Kaikohe and then ended up in Auckland then finished up in Wellington. As we went, we gathered more and more and in the end had about 119 posters, which was good for here. As well as that, there were five essays written which dealt with a whole lot of issues and are available online on our Designers Speak (Up) site.

I did also want to mention two other things – one was making a work at the time of the Women's March in 2017, and responding to those things so doing protest posters that respond to some of those issues in this movement. The other is that as a practitioner, being a woman in design, having to work in what has historically and still is male dominated arena for so long, having to navigate this space and the hierarchies around that and the constant negotiations around that, is a form of working in this space. I feel like I have been a walking talking activist in my practice, in a background way. Not necessarily realising you’re doing it but as time goes on, these things build up and add up to something much greater. Promoting our presence in this space by being active and questioning things and challenging notions and being prepared to be disliked, or to lose your client base or project, all those things are a form of activism.

“Promoting our presence in this space by being active and questioning things and challenging notions and being prepared to be disliked, or to lose your client base or project, all those things are a form of activism.”

Nina Gibbes: Moving from your practice as a professional designer to your role as a teacher, do you try to bring these values that are informed by feminism to your classes? What does that look like in a classroom for you?
Catherine Griffiths: I have only been teaching in a university this year, so I come out of a research-based practice of around 25 years, and before that it was working for others. In that time, running the odd workshop, guest lecturing or organising symposiums and teaching in the 90s briefly out of my studio as aresponse to the university’s requests for students to come and be in a studio space which worked really well.

So through my action in a way, yes I do impart a way of thinking around these topics. Since this year, for example with my students it just comes with me, so the approach and attitudes are imparted in the way I teach and the concerns that I have, I want them to consider when they are writing or designing. I teach writing on design as well, and that was a very interesting experience in the first trimester, just having them think about how they come across in their writing when they are writing about topics that are not necessarily their own but are that of others, and how that might be perceived by others. Having them think about where they are coming from and what lens they are putting on their method and how they can think about how that might be perceived. That can be anything from racism, which some of them wanted to discuss. After George Floyd was killed, that was on their minds and they wanted to talk about issues like this. If you’re going to do that, it’s really important to learn and listen first and hear more as you write. So those thoughts of things I try to impart.

Learning to listen, understand and engage to interpret.

Nina Gibbes: In my research project, this first phase was about interviewing a number of different designers about their practices and how they approach the subject of feminism and decolonisation, these big themes in design and how we can create an equal space. The second phase is looking at how I can put this into a workshop for a group of designers to have these discussions and explore some of these under acknowledged histories. Do you have any advice or know anyone who has facilitated a workshop that deals with some of these issues?
Catherine Griffiths: A good example could be one that is on our Designers Speak (Up) links page. I was asked as the founder to give a workshop together with Nga Aho, the Maori design professionals group that I mentioned earlier to discuss authentic participation which was called Aotearoa Design: Upholding Te Tiriti (Treaty of Waitangi) and diversity in design. Desna who I mentioned earlier organised this discussion with me at the end of last year, which was at the Design for Social Innovation Symposium that was running out of the Auckland University of Technology. That particular symposium is a good one to look at in terms of the content they were looking at, as a way to build these connections.

The other one is Transformations, which took place in Melbourne at the end of last year as well. That was run with Parlour and Melbourne School of Design. The range of speakers and topics that were discussed, went over two days. I went there to speak and represent Designers Speak (Up) on a panel on grassroots action. There were four of us and one of them was Black Females in Architecture from London. It was really fantastic to sit there and listen to each other’s offerings from a grassroots action point of view. That symposium was extraordinary in terms of the content and the groups of people that they brought from overseas. I think if you look at architecture as a parallel to design, particularly in Australia, Parlour is very active and the parallels are there that can be drawn on between architecture and design.

Nina Gibbes: My final question that I have been asking people I have been speaking to is do you have any design heroes? I’ve had some responses from people saying they don’t like the word hero, which is interesting too. Has there been anyone in particular who has been a great inspiration for you?
Catherine Griffiths: Yeah it’s funny, you’re right it’s always something you don’t want to answer. For me it’s not heroes so much, but more inspiration as far as it goes for me. Particularly when I was younger and more impressionable, if I go back to those kinds of role models I have to say that in design, it would have been people like April Greiman, Barbara Kruger, Wolfgang Weingart and many others. All discovered through books and magazines because it was before the internet, and the only way to get to know these people was through reading or to go and find them. I did travel in the 80s after I graduated and sought out some of these people and that's why things went the way they did, with being able to bring people back here and organise something like TypeSHED 11 because I had built up these connections with people who were influential or that I allowed that influence on me.

Other influences for me were writers, musicians, poets, artists and another person would be Joan Brossa from Barcelona who is an amazing poet and typographer and his public works are extraordinary. Probably more often than not, I would discover these people having made my own explorations, and where the paths would cross, that’s when I would find these people and find something common with what they were doing and that’s when I would become excited.

Nina Gibbes: I think that’s a process that I am in at the moment, through making my own work and talking to other people, listening to their ideas and their opinions and hearing about what they have found inspiring too. It’s a nice question for me to ask because it leads me on this journey further.
Catherine Griffiths: I tell my students this, and I will tell you too, I don’t want to see Pinterest, and I don’t want to see mood boards. I also don’t want to see centred type floating in space. Waste of time! Unless you’ve got a really good reason for doing that. So I feel I can say this, because they have permission to do that already through their other classes. With my classes, I want the students to come at things from a different place. Often from themselves, from within, and then generate and respond to something, and maybe see those connections later. They already have enough of the other things, so how can I help them find other ways to generate their own ideas and responses to something.

“With my classes, I want the students to come at things from a different place. Often from themselves, from within, and then generate and respond to something.”

Nina Gibbes: I understand the trouble with Pinterest, it’s an ocean of images that all start to look the same after a while. For me especially, the design work that I have made as a student that has been the strongest has come from my own deep involvement in the research part, where you generate a response from all of the things you have been looking at rather than just looking at a style you might have seen online.
Catherine Griffiths: It’s only recent that we’ve had that resource, what happened before that? How did people come up with what they had made? It’s through experimentation, through making, through trying things out and discovering for yourself. That’s something that I’m trying to bring back and encourage, and they love it. It’s worth it for the ones who want to engage in that way.

Thank you for doing this work. It’s important and the more that people address this and study these things and make change, we can see change.

This interview took place over Jitsi on Tuesday 1st September, 2020
Take a look at more of Catherine Griffiths’ work here and visit the Designers Speak (Up) website.