Women in Design Interview

Earlier in the year I was approached by Jessica Watson, an Honours year student at Swinburne University, looking for participants for a project. She said:

I have a great opportunity to spend the reminder of the year on an in-depth uni project called ‘Everything about one thing’ for our Typography for Publication class. Since I have had the fortune of being surrounded by multiple inspirational women designers who have courageously undertaken the ‘work-motherhood-creative director’ conundrum, I would like to focus my project on ‘Women in Design’.

Objective: To delve deeper and learn about the trials and errors of women in design who have made the ‘mother & creative director’ life choice. Question why female designers taper off after motherhood and gather any advice for young women in design.

Submission: To Swinburne University and to the International Society of Typographic Designers. Deliverables: A printed publication and concept for a Women in Design exhibition with collateral.

This sounded super interesting and I was happy to be involved. Jess will be working on the project for the rest of this year and I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all comes together. In the meantime she is happy for me to share the interview here.


Liana Lucca-Pope interview

Section one: Creative Director

What has been the biggest challenge of your creative career so far?

To be honest there’s nothing that’s been that hard, for me to tell a story about. I mean there have been challenges along the way, but really they are just questions that need to be explored. I think that’s just what designers do, what I call ‘creative problem solving’. The sort of people who are designers are also problem solvers. I enjoy solving problems, so I don’t really see anything as being that challenging to work through.

What prompted you to launch your own graphic design studio?

It sort of happened, you could say, it was my desire to be independent. And maybe it’s a kind of perfectionism, in that I have fairly exact ideas about what it is that I want to do and how I want to interact with the world and the kind of mark I want to make and the kind of contribution I want to make. And it’s hard to do that when you’re working under the umbrella of another organisation where you understandably have to fit into their idea of how to do things. So I wanted to have the kind of independence that I’d been encouraged to have as a child, the way my parents raised me and my brother, to be very independent people, very independent thinkers. I have only worked full-time for three years in my life for someone else and since then, it’s always just been me doing what I wanted to do.

How do you approach the challenges of being a female business owner?

I do have thoughts about the challenges of being a woman in business. I don’t know if there’s a specific business owner component to it, maybe there is. But I have noticed for example in my career,  times where I have been in meetings or discussion with male colleagues that clients have addressed most of the questions to them, or expected that they were going to lead discussions; which is quite annoying and hard to address without coming across as strident. I’ve noticed that in professional contexts, women often get introduced with only their first name, where men get introduced with their first and second name. There are quite a few little things like that. I’ve now been working for a long time, nearly 20 years, and there’s not much of a change in that period of time. It’s never so bad that you can get all worked up about it but it can be quite noticeable. And it’s definitely not all the time. I’ve been in many situations where there is a sense of absolute equality. Where it’s who has the best idea or who articulates the best, that gets heard. But then there’s other situations where you are definitely perceived as being not as competent or something. So I address that by being as competent as I can be and by always trying to be brave, which is hard sometimes, when you’re in situations where you know that they perceive you in perhaps a slightly inferior way. It’s hard to find the words, but you just know when you’re not considered as important as the male designer for no other reason than being female, it’s hard to find a way to address that. So you just have to be brave and, well, not let it happen to you but just be as good as you can be and you’ve got to dress in a way that – I spend ages getting dressed, you know, how can I look like myself, how can I be truthful about who I am, I want to look attractive but also how can I be professional and how can I look powerful without trying too hard? Because as communication designers we know all about how judgments are made on appearances, so it would be naive to say that it doesn’t count when we’re talking about how we dress or how we present ourselves. So we just have to try to present in a way that shows you are more than perhaps they expected.

What would you say is the key to a successful female-run business?

I’m not sure it’s any different to having a successful male-run business. The principles of good business are the same.

How have relationships, partnerships, collaborations and networking affected your business?

Enormously. I have always been a very sociable person and I like talking to people and I’m like a sponge for information. I enjoy being around people, just having conversations with other designers, because I find it enriches the way I work, apart from the fact it’s just nice to meet people and you always learn something. So I’ve always put myself out there in terms of meeting other people in the industry. I became a member of the Australian Graphic Design Association when I was in uni and I continue to be a member and I also served on the council for several years and was vice-president for a bit. And all of these things and engagements with the industry I have maintained to a less or more degree. I mean there were some times where I didn’t do anything socially, probably around the time my son was little, probably because it was too hard. But it’s all been extremely enriching, I mean when you know people in the industry, you help each other. So you might help each other by sharing contacts, who do you know who prints in this certain way or who do you know who can do this kind of vinyl cut lettering or who do you know that does hand drawn typography? So we share that kind of information. And maybe I’ve looked at a portfolio of a young designer, but I don’t have a job for them, and I remember them and then one of my colleagues will say “I’m looking for a junior” and I pass on the name – so in that sort of way as well. And as you get closer to people, you share information. Just really practical stuff about invoicing or pricing or how you deal with customers who don’t pay. And it’s just fun. It’s fun to hang out with people who like similar things and share your particular life, and we’re all very passionate about what we do, it’s not something that you leave behind when you go home, it’s something I think that you carry through. You’re always a designer and that’s how you look at the world so it’s fun to hang out with people who think like that as well.

What methodologies, systems or routines do you have in place to make sure you are productive everyday?

Oh, I am so unproductive a lot of the time! But I am most productive when I have lists. I have a bad habit of trying to hold everything in my head, I think everybody does that and I’m always aware of what has to happen but if I just kind of allow myself to drift as I want, which is how I would prefer to be, like I would just prefer to do the stuff that is most interesting at the time, then you know I’m probably not that productive, in terms of bill-paying. So if I write lists and then I prioritise my lists and then tick things off and divide things into bite sized chunks… so you don’t just write, ‘Finish branding project for Client X’, you say whatever specific part you can do today so you write that down and then tomorrow you finish another section. So itemised lists are good. I worked from home for a while and I found while doing that it was really important that I ‘left the house’ in some kind of symbolic way and I found that the best way to do that was to essentially pretend that I had a bus to get on and a train and a deadline. So it’s like, ok I’m going to have breakfast ‘till this time and then I’m going to do my hair and then I’m going to get dressed and then I’m going to walk away. And then I’d just walk, you know, to the next room and completely ignore any housework that had to be done and just pretend that it wasn’t there at all and pretend that I was in an office far away. And then when my family would come home, like my son home from school, I would have to say, “I’m not actually here, I’m still at work, but I will be home in half an hour”. But it really worked much better before I had a child and after that, I had to really think about getting a separate office because it was too hard. So in terms of methodology, it is really important to put a start and end time to the day and try not to mix it up too much. I don’t like taking long lunches with friends because I find it too distracting during the day so I prefer to keep it really businesslike and if I’m going to have lunch, keep it short, under an hour, no alcohol.

Sometime process is more inspiring than the finished work. Can you talk about the process of one of your current projects, from idea to finished project?

So I meet with the client to get a sense of the project and what they want from the project, which is quite an extensive conversation. And then I start researching and then I do a lot of thinking, which is hard to quantify, when you’re doing estimates, that’s really hard. So I do lots of thinking not when I’m at work – I might be on a bike and I’m thinking about the client – there’s quite a lot of thinking time outside of office hours, but I like that. I think it’s interesting. So the process is all the time, an ongoing exploration so then the actual beginning of the design process sort of sounds bit dry: research, research, research. But it’s not that dry because it’s your whole life of being open to colour and texture and culture and that’s exciting. Pretty much once I have done all that research and abstract thinking, I then start drawing, and I’m a really bad drawer but it’s a way of getting my ideas out, it’s not about making pretty pictures. In the beginning, the computer is way too restrictive, so you’re restricted by your technical ability – and I have a really high technical ability, I’m very skilled on the tools, but I find it very restrictive, so I find it much better if I just sit down and do my dodgy drawings in pencil or pen, getting them out, and I’ll start whittling away at those and trying to refine them then and make a bit more sense of them or I might just get straight onto the computer. I might actually show the client a mood-board. It sort of depends on the client, you can tell quickly with some that if you show them a mood-board they’re probably going to be really confused and they’re not going to understand and they’re going to think that you’re being literal, “So this is what I’m going to get?”, “No, no, no, it’s just a bit of a look and feel, we’re just seeing how we can play with colour or play with form to communicate”. But some clients don’t get that so they really need logos in that situation. But then you need to articulate that to them, you need to always keep your client informed on the process. Clients prefer if it feels like a solid, sensible process, rather than some airy-fairy abstract happening. If they know that you’re following a process then they will have more faith in you. So it’s good to articulate that to them. Usually for me there’s very little difference between the first design that I show and the final one, because it’s right, I got it right from all that thinking and from the process. So usually there’s very little difference – maybe they want to see a colour variation or maybe some more information in there if it’s a poster or something, but normally it’s pretty much how it was when I first showed them. And then you just develop the design to the different bits of collatoral beyond what you started with.

How do you stay inspired?

That’s just my life. I guess I do recognise the importance of making an effort beyond the everyday kind of inspiration. And I do know that when I re-engaged with the design community after that period of time where I dropped off and stopped going to things, I did really feel more inspired. Around that time, my son was five or something, and I started going to more industry events and it really is inspiring, and then I actually started teaching – not a lot, just one class a semester – and that was really inspiring as well. Being engaged in a thoughtful way in the industry that you work in, beyond just doing jobs, stimulates you. So it was inspiring to teach because the students would make me think about things in different ways that possibly I hadn’t thought about and also I did a lot of research because I wanted to make sure I was well informed. Every week trying to find things to engage them, I liked showing them films and different things. I had to research, I didn’t just know that stuff, I had to research and I found some amazing stuff around the world, so that was inspiring. And then being around other designers and talking to them about their businesses and their practices and their ideas, you know, it’s exciting. I’m excited about life in general and as a designer you’re interested in everything you see around you, that’s just how we are. But I think a professional engagement with your community also is inspiring. But you have to make the effort to get off the couch and go to that talk at 7:30pm when all you really want to do is sit there and watch Revenge. So you’ve got to make the effort.


Section two: Motherhood

How have you approached the challenges of being a business owner and a mother?

Sort of the way I’ve timed it, it works for me. I freelanced to design studios, I never went through an agency so it was just me, that was when I was called ‘Hired Gun’. So I had some really close relationships with some studios where they would just bring me in all the time when they needed someone extra, so when you do that and you have a child it’s really about having good daycare. Now my son is older and can take care of himself, so I guess that’s one of the reasons I started Hello Idea, being my own design studio. He can go home after school by himself now and he’s fine. As much as I thought I was going to be the same independent person and the baby would just fit into my lifestyle, it was impossible and I suffered quite a big identity crisis around that time. It was very disconcerting being someone who had complete control over their life – if I didn’t like something, I walked away from it – and then suddenly you can’t do that anymore, because you’ve got a child. It was really hard for me to work out who I was and how to navigate life as someone who now had a responsibility that was never going to change. I found that really, really difficult.

Is there a work-life balance? What routines do you have in place to ensure this balance?

You achieve your own lop-sided balance in, you know, whatever way you can. By things like me doing the mornings and my husband doing the evenings with our son. But in terms of feeling good about it, my husband and I talk about it a lot, the most important thing in our life is that we are strong, we are solid, and then everything else will work. So if he and I are in good shape, then our family is ok, our son is ok because he’s got two parents who love each other and support each other and will do anything to keep each other safe. So that means that if work gets in the way of that, then you change work. So that’s how I achieve the correct work-life balance. The correct balance is when the people you love are more important than anything, so my work has retreated or filled out, according to how that question is answered or how my family is being looked after. So now work is very dominant, in a way more so than ten years ago because my son is older and able to look after himself, and because my husband’s work has dropped off quite a bit. So when his work gets more dominant, mine drops back a bit. So really it’s the partnership of he and I. Without him, I have no idea how it would work, I have no idea. It’s really all about his and my ability to maintain the correct dynamic between us.

Do you separate work and home life or do you embrace them together?

I think you are more productive or better at both if you keep them separate. You know, they say it’s better to do one thing at a time properly. But one is always informed by the other, they don’t happen in isolation.

Have you changed the way you run your studio since becoming a mother? In what ways?

Yes, completely. In all the ways I said before really. It’s about how you organise yourself, but also about how much work you take on and the kind of work you do. You think about work load and work flow in a completely different way when you are a parent – when you have another person who needs you. And parenting is exhausting. Enriching but exhausting. So to make sure you can do everything – be a friend, a partner, a mother, a designer – you have to change things, how you do things.

How do you manage expectations with a family?

When our son was little he was in daycare for three days a week and my husband had one weekday off during the week, so that was four days a week I was available to freelance. I had to organise that ahead of time, it couldn’t just happen when I happened to get the work. I almost pretended I didn’t have a kid, because if people think it’s hard to hire you then they won’t hire you, so you sort of have to downplay it. And I kind of hate doing it, but you have to pay the rent, so you have to never acknowledge that it’s an issue. So my son was taken care of four days a week which freed me up to work four days, which I thought was completely reasonable. But eventually I got a bit sick of doing that. Freelancing. I’d done it for a long time, and I wanted to do more direct to client work so I stopped freelancing to other design studios and I started taking on more design projects on my own. By then what we’d started doing was I would do the mornings, taking my son to daycare, feeding him breakfast and all of that, and then my husband did the evenings. So if I wanted to work late into the night it didn’t make a difference. But I could never do morning meetings. I pretended to clients it had nothing to do with parenting, I would just say “It’s much easier for me if we can meet after 9.30am” and then if I had to, I’d say I do childcare or school drop offs. But you sort of feel like you need to downplay the fact that you have a family, to seem reliable to people. But now my son is thirteen so it’s not really an issue anymore. He can look after himself more.

Was having a family part of your original plan and have your career objectives changed because of this?

I wasn’t going to have a child at all, until probably the year before I did, and so then I’d been out of uni and working in design for six or so years and then I suddenly thought, “Dammit, I think it would be really interesting to make a person!”, so it was kind of out of nowhere. I thought that it would be something really amazing to do, a really interesting thing to do as a human being and as a creative person, to experience bringing a person into the world and helping that person grow. So it was sort of like a creative project to be honest. But I was kind of making things up as I was going along, I didn’t have a plan. I just go along with what feels right. I’m very open and very responsive to whatever’s happening in my life at the time.


Section three: Industry

What is your vision for creating a profession where female designers thrive?

On a daily basis, I am aware and thoughtful of trying to ensure that I do something to improve the lot of women. So the way I raise my son, I am raising him to be an amazing man who has an absolute belief in women as equals. So every interaction I have, I think about that stuff. The way I live my life is about encouraging the world to see women as equal, with the absolute understanding that we have not been equal and we are still not equal, but you know, we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go. You have to acknowledge that, you have to live your life with that understanding or nothing will change. If you go around blindly thinking everything’s perfect, then nothing will ever change because you won’t be actively doing anything. So you have to be aware that things are not perfect and that there are always ways we can be better as a society.

Do you feel there is inequality in pay and/or opportunities?

Yes. There’s lots of evidence for that, at least in the broader workplace. I think the design industry is actually pretty good in that regard, but we would be naive to think it didn’t exist. And until the whole of society changes and our cultural attitudes to gender stereotyping fundamentally changes, it’s going to continue to be unequal.

Have we broken the cycle yet? Or will it start to show in 10 or 20 years?

Theoretically it gets better all the time, but there’s still a long way to go.

What do you think is the reason for the lost legacy of woman designers who drop off from the industry after graduation?

It’s a really big question and there are many aspects to it. So, the fact is that we continue to live in a male dominated society, in a society that encourages males and females unequally. It encourages a real kind of confidence for boys and a quietness in girls. Women are constantly being judged on their appearance in a way that men aren’t and on their behavior in a way that men just aren’t. And all of these things impact at the end, when boys are encouraged be bolder and louder – bolder let’s say – there’s an impact. People become known in design, of course because they’re doing good work, but also because they are winning awards for example. To win an award, you apply to win or you nominate yourself. That process is something that is done by bolder people, so I would guess that a lot less women put themselves forward than men do. I know loads of women designers who never enter any awards, it’s not interesting to them, they don’t see the point, or it seems like kind of self puffery. I think there are a lot of women doing beautiful things in design, but we don’t necessarily know about them. It’s also about how much support we get, to put in the hours to establish a really substantial body of work. There’s no question that a man isn’t going to be supported by his wife to go out and work the ridiculous long hours that you have to do, the travel, all that kind of stuff to have a successful business, a high profile. But many women are not supported in that similar way by their partners. And women are expected to be the primary caretakers of children. And if you look at high profile women in design, I would say that they are probably firstly exceptional people, both in their talent and in their willingness to buck the system. Women are generally told to keep quiet and kind of be domesticated, but the well known ones have pushed beyond that, so they’re more exceptional examples of people in general. And probably they don’t have children. Or very few children. Women are allowed very narrow categories of success: it’s at extreme ends. Like Mother Theresa who gave up her whole life to support the poor and lived in poverty and was a nun; or we celebrate the dancing, prancing, pretty ones, and – that’s kind of it. So as long as society is like that, nothing will change. So it’s not a design industry problem, it’s a cultural problem, and the more we change our culture, the more this issue will change.


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