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: Loraine Furter

Loraine Furter is a graphic designer, educator and researcher based in Brussels, Belgium. Her hybrid practice intersects graphic design, teaching, editing and curation with a specific focus on intersectional feminism. 

Nina Gibbes: I wanted to start off by asking the big question: why, do you think, we are still seeing a lack of gender and racial diversity at design conferences, festivals, and awards ceremonies?

Loraine Furter: Well, there are many reasons. I think first it’s a white and systemic problem, and there are societal problems, it is not only linked to design, it’s linked to the whole of society. So of course it has an impact on design and also design is situated in culture and visual culture which also has its specific history. For instance, with the issue of representation and who was in the position to be able to shape visual representation and communication. I think there’s a lot that’s recorded in graphic design history books that comes from this whole background. It’s quite easy to see the link between who is invited to design conferences and who is actually running them and making the decisions at these conferences. For me it’s really a question of who are in these decision making roles, and who is already dominant in representation: white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied etc. So I think that’s the first thing.

Secondly, the way we teach also puts value in certain places that is influencing what kind of work is done. For instance, I am coordinating a small graphic design festival in Belgium that is called the
and I can see the different kinds of work we do – my colleagues and I. Because it’s really work. At the same time, I think it’s also a matter of deciding that this is going to be part of your work, as someone who curates a program or a festival, and so it’s about implementing these kinds of questions in the work done at the festivals. I think that this is what is sometimes still lacking with graphic design festivals – the issues surrounding representation and who, specifically is curating these festivals, and the kinds of programming that is presented.

“For me it’s really a question of who are in these decision making roles, and who is already dominant in representation: white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied etc.”

Nina Gibbes: If we think about tackling some of these problems, it seems that teaching is just one part of it, but also engaging in programs and events such as this (Fig Festival) as well is another way of breaking down some of these walls, and how designers can form these groups and make work that looks at these problems that need solving.

I read from the interview you gave with the designers from notamuse that you were working on the development of a Masters of Design and Gender program at L'École de recherche graphique in Brussels. What will the program involve and is there an expected date for it to be open for enrolment?
Loraine Furter: So when I did this interview in 2017 we were talking about creating this new Master’s with the director of ERG in Brussels, but it has not been created yet. But in the meantime, it didn’t really become a master’s so that’s an interesting thing because even though it was almost promised, and sincerely believing in the project, time passed and there were difficulties that came up surrounding the creation of this master’s. So, what happened was that it did become a program, but it’s a more European program that was created from the initial discussion of writing a master’s course. It has been running for 2 almost 3 years that is called
Teaching to Transgress Toolbox
, named after bell hooks’ book
It involves 3 schools, and a lot of amazing researchers.

So to explain why the master’s didn’t happen, because I think it’s interesting, the schools involved with discussing the creation of this new master’s had already established design master’s programs such as Master’s in Graphic Design, Master’s in Art, Illustration etc which are more generic in their structure. So to create a new master’s, in a way it became way more complicated. In the school where we were thinking about establishing this new master’s, all of the programs there already were established by and led by white men. So this was a problematic situation and as a result, things didn’t move much. Except the fact that we could create this parallel program (Teaching to Transgress Toolbox), but it’s not really a master’s. I think it’s interesting to question once things are in place, it is indeed very hard to create new things that are not precarious.

So after this I started working in another research master’s and one year after I arrived it was redefined, and this one developed further into what has become a feminist and decolonial research master’s in Antwerp. It’s not a new master’s, but the people in charge made the decision to change the definition of it, which was really nice. The nice thing about this research master’s is that it built from changing what is already in existence but it required having someone in power pushing for it.

Nina Gibbes: You point out a really interesting issue that I hadn’t even thought about which is the question of how do you create a program that is intersectional if the faculty are all of one particular voice? That raises a bit of a problem, which is evident in many design programs—myself included—I have only had one female lecturer during the whole of my master’s. My research supervisors for this project are three white men, so it is a problem here in Australia too, not that these advisors have no expertise, they are wonderful, very knowledgeable designers, but I do find it funny sometimes that I am making inquiries into this area but I am being led by the more dominant voices in the industry. That being said I have only received positive encouragement with the research I am doing so that has been great.

So your work as a designer as well as an educator as we have discussed is informed by intersectional feminism. How did you begin to work from this perspective? Was it something you developed as a design student or did this come later in your practice?

Loraine Furter: So that’s a very interesting question. Not at all as a student. I am a white woman, so first there is this privileged situation which made me blind to some topics. It was never addressed as a student, so I did not have the opportunity, but it’s more complex than that. I have other identities, so this perspective came up way after my studies. So that is something that is quite important for me, thinking about it from the perspective I am working from now. So there were many things that I discovered after my studies that have been quite important. There are a lot of things that you learn yourself with others. So I have been lucky to meet some very interesting people and groups of friends with these similar interests in their practices and I was experiencing a growing interest in the same issues as well, so we learned a lot together.

Something that was very influential for me was that about 4 or 5 years after my studies I was invited to teach in a school, teaching about editorial practices and artist books. During my master’s I specialised in editorial practices like making books, which also comes with quite a biased history in terms of who is entitled to make books. And so I accepted this teaching opportunity and then I reviewed the materials I had to teach this and the training that I had had, and realised that it was not possible for me to teach from this perspective, as it was completely biased and from the perspective of white men, from what we see in those history books and histories of artist books. So it was really complex for me to realise that, and realising everything that I had learned and that I cannot reproduce that, well I could but I choose not to.

So this then became a whole research project for me, because I had to dig further and also look at re-writing some of these narratives about how we speak about historical references, why is it interesting, or why does something of more value than other things, so it led to a lot of really in-depth questioning: who, why, what is included and what is not. For instance, comic books are generally not considered to be artist books and why is that? So this is when I really started to dive into my professional practice, and I began seeing biased distinctions everywhere. Every decision I made became a political decision, so this was really the beginning of this journey.

More recently, I started looking back upon my personal background – I am Swiss, and I moved to Belgium, and it was there that I discovered graphic design was a profession. In Switzerland I didn’t realise that, and not every Swiss person knows what graphic design is. I discovered it by chance, I thought I wanted to do illustration. Then when I was introduced to graphic design I realised that this was what I wanted to do. Then I started thinking further about what countries have a big history of graphic design, it’s not necessarily because they do better things or more things, of course sometimes they have more means, but it’s also how they promote it and how people around them promote it. In Belgium not many people talk about graphic design, it’s starting a bit now with people researching how it has been practiced here. People talk a lot about Swiss graphic design so there is more recorded history on it.

Aside from being Swiss, I also have French and Spanish great grandmothers and also an Armenian background, so I am looking more specifically at this. The Swiss identity took over all my identities and my graphic design identity because it was very convenient to be able to say I am a Swiss graphic designer. Now I am putting a bit more work into what has been lost from these generations through the fact that no one has looked into what Armenian graphic design or Armenian typography is for instance. I am learning Armenian because it was lost through the generations of my family and I’d like to be more involved in multi-script design. So it’s a bit of a mix, and I never had these questions in me before meeting people who opened my eyes to this professional field.

Nina Gibbes: I think that’s a really interesting way to approach a design practice, looking at how all of those parts of your identity form the designer that you are, engaging in a process of decolonising your own identity, and having conversations with people too about where they came from and what are the different parts that make up their identity and how do all of those parts of you inform the designer that you are. You have this unique perspective to offer the discipline, but other people have different perspectives to offer and you can learn from each other in this way if you start off by having these conversations. A lot of students I am studying with are Chinese, and Indian and it’s really interesting to have these conversations with international students because there are certain messages that communicate to people in different ways due to our understanding of visual and textual signifiers. I think it’s so important for classrooms to actually start off by telling people about each other and introducing yourself. I am Australian-born, but my father was Fijian and my mother has Irish and French heritage, so all of these different parts to my identity bring different discussions. I hope to see more of these kinds of conversations happening in a design classroom.
Loraine Furter: Yeah, for sure. Also I think it’s interesting to have these mixes of identities because then you realise it’s never binary, it’s never simple, there’s always this complex mix meeting other complex mixes which is important to take into consideration or at least be aware of it.

“I think it’s interesting to have these mixes of identities because then you realise it’s never binary, it’s never simple, there’s always this complex mix meeting other complex mixes which is important to take into consideration or at least be aware of it.”

Nina Gibbes: Over the past five years, global movements for gender and racial equality through Me Too, Times Up and Black Lives Matter are becoming increasingly important, complex and urgent for industries to respond to. How do you think design can respond to this and what is the role of educators in teaching future practitioners?

Loraine Furter: Yes. Of course. This is really super important and what I find interesting in the teaching environment is that these questions often come from students, it’s important to acknowledge the agency of students.

As a teacher who is paid, you have to do your job and constantly update yourself and this is done through the help of these big activist movements, so you have to be thankful that others are raising awareness on a topic that will translate into your sphere. Situating struggles and being able to do some work from the place you are in is important, thinking about how I can use design tools to transform things and contribute to diversifying things. That’s really where I think our responsibility in terms of designers and teachers lies. That’s really what led me into all of my research, coming from a place where all of my materials and books to teach were so biased, and changing this, which is a huge responsibility. It needs to become a practice, and for me now it is a practice. My design decisions are informed by these questions and it is a back and forth process, which is very important and why it should be a practice that you work on all the time.

To come back to your first question, it is super important that design should always require some research. You don’t know every topic so for every time you do design work, you should have to do a bit of research, and to ask questions.

“Situating struggles and being able to do some work from the place you are in is important, thinking about how I can use design tools to transform things and contribute to diversifying things. That’s really where I think our responsibility in terms of designers and teachers lies.”

Nina Gibbes: Yes, I feel like for me more and more, doing the initial research before starting a design project is intrinsic to the process because I don’t have the knowledge to create anything that is effective without understanding how it fits within an ecosystem of things around it. So research is part of the practice.
Loraine Furter: Something that is super inspiring for me is the
Design Justice Design Principles.
I am educating myself every day with these kinds of resources and this is not an official school.

Nina Gibbes: Yeah, there is so much that a school can teach you but there is also a responsibility on the designer to continue that learning throughout your career as well…  

In your classes, how do you approach the subject of gender inclusivity and have you led any workshops with students that have been informed by intersectional feminism? What does this pedagogical process look like in practice? For example, was there a particular assignment given to students that was successful?

Loraine Furter: So quite often I introduce a topic by starting off with talking about why I am doing this and what my position is, so that the students can understand why I make certain decisions, what my perspective is. I want them to understand this path, and I am encouraging them to raise questions. But it is really up to the students to bring their own perspectives into the discussion as well. This is super important, we talk a lot about questions so it’s a very back and forth process. For me it’s not necessarily about what is a successful assignment, that can mean a lot of things. I’m not thinking about one specific output or outcome, it is more about the process which will lead to different things that are amazing.

For instance we organised something specific for a group of friends and teachers, a workshop on gender fluid glyphs for typography called
This was very hands on and practical and the outcomes were gender fluid ways of expressing these. In French, the language is very gendered, it is only binaries like “she” and “he” and because you can’t use “they”, we were looking for typography clues or answers and different ways of embracing gender identity and inclusivity of different gender identities through typography. So this was amazing. But these ideas are still new issues we are tackling, so these questions are as new as the participants so I don’t quite have the solution yet.

Nina Gibbes: In this research project I am looking at increasing the visibility of women designers and designers of colour and different minority groups and how we can engage with these practices through a workshop for students. Do you have any advice or role models you’d like to share who look at this area?
Loraine Furter: It’s so hard to choose! First I read some super interesting things from Nontsikelelo Mutiti who is a designer based in the US who wrote an article on AIGA Eye on Design which talked about her study path from Zimbabwe to the United States, she is also involved in the Design Justice network and the writing of their principles. I also have worked with the collective
we have been involved in some recent research workshops which they will tell you about (see the interview here) but it was a great experience. I could talk for hours and hours about this because there are so many projects that I find so inspiring. Braulio Amado is another brilliant person, he is
in New York. Because design education is so expensive in New York, he’s doing courses which is super exciting and they are affordable which makes education more accessible.

Another project is
Evening Class,
which is also super nice it’s based in the UK and it’s a learning environment which takes place in the evening on graphic design and also a design collective. They work a lot on labour struggles, and collective ways of organising, these are more informal ways of teaching. Another inspiring designer
Elaine Lopez
who is teaching at MICA in Baltimore, she is amazing and works a lot on these sorts of questions you are addressing.
Johanna Lewengard
is another person who has done some interesting work in this area who studied in the design program at ERG as well.

But these are just the tip of the iceberg, there are many many people.