“Good Design Is Feminist Design”: An Interview with Sheila de Bretteville


Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Dean of Graphic Design and Senior Critic at the Yale School of Art, is one of today’s most prominent feminist graphic designers. In 1971, she founded the California Institute of the Arts, the first women’s graphic design program; she also founded the Woman’s Building and its Women’s Graphic Center in Los Angeles in 1973.

De Bretteville came to Yale in 1990. Since the late 1950s, under the strong influence of Paul Rand, the Yale program had been a “bastion” of modernist theory. When de Bretteville was selected as the new Dean, Paul Rand resigned on principle and wrote a manifesto in the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design in response. Rand wrote, “To make the classroom a perpetual forum for political issues, for instance, is wrong; and to see aesthetics as sociology is grossly misleading.”

De Bretteville has become an outspoken designer and educator and an influential theorist of feminist design, which she defines as “graphic strategies that will enable us to listen to people who have not been heard from before. Feminism is about enabling those voices to be heard.”

On April 2, de Bretteville sat down with Broad Recognition Arts Editor Jessica Svendsen to discuss “feminine” typefaces, feminist form and content, and the difference between a female designer and a feminist designer.

JS: Type designer Tobias Frere-Jones recently said at the Yale Art School that historical resonances and aesthetic characteristics can shape a typeface. He, and others, have described Gotham–a typeface commissioned for GQ Magazine–as a masculine typeface. Is there a feminine typeface?

SB: This is a huge question. It sounds like a small question, but this is a huge question.

JS: In my typography class last semester, two typefaces–Joanna and Mrs. Eaves–were described as feminine. Doesn’t such a characterization reinforce gender stereotypes or the gender categories of “feminine” and “masculine”?

SB: It depends heavily on gender stereotypes that I am not interested in fostering. I don’t think it serves anyone to do that. I think a better way to describe a typeface would be to talk about its decorative aspects, basic structure, figure/field, how each element relates to another element, how they can be different or the same. I think there is a whole range to talk about formal aspects of anything you look at without having to knee-jerk back into gender stereotypes… [T]here has been a lot of very solid work that looks at how certain attributes that are formal have been ascribed to gender stereotypes and then devalued accordingly. So, why in 2010, why would we ever want to participate in continuing that?

JS: So what do you tell a student who describes a typeface as feminine?

SB: I would ask: “Is your language rich enough to find other ways to describe what you are looking at, rather than to have to use gender as a referent?” Surely it is not the only signifier out there. Please. I think you free it up. If we were in the time when using historically ascribed attributes that have been bundled under the feminine, with freedom for not being stayed glued to the feminine, and the feminine being a free-floating signifier, I’d be fine with it. But when you say it, and suddenly every female in the room has to press those adjectives against herself and see if that is in accordance with how she understands herself, I don’t see that as useful. And every man, someone who is genetically and physically male, has to see a connection to that action or it cannot be his. So this is not useful. If we were looking for a more democratic society, one in which there is equality, a non-hierarchy of gender, this doesn’t foster that kind of society. So in that respect, I think: “Hey, make up some more metaphors of your own. Find some other language to describe what you see.”

JS: What does it mean to be a female designer in a mostly male institutional history and culture?

SB: It has meant different things over different periods of my time here. When I first came here, I know how many women were just ecstatic that I came here. I didn’t come here to be the first female tenured professor. My goal was not to be the first tenured woman at Yale. I came because I thought this area of study was lagging behind and needed to be refreshed and realigned with the present, in a way that would be helpful to the students who came here. This meant that many aspects of the tradition of this department, that I wanted to honor it, so I wasn’t come here to throw away the past and start a new society, I was looking for: what are the values we want to keep and what isn’t here that needs to be added. In fact, at my interview, I said precisely that. I said I would bring what is absent from the Yale environment that I think would balance it and make more egalitarian and reactive to the world in which we live. And the interviewers said, “Well, what would that be?” as if they had everything already. It was a little bit like, where shall I start? And of course, I would have to start with women, because in fact, there was a paucity of women who had ever taught here. There was one female faculty member. There were many women who have studied here, that said publicly, that it didn’t matter to them that there were no female faculty members. Whereas, for me, it mattered because the absence of women left an imbalance that fostered a lot of stereotypical behavior on the part of the male faculty and the male students, that wouldn’t have been easy for them to simply to do if there were more women around, who were in positions of authority to help with those circumstances and to also provide a more diversified power source.

One of my teachers, actually, pulled me aside and kissed me in the darkroom. And I had come from Barnard, an all-women’s college—I was called “Ms. Levrant” there. I was actually very young when I came here—I was twenty. It was just so not what I would ever expect in that kind of situation. I modeled, because I was very skinny and I needed to get a job. Of course, I’ve had people do that in those venues. I expected it there. But I didn’t know how to handle it there [in the darkroom]. I was just completely taken by surprise. So in that surprise, I was trying to point out the hierarchy that existed, which means that you don’t do this. If my classmate did this, I would know exactly what to do. I would know precisely what to do because I am more used to it, but I had never thought [that would happen]. And that shows what kind of naiveté I had from Barnard… The hierarchy between genders was not my primary thought at Barnard, even though it was a women’s college. It never even came up, at least among my colleagues.

JS: You talked about how you introduced female faculty when you came here, but what was the reaction to your theoretical approach to teaching?

SB: So let’s go back to the question you’re really asking: what was I thinking?

My thinking has changed over time. I came here with a real desire to be both a citizen of the town as well as a teacher, head of this department and area of study. I took that very seriously. My first acts were to understand what was going on here, at the town at the time. I looked to Hill Health Center, for example. The students decided to do a pro-choice billboard. The students were able to use a billboard on I-95. The students decided to do this themselves, it was the thing they wanted to do. It wasn’t as if we told them, “Hey, how about doing a pro-choice billboard?” They looked in the newspaper, at things that were going on, and one of the things that they discovered was that the percentage of people that were pro-choice was not common knowledge, and they looked for a way to express a public study of the discrepancy between the media representation and the opinions or perspectives of the majority of Americans.

That group of students became a collective, called Class Action. It still exists 19 years later. They did another billboard that dealt with the issue of battered women. They have also done interventions about gun control. It has to do with what the group feels the issue is of that time. It is totally student-run. It is now a student collective that is now only loosely connected with us…

[One year] a bunch of students were upset that the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) was having a conference in Florida, and they had, I think, one woman speaker. So they created a poster that pointed out the paucity of women speakers at the conference. And they wanted to post them all over Miami. We were connected with a group who would put up the posters in the middle of the night. I told them that it is illegal to do this. Every piece of public property is owned, therefore, if you put something up, you are vulnerable to being arrested for defacing public property. Therefore, it cannot be something from me to you. “I am helping you from me, as a person, not as a professor.” So they put it up. And immediately I got a phone call from organizers from the conference –Chee Pearlman—“Your students have pasted, all over Miami, these posters that say we have only X percent of women.” I said “If you had more women, you wouldn’t these posters. You can’t blame me that you don’t have enough women. It has nothing to do with me. This is young people’s response to you not representing women’s productive view in your conference.”

… The goal of having no gender hierarchy is really more of what I am working for. That is the ethos of the department. The school carries it as well. I cannot speak for the larger university.

Calling typefaces feminine is an unfortunate distraction. That’s not where our energies should be going, in my perspective. I think trying to get a kind of lack of hierarchy in gender, to understand that it is constructed, to not participate in the reconstruction of stereotypes, is much more valuable. Energy is real. You have to choose your battles.

JS: I can understand the connection of feminism, politics, and expressing gender in terms of content, like the way you described the billboard campaign. But I am also interested in how a gendered perspective is manifested in form, and you have talked about how breaking down the modernist grid, allowing for multiple perspectives or subjectivity, is one way to enact feminist design.

SB: Yes, I said that, that’s true. In 1973 and again in 1981. But not until we have gender equality, do I want to forget the word feminist. It is really to infuse that equality into feminist thinking, that I think is important. Because, in fact, there are a lot of young women now, who think of gender in stereotypical ways, even after the work of Judith Butler and Monique Wittig, just beautiful work, that has tried to unpack that in such a way that we really question the category women, and we open it up.

When you look at the word democratic as a part of feminism, that equality and that ability to argue with each other, come into friction with each other or come into connection with each other, on an equal plane, that is inherent in the ideal of democracy. If you try to transfer that into a feminist perspective, it holds that same meaning that we can talk with each other, agree or disagree, and work it out, as a part of self-criticism, as well as a criticism of feminism, as well as a criticism of modernism, how a democratic and more equal society is created so that whatever kind of gender—there is as much difference within each gender as between the gender. You come from that perspective, it makes it very hard to talk about men and women all the time, around it. But I do think the word feminism is important because it carries with it an activist buzz. It really belongs to paying attention to how women are being treated, which, until we are treated absolutely equally, then I cannot let go of the word.

JS: Many women designers acknowledge the glass ceiling and everything that surrounds them being a woman designer, but they are not necessarily feminist designer. Can you clarify the distinction between a female designer and a feminist designer?

SB: A female designer is often talking about herself, as many of the women who voted for Hilary in the election. These women talked about the experience with misogyny as their reason for voting for Hilary, rather than looking at what Hilary might do as President. That was not what they were looking at; they were looking at their experience, and where they felt dissed. Voting for a woman was acknowledging themselves. That is similar to women designers who acknowledge the glass ceiling are really looking at.

I think to be feminist is to really care about women in general, not only designers, not only at privileged institutions like Yale. Thinking about women who don’t have anything, and what are the forces at work in our shared globalized culture that keep women from actualizing their potential. That is not what those women are talking about. They are talking about their potential and their actualizing. That is the difference between being just a woman designer or being a feminist designer. It doesn’t mean that you are always working on feminist content, it means you think about, more broadly, women as a category and how that category is used against women, wherever they are, on a socioeconomic level in a globalized world. That, to me, is feminism. It was never about me, whatever “me” or “I” is. It is about “we.”

… It is a different kind of perspective. I have a history that makes for that. Some of it is actually theoretical and part of a feminist consciousness and why the feminist movement was absolutely arresting. It was like, immediate. I was part of the resurgence of feminism in California, at a time in Los Angeles, when we all came into our own. I came into my own in my work. I became a mother. I became a feminist, all at the same time. All at the same time. It was an incredible overlay of things. I came into my own work, I came into the feminist movement, I became a mother, I lived in a new city that was more foreign to me than any other city. I lived in Milan, New York, but L.A. was something else. All of those things shaped an experience that is going to change over time, but coalesced in a very particular kind of way.

JS: There is one thing I would like to return to. You mentioned the Miami poster campaign, and many people associate feminist graphic design with more confrontational or aggressive tactics, like the Guerilla Girls or Barbara Kruger. What alternatives are there for feminist design?

SB: I am one of the alternatives. I chose to focus on what we don’t have and how to get it, not on what is oppressing me or oppressing us. Some people are filled with a tremendous amount of anger and the way to express it is through their work and through their work about what is oppressing them. I think that that is very important work. It just happens to not be my work.

JS: You ended one of your publicized conversations with designer Ellen Lupton with “Good design is feminist design.” [SB laughs] Is that still the case? Do you have a changed perspective over the years, especially as feminism has changed?

SB: Yes, because it is also how the notion of good design has changed. Both have changed. I just felt that Yale was known for good design, which was very much aligned with modernist design at that point. So I was trying to open up the design, trying to open up the feminist design. A statement, like that, out of context, requires a lot of unpacking. Both around what is “good” and what is “feminist.”

I had an interesting conversation with some students the other day. It wasn’t about feminism, but it is like this: two students were doing work that had images of like, kittens and sunsets and palm trees, but they came off of Google images—they were getting them off the net. I was trying to locate what it is that those images were serving. One of the other students, who was older than the two students who were doing it, said, “It’s generational. The response to that.” I said, “I don’t think that if that’s operative, it is not all that’s operating.” It turns out that one of the students was doing it as a reaction against good design, clean design. Here we are, 2009, and someone is choosing, what I call trashy, low, images to signify “sweetness” as a reaction. My comment was: “You are here at Yale to do your own work. You don’t have to react against something. Go for something.” Because to spend your time against that now, unless you do it from an extremely informed, thoughtful, broadly-researched base, is a very knee-jerk, against, kind of activity. It is not that you cannot use kitty kats and sunsets. It is more: Why are you using [these]? I want to here from you, why, something other than “I am against good design, clean design, all that design I learned at RISD.” I want more. I want to hear more. Talk about it more. Tell me more.

JS: How would you “unpack” feminist design in 2009?

What stays constant is trying to have a vision of what is desired: in this case, for me, it is a non-hierarchy within gender; an understanding of its constructed nature; a questioning of the category woman. That was not as clear in 1973, it was clear in ’83, because Gender Trouble had come later. When I read it, it was like a revelation. Monique Wittig and Judith Butler were like a revelation to me. Since I came from parents who work in factories, I did not even know where suburbia was, let alone, who was living there. So Betty Friedan made no sense to me. But whereas these women did make sense to me. I could locate what they were talking about among the people I knew. I come from four generations of working women. I do not know the other kind of life. Betty Friedan was angry at me, but I wasn’t angry at Betty Friedan. She thought I was sending women back to the bedroom, to do sheets, to iron sheets, but I said: “That is not what I’m talking about.” But she couldn’t understand it. I gave a talk in ’71 and she was in the audience, and she just completely couldn’t get behind what I was talking about. Because I was thinking about what is attributed to women, and how do we free up those attributes from gender. I don’t see why gender and these attributes have to be attached.

Jessica Svendsen is a senior in Yale College. She is the Arts Editor for Broad Recognition.


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