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Gender Spotlights: Design

We can say that men led the design world, boldly deciding and setting what design looks like and how it is ‘done’ in our society. We believe that this narrative of the male ‘star’ designer, led to a very exclusionary industry that did not design for people of a different gender or with different needs.

Gender Spotlights - a series in which we shine the spotlight on a different industry every other month, interviewing a person at a time about the meaning of gender in that industry.

Today we are looking at the world of design. Those of us who follow our social media accounts might have stumbled upon some blog articles that we shared about the importance of including gender aspects into design. With our own background in Design Thinking, we believe that this topic is of utmost importance and hence invited the two founders of no.ja studio who are also behind the blog articles we referred to. Welcome, Elena Pirondini and Clara Roth. Let’s start with no.ja, “creative studio for social change.” What does this mean?

Elena: We founded no.ja with the vision to bring change and fresh wind into the design and creative industry. We use design and creativity for social change, by empowering changemakers, social entrepreneurs and purpose-driven organisations to consciously shape the world they want to live in.

Clara: We believe our society has been designed to be unsustainable and unequal. We want to change that. And we do it by acknowledging the responsibility and power of design to change the status quo, adopting a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to the creative process.

When people hear design, they mostly think of graphic design. You do much more than that and surely would agree that design can also include the question of how we create buildings, furniture, products, and lately tech. Or, as I would definitely want to include in this definition with my Design Thinking education, interactions. Why does the term design associate with such a narrow definition for many, despite this variety of spheres that it can be applied to?

Elena: Explaining what design is, is indeed a challenge that we’re constantly working on. Design is much more than something that looks beautiful. And perhaps the fact that the discipline became mainstream during the industrial revolution, has caused many to relate it to its superficial outcomes, namely graphics and products. And these are also parts of design, but just two of many.

Just take a moment and look around you, wherever you are. Literally everything that surrounds you (besides untouched natural landscapes) has been designed by someone, from the phone to the walls to the street you may find yourself in. And not only the material products, but also the services and interactions, even the spaces and structures on which our society is based upon. Everything is designed. The fact that design is mainly connected to graphics is most likely due to the fact that in the so-called ‘attention economy’ we find ourselves nowadays in, the visual side of things is key. Graphics or products are also more tangible and easier to understand as a design discipline than the design of societal structures within a government for example.

Let’s talk about the industry a little more. How did you find your way into the design world and what were your expectations?

Elena: I’ve studied communication science in my undergrad and, coming from Italy where design and beauty are pillars of our culture, I was always fascinated by it. I’ve started working as communication designer when I moved to Berlin, but I got tired of simply creating beautiful things without a purpose. I understood the power of design and communication, and wished to align it more with my personal interests that were always directed towards social and environmental causes. So, when the Covid-19 pandemic came, I’ve decided to take the leap and start a master program in social design and sustainable innovation at the formerly design akademie berlin (now BSDC). That’s where I met Clara, and where no.ja’s story begins.

Clara: I actually studied political science in my undergrad and when I graduated, I felt quite frustrated - somehow I lacked the tools to actually get involved and promote the changes in society that I felt were overdue. I did two internships, one in an NGO in Berlin called mimycri that worked with refugees and used product design to educate and highlight the devastating situation in the Mediterranean. Here I saw the power of what a designed object can do in terms of awareness raising and it was super fun to see how both politics, advocacy work and design can be linked! I did another internship at a sustainable clothing label afterwards and got introduced to circular design there. When the pandemic hit, I had the time to reconsider my next steps and recognize my want to be a designer with attitude - the Social Design Master felt like it was made for me - a place for my wants to engage in interdisciplinary thinking and be creative while being socially and environmentally responsible. Then Elena and I met and the rest is history.

And what were your lived experiences?

Clara: Our expectations coming out of an highly academic master that approached the topic of social design from a theoretical perspective that we then applied in real-life projects with actual clients, were definitely high. We were lucky to work with some amazing initiatives like the Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft kommunaler Frauen- und Gleichstellungsbeauftragter, with whom we did a social campaign for health care workers during the pandemic. When we opened our studio, we emerged from our little social design bubble, in which everyone is hyper aware of design and its potential impact in the world, into the reality of the design world. That was and is kind of tough, as we are trying to do things very differently but we are getting so much positive feedback from the clients we work with and it’s all about spreading the word of our co-creational and collaborative approach.

Moving from the industry to the persona of “the designer”: I am always fascinated by the social narratives that we produce and then reproduce to uphold the idea of certain personas, such as the founder, the researcher, or in your case the designer. What are some of these narratives that you encounter and how do you build counter-narratives with your work?

Clara: Wow. We absolutely love this question and especially in our industry, we find it essential to critically engage with exactly those social narratives built around “the designer”. A narrative that we have encountered a lot and that also led us to found our own, intersectional feminist studio, is that of the male ‘star’ designer.

We see very few female designers in design history and that is mainly due to the fact that if we are talking about the designer, up until a few years ago, that persona was male. Not to say that there weren’t female designers but they worked in the backgrounds of agencies or did the type of design connected more closely to craft, that we commonly associate as female and for a long time did not consider as design.

We can say that men led the design world, boldly deciding and setting what design looks like and how it is ‘done’ in our society. We believe that this narrative of the male ‘star’ designer, led to a very exclusionary industry that did not design for people of a different gender or with different needs.

This is changing with more and more practicing female designers, thanks to the options of freelancing and less hierarchical structures in general. However design agencies are still dominated by men and there is a certain type of male design that we do not identify with.

Elena: This brings us to the counter-narrative we are building: we think that the designer has for too long been focused on themself, or rather himself. We are trying to change this concept, by approaching our work and communicating to our clients that we are not here to create what we always create and to manifest ourselves as designers with a specific style. Much more, we are here to design empathetically, together with our clients, focusing on their needs and their wishes. In every project, we actively remove the stereotype of the designer, coming in and telling the non-designers what looks good and what to do. Instead, we bring in a new, non-hierarchical narrative focused on equality, inclusivity and empathy, supported by thorough, critical design research.

In one of your blog articles you mentioned that one of the biggest challenges is rooted within the history of design that systematically diminishes femme perspectives. I would argue that the male-centredness in any business industry is at the key of patriarchal logic, in the past and present. What makes the design industry particularly relevant for change?

Clara: As you rightly said, just like in the majority of industries, also the design industry has been developed focusing on male perspectives–from using male standards to create products, to giving visibility in history books mainly to male designers. We decided to found no.ja because we saw the need for a studio with an intersectional feminist approach, namely a more critical way to look at how we create representation in our society. This is precisely why design is the key to shift narratives: through design we create realities, we shape our society on all its levels. Design has the power to change the current structures because it was one of the disciplines that created them in the first place.

By questioning how we design, the creative process and the pillars of it, we enable new ways of thinking and imagining to shape the world we want to live in. Opening space for different perspectives to be heard is increasing the probability to change the oppressive and unfair paradigm of our society.

How do you currently feel about the industry, given the recent raise in awareness through books that have entered the mainstream. I am thinking along the lines of Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez who are focusing on the fact that we often design according to data - and since our data is skewed, our design will be skewed to. How does the future look?

Elena: It’s always hard to know what the future will bring. We prefer to reframe a future-facing narrative through a ‘present moment lens’, since especially in the 21st century trends change constantly and very fast, and it’s becoming increasingly harder to predict what’s gonna be in the future. What we know though is that things are moving in the design industry right now–there are more and more designers taking responsibility for conscious decision-taking in the creative process. Just like in every other industry, the focus on social and environmental sustainability is becoming stronger and larger but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the changes are truly implemented. This is also something we repeatedly see: greenwashing and social washing in the design industry are unfortunately common. But there are also many designers who have developed innovative ways to consciously shape our society and that are doing the necessary work–we are trying to work closely with them in a collaborative effort to change systems and narratives together.

Clara: And it’s beautiful to see how many of us are out there :)

With that, I fully agree. It’s nice to end on a positive note, for a change. I would like to thank both of you for your work and for participating in the Gender Spotlights.


The interview was lead by Rea. Check out no.ja’s work through their website, LinkedIn and Instagram.


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