Katherine McCoy – Women in Design Writing

Nancy Stock-Allen writer for the blog DesignTraveler.wordpress.org recently posted a great article and interview with Katherine McCoy about her thoughts on design writing. McCoy is an internationally renowned graphic designer, design theoretician and educator. She has held positions in the graduate design programs at Cranbrook Academy of Art and Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design. Some of her past positions include president of the Industrial Design Society of America, president of the American Center for Design, vice president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and chair of the Design Arts Fellowships Panel for the National Endowment of the Arts.

For GDW,  we’ve highlighted a specific section of Stock-Allen’s article where McCoy discusses the role of women in design writing:

Women in Design Writing

We diverged for a few minutes to a slightly different topic, the lack of women in design history literature before the mid-20th century. I mentioned that whenever a new design history survey appears it seems that most of the research is gleaned from previous historians, none of who included any information about women in the field—perpetuating the myth that the profession was entirely men before the 20th century.

McCoy agreed, “True there has been much written about women in design since the late 1980’s; but before that only a few.” Exclusion has not been a problem for her—she is in all of the significant design history texts. However, she is certainly cognizant of what might have been, a career minimized as a ‘partner’ to her designer husband. Although their names are inseparable in the design world, the McCoy’s work diverged into hers (2D) and his (3D), giving each a clear identity.

Earlier women design partners were not so fortunate and if their contributions were noted at all it was a mere footnote to their partners: Lily Reich (with Mies van der Rohe), Charlotte Perriand (with Le Corbusier) Aino Aalto (Alvar Altor) Ray Eames (Charles Eames) etc. “In the early 1970s, when the Museum of Modern Art did the exhibition ‘The work of Charles and Ray Eames,’ no one knew who Ray was and we wondered if Charles had a brother.” Massimo Vignelli corrected his own history by writing Designed by Lella, a tribute to his wife and design partner. “Fifty years ago, it was standard practice that the head of the office was the man and the woman partner had a subordinate role. At best, the woman’s creative input and professional influence was only vaguely accepted; often her contributions were dismissed and sometimes even forgotten.” (Kudos to Mr. Vignelli for putting his book on line with free access.) 

One woman that has made it into design history textbooks is Cipe Pineless (1908-1991), credited as “the first independent female art director.” McCoy confided that they were once roommates at an early AIGA event. She could not avoid noticing that despite editing many of the most glamorous fashion magazines of her time, Ms. Pineles dressed for bed (like anyone of good Austrian background) in practical flannel nightgowns. Unfortunately, passing encounters in the female lodging were the extent of their interaction.

Another woman we touched upon was Beatrice Warde (1900–1996), known to typography students for her essay The Crystal Goblet, to letterpress printers for This is a Printing Office, and to design historians for her writings on true origin of Garamond. Warde and Nicolete Gray (1911-1997) (Lettering as Drawing among others), both elegant and intelligent authors, were the first women writing history and criticism in the graphic arts field.


We’ve come a long way from Ms. Warde’s lone female voice to books such as Helen’s Armstrong’s anthology that is comprised of about 40% female authorship.

We mused a bit on how to get women into the canons of graphic design, especially as men write the majority of the books. I felt that Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish’s Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide, did not seize the opportunity to break the mold but McCoy was more cautious. “You know according to theories of Deconstruction there is no such thing as neutral facts. You should look to the work of authors such as Patricia Limerick, who are involved in the New Western History Movement. Those researchers reject the established histories as the total truth and investigate the contributions of under-recognized communities. That said, there are such things as facts in history. We do need those, as well as interpretation and critique.”


Two publications devoted exclusively to female designers; McCoy is in both. 

McCoy is encouraged by how far design writing has progressed since she entered the field. After a first wave of self-educated pioneers there are now graduate level programs educating professional design writers. “I am so pleased that there are programs dealing with design writing. There have been two great women speakers at High Ground who are at the forefront of educating the next generation of design writers and critics. Sue Yelavich (a Cranbrook alum) is the Director of the MA in Design Studies at The New School. Her counterpart, Alice Twemlow, is co-chair at the School of Visual Arts, another notable program. (Both of them are great writers themselves) The programs appear to focus on solid criticism and interpretation.”

To see the full article on McCoy at DesignTraveler blog :


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