Move Over Mad Men: a Plea for Women in Design Leadership

If you happened to pick up Print‘s latest Sex & Design issue, you’ve probably seen the article on women in design leadership. As the article indicates, women at the top of the creative management ladder are relatively few and far between. The article explores what women can do to break through the glass ceiling in design leadership. And we aren’t the only ones who are addressing this issue head on.

Su Mathews Hale, senior partner at Lippincott and AIGA national board member, recently hosted a webinar for women designers. It focused on eight tips to get ahead, and Mathews Hale was kind enough to give HOW the inside scoop on three tidbits of advice she offered.  See what she had to say about women and design leadership.

Su Mathews Hale

You probably can’t help but notice the resurgence of news around the importance of women in leadership roles. GM appointed Mary Barra as CEO, the first woman to run a global automaker, Angela Ahrendts is poised to be Apples “next rock star” and during the Golden Globes, Microsoft aired a minute-long ode to the heroic women of the world (a nice complement to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s brilliant hosting duties).  Anne Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” started a debate, Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean in” started a movement, and the conversations of why there aren’t more women in leadership positions continues to heat up.

Which brings us to design.  Our industry has long been a destination for women to work.  More than half of the members of AIGA, the professional association for design, are women, but we represent only 3% of creative directors.

It’s been something that’s always bugged me, but I think the final straw was when I was at a design conference and the presenter had a slide featuring a dozen photos of the most inspirational designers over the years.  Can you guess how many were women? Zero.  No Paula Scher, Louise Fili or Connie Birdsall. What was worse than this blatant omission of talent (regardless of gender), was that it seemed unnoticed throughout the audience.

The tide is turning and now is the time for our industry to be squarely in the middle of these conversations. And more so, to move past all of the talking and get to some action.  This is why I’m co-chairing a new Women’s Leadership Initiative with the AIGA along with the indefatigable Deborah Adler and a steering committee of amazing women.  Our mission is simple: to foster and celebrate women’s achievements throughout the design industry. We are in the early stages of developing the program but our overarching goals fall in three main categories: celebrate (recognizing the achievements of women in design through events, exhibits and talks), cultivate (the knowledge and the leadership skills necessary to succeed) and connect (facilitating relationships, mentorships and dialogue, both within and beyond the design industry).  And although our initiative is focused on women, it won’t exclude men, and in fact, it must incorporate their ideas and engagement.

We kicked things off recently through a mini-mentorship session. The Q&A session was like a rapid fire panel with questions coming, faster and faster.  They were big (“What do I need to do in order to quit my job and start my own company?”) and small (“How do I find a mentor?”).

Below summarizes some of the advice I offered in three important categories—style, balance and nurturing talent.

Find your own personal style: As young designer, I always wondered how people presenting at conferences could do so with such eloquence and style. And as I started attending meetings, I tried to emulate my bosses when talking to clients and presenting my ideas. But what I’ve learned is that you have to find your own personal style, and you don’t have to be the loudest person in the room to be heard or listened to. Some of the best presenters or negotiators I’ve seen in business situations have been quite soft spoken. It’s about being authentic to who you are.

Work life balance can sometimes be unbalanced: Everyone talks about “having it all.” But if you’re a type A personality, which a lot of people in leadership roles are, you don’t think it’s achievable, because to you, having it all doesn’t just mean having balance, but excelling in each of the roles you play, equally, all the time. But it is achievable if YOU determine what that means, and can accept that it doesn’t mean excelling in all areas at the same time, at every moment. Sometimes you’re going to be a great employee, and an average mom and a terrible wife. But the next day you’re a good employee, a great mom and an excellent wife. Once you accept it, the notion of balance brings on an entirely new meaning.

Creativity needs nurturing:  Designers are emotionally tied to their work. I’ve tried to not be emotionally tied to an idea, and it usually means it’s not a great idea. We’ve all been there. You work on an idea for hours and you show it to your boss or client and they don’t love it the way you do. You’re devastated, and you don’t know how you’ll ever come up with an idea that’s better than that one. As someone who has been in that situation, and who’s now a creative director that doesn’t always love what I’m shown, I’ve learned that sometimes, creative ideas need more love. To paraphrase something Jenna Lyons, J. Crew’s creative director and president said:  “When someone creative puts something in front of you, that thing came from inside of them, and if you make them feel bad about, it is actually going to crush them.”  It’s a great point. But equally important, sometimes tough love is the answer. I try to be very open and direct with my designers, because I believe I owe them an honest critique, especially if I know they’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the idea. Designers grow when they have creative directors who know when it’s time to give more love, and when it’s time to give tough love.

I’m often the only woman in the room in many business situations but I’m confident that over time that will change.  And through this initiative, my desire is to not just talk the talk about what it takes to lead—as a woman, a designer, a business executive—but to walk the walk.  And, should I choose, do so in kick-ass, four-inch heels.

For more information on the Women’s Leadership Initiative, email Aidan O’Connor.


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