4 Women Designers Who Have Made Their Mark on History
In the field of design, as in so many other disciplines, time has engraved on history and on the collective culture the names of great designers whose work has transcended over time –and those remembered are mostly men.
This is striking, especially if you take into account the fact that graphic design is a profession studied and performed by more women than men, according to some studies. If you look back and do a little research, you discover that many women designers have paved the way for the profession as it became more popular during the last century. Often, their names have not been as celebrated as those of their male counterparts, even though, since its inception, design has traditionally been a more egalitarian discipline than some others.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, we have compiled four universal works that marked the course of graphic design history. All of them bear the signature of a female graphic designer and are sure to be familiar to you.
- Carolyn Davidson, designer of the Nike logo in the 1970s
- Margaret Calvert. (Wo)Men at work!
- Betty Willis. Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas
- Louise Fili. Beautiful words and clear ideas
Carolyn Davidson, designer of the Nike logo in the 1970s
It was 1971 in the United States when Carolyn Davidson received the assignment that would change her life, right at the beginning of her career. At that time Davidson was studying design at Portland State University, where Phil Knight, one of the founders of Nike and the person who put the project in the designer’s hands, was teaching.
They needed a logo for their sports fashion company, which was about to change its name from Blue Ribbon Sports to Nike in 1971. There was a clear premise: the new brand should convey the concept of movement. To check that the logo worked on sneakers, the designer drew her sketches on tissue paper that she superimposed on sneakers (needless to say, at that time there were no mockups as you would find them now on Freepik).
Davidson presented several sketches including one of the famous swoosh, which was the design of choice, albeit without much enthusiasm. You probably already know the inspiration behind the symbol: the wings of the Greek goddess of victory, Nike, and the representation of speed. You might also know how much she earned for this project – because $35 is a figure that everyone has an opinion about – especially if you consider that this is one of the most powerful brands in the world.
A decade later, the company recognized the influence of Davidson’s work on the company’s success. As a result, its leaders presented her with a number of shares and a swoosh ring during a surprise tribute.
Margaret Calvert. (Wo)Men at work!
Now let’s travel to Great Britain to get to know the work of Margaret Calvert. This South African-born designer and typographer is one of the most influential figures in design, who also stood out from the beginning of her career. You may not realize it, but if you drive you will be constantly coming across her work.
When she was still a student, she collaborated in the design of the signage for Gatwick Airport. By then she already stood out for her talent and design skills and, after her contribution to the project, she officially joined the studio of Jock Kinneir, one of the most influential designers of the time. This was the starting point of her professional career, which soon after led her to become co-responsible for establishing an almost universal visual language thanks to her redesign of the road sign system for the United Kingdom in 1957.
Calvert designed most of the pictograms for these signs, with the aim that they would be understood at a glance and at high speed. Many of her images are still in use today: danger from crossing cattle, wild animals in motion, schoolchildren nearby and the typical sign known as “(wo)men at work”, which is used to indicate caution for road works. The complexity of the work lay in establishing a uniform and comprehensive system, understandable by all, from a totally heterogeneous starting point, since there was no uniform sign scheme at the state level. Today it is much easier to achieve consistency in any design system thanks to tools like Flaticon, but back then it was quite a feat.
In addition to signage, Margaret Calvert also designed several commercial typefaces for Monotype, including the font family that bears her surname, Calvert, created expressly for the Tyne and Wear Metro signage.
Betty Willis. Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas
From the roads of Great Britain, we move to those of the United States to travel long avenues decorated with large, illuminated signs. Among all these, a particularly famous one stands out. Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas!
Now that you know where you are, let’s talk about the history of the maximum exponent of the googie style that has prevailed in the United States since the 50s and influenced the rest of the world right up to the present. Geometric shapes, creative use of typography and neon lights create for works that exude enthusiasm and dynamism.
Betty Willis designed the sign in 1959 and it went on to become one of the most recognizable icons in the world. It was so well liked that it has been reproduced and imitated ad infinitum, something that never seemed to bother its author, who always understood the work as a gift to the city and an icon in the public domain. In addition to this one, she created other illuminated signs for Las Vegas and contributed to defining the visual identity so characteristic of the city. She was so beloved that, after her death at age 91, it was proposed that May 5 should be declared Betty Willis Day.
Her style still inspires designs all over the world and the compositions she popularized with her illuminated signs are a classic to which we love to return. We invite you to take a trip back in time with our vintage neon-inspired resources, ready to use in your projects.
Louise Fili. Beautiful words and clear ideas
Louise Fili’s work is synonymous with elegance and timelessness. With her unmistakable style, inspired by Art Deco and European Modernism, this American designer made it clear that to make an impact “you don’t need to shout”, as she proudly stated.
During her time as art director at Random House, she designed around 2,000 book covers with a style that was groundbreaking at the time: she used exclusive typographic treatments and ornamentation for each of the covers. That’s right, she was one of the pioneers of lettering.
Later, she opened her own studio in New York, with which she contributed to defining her own style for a very specific sector of the big city through her work creating identity for restaurants and food packaging. She always had clear ideas:
“I knew I wanted to stay small and […] focus on the only three things that interest me: food, typography and all things Italian.”
To the danger that some perceived in putting her female name to a company, her response was blunt: “If you have a problem with my being a woman, then I don’t want you as a client.” We’re talking about 1989.
The typographic and ornamental style that defined Louise Fili’s work is still on trend today. Our designers are still following in her footsteps when it comes to creating spectacular resources like these, which you can download today. They’re perfect for branding and packaging!
We’ve come to the end of this journey through the history of design. Carolyn Davidson, Margaret Calvert, Betty Willis and Louise Fili are just a few of the creators whose designs set the course of the profession and are still influencing work today. On International Women’s Day we’re celebrating their figure and their legacy. Who is your benchmark in the field of design?