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: Jane Connory

Image from Jane Connory’a PhD research, #AfFEMation: Making heroes of women in Australian graphic design

Jane Connory is a designer and lecturer in Communication Design at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia. Her PhD thesis The view from here: Exploring the causes of invisibility for women in Australian graphic design and advocating for their equity and autonomy, investigates the invisibility of women graphic designers in Australia’s design industry. Historically, the most celebrated graphic designers in Australia have been men. Her research explores and addresses the reasons for this gendered inequity, and the biases in historical narratives. Additionally, Jane’s research advocates for increased visibility of women at awards platforms such as AGDA, and in design classrooms. I spoke to Jane about her research, what is being done at Australian universities to address these biases, and how she brings these practices into her classrooms.

Nina Gibbes: A lot of your research has shed light on gender inequity present at the AGDA Awards. From what I have read, the statistics aren’t great, especially in the case of juries and the AGDA Hall of Fame. Why do you think AGDA has had such a long history of gender inequity and should they be doing more to increase the visibility of women graphic designers in Australia?
Jane Connory: I think the history of it really stems back to the 80s when they were founded, and the context of society at the time. Women who were working in the industry often had to balance family and work and didn’t have that time for self promotion, so it was only men. As far as I can tell it was only men who founded AGDA, I know Rita Siow was a part of it very early on. It happens over all industries really, and graphic design is no different. It’s disappointing, because as designers, we like to think that we can address problems head on and use design thinking to address them. So the fact that the design industry and AGDA are slow to do that is disappointing. Those stats were taken from my research in 2017, and I know they have bettered themselves on those markets since, so they are working on it, but AGDA is also a volunteer organisation so it’s hard to recruit and bring people on board and up to scope on what should be happening when they turn over their workforce so quickly. I think there’s a few problems with the hurdles that stop that happening, but it is on the improve which is nice to see. 

Nina Gibbes: How did you start researching the history of women designers in Australia and what drew you to this research?

Jane Connory: The preface for my thesis says it all, my supervisor wouldn’t let me put it in the main section because it was all pop culture references. I don’t know if you’ve watched Mad Men, but Peggy Olsen is my hero and her experience—although I started in the 90s at agencies—it was like my career was on television when I watched her and it was just excruciating to see how little had changed since the 60s. Working in the industry for so long and teaching for so long, I could see the large amount of women graduating and still the low amount of women being taught as the heroes of design or case studies, and that inequity was a topic I felt my PhD could start to remedy. I was looking for something but it had to be something local in my mind too. I have two young kids, so doing a PhD with any focus overseas was not going to work for me.

Nina Gibbes: Apart from increasing women’s visibility at these awards ceremonies like AGDA, how can the design industry in Australia work to make women’s contributions in the field more visible? Does there need to be more collectives, symposiums and festivals like they have in Europe that address and give voice to this work?
Jane Connory: I think one of the outcomes of my PhD was two frameworks. One was to make equitable award platforms and the other was to make actual equitable design histories. As well as in the design industry, educators and scholars in the area of design history have to make that effort to be more inclusive and more diverse in their scope. I’ve just done two book reviews that will be published in journals later this year, one was called Data Feminism and it looks at how to actually do that when creating data visualisations – how to be more diverse when doing that. The other one was called Beyond the Canon, which is about trying to increase design history. There’s a lot of work being done, but scholars can do a lot more to change that, and educators can do a lot to change that in the classroom – thinking about who the staff are presenting, whether it’s just all males or white people teaching at a design college, that’s quite a narrow view.

When it comes to industry, architecture in Australia has templated diversity guidelines for studios and I think that’s something that could be developed for communication design in Australia. A lot of graphic design studios in Australia hire on ‘culture fit’, and that often means a productive studio but often means hiring like minded people. When helping studios consider beyond that, and how sometimes some sort of disharmony in the studio can actually be productive and create innovation because new ideas will clash with other new ideas to the point where they can create something new. So I think that’s an interesting consideration for studios to help make their spaces more diverse across the board.

“Educators can do a lot to change that in the classroom – thinking about who the staff are presenting, whether it’s just all males or white people teaching at a design college, that’s quite a narrow view.”

Nina Gibbes: I think that’s one of the things that I noticed about my own education at RMIT was that the history was so European and it hasn’t really spent a lot of time talking about women designers in Australia. I found this to be disappointing and that drew me to this project too because I was thinking “why aren’t we talking about these people?” So this was happening at RMIT, and I’m wondering if that was the case at other design schools like Monash and Swinburne University. Do they have much focus on Australian contemporary graphic design history? Or not? And why is that?
Jane Connory:  Universities are like a massive ocean liner, it takes a long time to get them to change direction, they’re steeped in legacy and history and people have been working and doing the same things for decades, and it takes new people coming in and doing research to make those changes. I am working at Swinburne now, and part of me coming on board with the faculty was that I had the opportunity to bring my research into the first and second year history classes. It’s been fantastic and a great response from students. I was teaching at Monash as I was doing my PhD, and every time I would put together a new resource such as the Affemations website, I had opportunities to put that straight into the curriculum. You have to let your lecturers know I am happy to come and do a guest lecture! *laughs*

Do you think that universities need to pay more attention to including these histories in their written curriculums?
Jane Connory: Yeah so I have two things to comment on there, firstly absolutely. Because there’s this concept of self advocacy. The design industry has too many graduates fuelling it at the moment, it’s pretty hard to get a job. Especially for women, there are hurdles that exist just because of our gender, in the industry. So actually seeing women case studies and histories, and Australian histories in the classroom give that opportunity to see it so you can be it. So without that, I feel that’s just another hurdle to entering the industry. To see how people have started their own studio with no money or paired with someone else to start a studio or working somewhere big and then going somewhere small – all of those career paths have existed and people have been through them and done it locally and hearing about that locally is an enormous advantage for the majority of female students in our classrooms.

I publish and speak about my research as much as I can. At the start of this semester, as everyone was rearranging things to go online again, I had someone from Newcastle Uni and the University of New South Wales, reach out and ask for some of my writing so I at least know that it’s being taught at those universities now, it’s a slow slow process.

“Seeing women case studies and histories, and Australian histories in the classroom—give that opportunity to see it so you can be it.”

Nina Gibbes: I have spoken to some other designers for this research project who are based in Switzerland who also teach, and they spoke about the strengths of an elective subject over something that’s mandatory as it creates a drive for students to be there, for example design and gender studies. Do you think that design degrees in Australia should be making elective subjects like this or should it be part of their mandatory core design history subjects?
Jane Connory: Yes, you need to hurry up and do your PhD so you can be teaching this! *laughs*

So the masters in design at Swinburne is a multi-disciplinary master in design, it’s not just one discipline it’s all of them. Courses are reviewed every three or four years, and we’re reviewing ours again for next year and I just put my foot down and said however it can fit, we need an elective, exactly like you’re talking about. This exists in just about every other discipline on the planet. Design students really need to understand empathy when they talk about the design process and human centred design, that first step is having empathy for your consumer or the client or the demographic, etc. But empathy just doesn’t exist, a lot of designers’ sense of their own empathy is not quite egotistical but they have this sense that it’s already there without working on it. And so a subject like you’re talking about, an elective in gender studies or diversity studies could absolutely open designers to the innate biases or unconscious biases that they have. That’s not to say that teachers don’t have these biases, we all have them, but bringing diverse voices into the classroom so that face to face and voiced experience is there for designers to build their empathy upon. It’s a huge need and I don’t know whether there are any universities that exist that are doing that around Australia right now.

Nina Gibbes: Can you tell me about your project Invisible? How did it start? Are there other researchers looking at graphic design history in Australia? Apart from Re-collection and the DHARN Collective, what else is being done to uncover graphic design history in Australia and women’s involvement in that?
Jane Connory: So I tried to brand my PhD from the start, so Invisible is documenting my PhD as it went, and all the research is published on a website. Parlour is based at Monash and is a huge platform in Australia that looks at gender equity in architecture in Australia. So they’re very much funded, and the DHARN is a wonderful resource for Australian graphic design history in general. Re-collection started to fill that hole of missing information on Australian graphic design, I sat down with the founders Dominic Hofstede and Warren Taylor at the start of my PhD to get information about how they were doing it and what was their aim, and when I asked them what their process was for including someone in this resource, they really had no process it was more their mates. They still had a connection to that era of designers and they wanted to make sure that their legacy wasn’t forgotten. I absolutely agree with that, but I have heard that my research has affected their move to start widening it up and to include more women in there.

But in general there’s not a lot of people doing this research yet in Australia, which is part of what’s exciting about this topic of my PhD too, it’s a lifelong project now of continuing to make those resources and having some impact where I can.

Nina Gibbes: Your practice as a designer and a researcher is informed by feminism and gender equity. In your role as a teacher, do you try to bring those values to your classroom? What does that look like in a classroom setting for you?
Jane Connory: I have been at Swinburne for a year now and have taught all over the place, and I have managed to bring my research and the topic of gender equity into everything. For example, I taught publication design to some second year design students and the case studies that were given to me to include were all blokes, either European or American, not even Australian designers. So I was able to bring in Jenny Griggs, Sandy Cull and Gemma O’Brian’s typographic work. The way it inspired again, usually the girls, it stood out like nothing else that I had brought to them. They had to just pick an existing text to design as a publication and a couple of them went to look for feminist writing to bring to the publication, so that was really exciting.

At the moment I am teaching a master’s subject in design futures and I am also teaching a design strategy subject as well in which we create personas. The process of creating personas is often generalising data to create the lowest common denominator – who is the average person who needs this service? That in a way is extremely limiting to the diverse scope of people who could be using that service. So again I try to bring my research and a diverse set of thinking to the process of creating these personas. For example, asking the students to create a general profile and then create another one where someone may have hearing difficulty or English is their second language. Don’t exclude the minorities, because that’s not designing properly. Designers have to give a voice to those with the quiet voices, especially in human centred design. Getting people to think more broadly about personas is how I bring that into the classroom.

“Don’t exclude the minorities, because that’s not designing properly. Designers have to give a voice to those with the quiet voices, especially in human centred design.

Nina Gibbes: Another part of my research project is looking at developing a workshop for designers and students to engage with different histories. Do you have any advice or role models you’d like to share when creating these design workshops informed by feminism?
Jane Connory: The author of this book that I just got, Catherine D'Ignazio, she’s based in the States so I have never been to one of her workshops, but in her book Data Feminism, the seven pillars that she brings forward is a way to critique anything that you do, whether that’s collecting data or running a workshop to ensure its diversity and every way that you look at it. This could be really beneficial to the ways that you want to run a workshop. Locally, Bonnie Abbott is a designer and a fantastic female who runs workshops. Not necessarily feminist, but she has a very articulate voice in the Australian design industry. The Victorian Women’s Trust is a government funded body that often run feminist workshops, at the moment they have Feminist Fridays which run on Facebook, where people connect and talk there. The Creative Women’s Circle also run workshops, again not specifically feminist but it is an all female environment that often feels really great, no matter what they are talking about really.

This interview was conducted over Jitsi on Monday, 31st August 2020.
Jane’s PhD thesis on bringing forward invisible women in graphic design in Australia can be viewed here.

Jane also shared many wonderful books and resources with me after our conversation, I have posted links to them here:

Visit Jane Connory’s project Affemation to view more of her work.