Designers Who Have Changed How I Think About Design

Posted inCreative Voices

A month ago, March 8th was International Women‘s Day. I read about its history again, its beginnings, and its growth into a global commemoration. I have distinctive memories of the late 1960s and early 1970s, of TV ads, shows, and movies in which women portrayed womanhood as it played out in society, especially regarding professions: nurses, teachers, secretaries, and assistants.

In my last post, I talked about typography as poetry, describing my brief exposure to commercial art through my neighbor. At the time, I mentioned my interest to some of my older friends. They discouraged me from pursuing commercial art because “it was a male-dominated field.” Today, like other professions, graphic design—formerly known as commercial art—is mainly composed of women. Data USA shows that 53.7% of American graphic designers are women.

On that note, I am sharing a small selection of the female designers I have admired. When I started in design, I did not know much. Thus, I studied others’ graphic design work and sometimes other design areas like architecture.

One of the first female designers who caught my attention was Rosemarie Tissi. I specifically remember her work for „Offset“ for the printing company A. Schöb, in 1982 (back of a folder—second image down).

I looked at the typography of this image for hours. I was fascinated with how Tissi used these big, chunky letters to create the offset printer and her use of color and negative space. In a word, I was mesmerized by how the O captures the eye and moves it from the F to the E by gradually changing the color tone and playing with size. She uses the strong horizontal the T provides to arrange the letters, making the eye move from O to T seamlessly. One still reads the word offset; nothing more is needed to understand it. Tissi takes advantage of the natural eye movement from left to right to connect the word and image in our mind organically. I was and still am fascinated.

The second female designer whose work stopped me when I saw it was April Greiman’s. I had the opportunity to see her talk in Carbondale, IL, in 2005. I have never forgotten that talk. There was a desire to search in Greiman’s narrative as she told the story of her career, which resonated with me profoundly. I wished I had talked to her afterward. Her work would leave me speechless. The elements dance in the space in almost every design she creates. I had not seen work like that when I started to study design. I remember learning the grid and alignments, but Greiman’s work turned on a lightbulb. The page becomes a stage for the performers in her work. Her ideas about how design works on a printed page influenced me the most in my perception of space, page, and type.

Jennifer Sterling has influenced the way I see and perceive typography. The typography in her work is like something that floats on the page, like a lightweight feather that moves and turns. Her work is experimental and pushes the limits of the page and even motion. We expect to see the letters moving in a certain way, but in her work, the typography can and will take unexpected turns. Sometimes, Sterling incorporates shapes and elements to enhance ideas and the typographic movement.

Architect Zaya Hadid’s work makes me look twice. She passed in 2016, and it is a loss. You should visit Hadid’s website to explore her designs. This quote from her site summarizes how I feel about her work and why I admire it:

…the beauty and virtuosity within her work is married to meaning. Her architecture is inventive, original and civic, offering generous public spaces that are clearly organized and intuitive to navigate

Zaha Hadid

Below is one of Hadid’s designs: the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University. The building seems to want to levitate or fly away. It is simply impressive.

Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, East Lansing, Michigan, USA (2012)

My interest in these designers stems from an admiration for defying the constraints innate to the materials they use playfully. Whether paper, digital, or spatial, these designers don’t just capture the movement in a frame; it feels like the designer is mentally dancing with their design at that moment. There is an organic and symbiotic dialogue between the design and the designer. These works are not void of meaning or purpose or are frivolously pushing the limits. These works result from a deep understanding and even acceptance of the constraints and limitations. Rather than succumbing to those, they embrace these parameters to birth work that seemingly defies its nature. Yet, it is not a rebellious defiance. It is a dance of give and take, a dance of conversation, and a dance of creation.

Of course, I can mention more designers. There are many others who have shaped the way I think about design in one way or another. However, these four designers have what I look for in my work in common: movement. When I started to study design, it was their work that captured my interest, and it still does.

Alma Hoffmann is a freelance designer, design educator, author of Sketching as Design Thinking, and editor at Smashing Magazine. This is an edited version of an original post on Temperamental amusing shenanigans, Alma’s Substack dedicated to design, life, and everything in between.

Header image © Alma Hoffmann; cyanotype painted with watercolor and ink, quote from Adam Crews.