Images courtesy Biodiversity Heritage Library. Design by Shoshana Schultz.

A New Book Explores the Intersection of Design and Feminist Theory

With essays and case studies from 43 contributors, Feminist Designer puts forth new design methods that challenge design’s patriarchal origins.

What does it mean to be a feminist? What does it mean to be a designer? Perhaps the definitions are not always as black-and-white as “someone who advocates for women’s rights” or even “someone who designs.” By embracing and expanding on the plurality of these terms, a forthcoming volume edited by Alison Place highlights the intersection of design and feminist theory while arguing for new collaborative processes that work to dismantle oppressive power structures. 

Feminist Designer: On the Personal and the Political in Design Edited by Alison Place MIT Press, 2023, 264 pp., $29.95

Feminist Designer, which will be available this fall, moves beyond the concept of “inclusion” as a framework for discussing women in the design industries and instead compiles diverse contributions from over 40 transnational contributors on topics from anticapitalist branding and typography to mother-centered and trauma-informed design. Each of the six sections (titled Power, Knowledge, Care, Plurality, Liberation, and Community) contains an opening essay by Place followed by a selection of essays, conversations, and case studies that highlight not only theory but approachable methods such as notes on feminist design pedagogy or frameworks for disability design. 

Claudia Marina in her contribution “On Calling Yourself a Designer” questions the boundaries of what we call “design” and who gets to do it. “Writing this essay, I started to question if capital-D design was inherently misogynistic, and when I asked myself that question, I found it harder to theorize that notion away,” Marina explains. “This book is not a capital-D solution, but rather a compendium of one of the tenets of feminist discourse, which is recognizing difference and thinking through it.” 

Voice-activated artificial intelligence (VAI) prototypes are often designed with cisgender individuals in mind. Designed by a majority trans and nonbinary team, Syb, a VAI prototype that “aims to generate pluralistic outcomes,” was created by researchers Cami Rincón and Andrew Mallinson. Syb was developed as part of “Queering Voice AI: Trans Centered Design,” a course at the Creative Computing Institute of the University of the Arts London.

Dedicated “to all feminist teachers— past, present, and future,” this book will be an invaluable resource for design educators and practitioners, challenging what we thought we knew while opening new possibilities for being and designing. As Place writes in the introduction, “To be a feminist designer is to see the world as it is and to continually imagine it otherwise—to willfully occupy the space between epistemological despair and radical hope.” 

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