Women in Design 2019: Event Recap

Written by Caterina Rizzoni, IDSA

Aug 25 2019 - 1:36pm


As an organization, IDSA has the unique opportunity to innovate within our industry by paving the way for thoughtful conversations and disruptive dialogues. We spend our careers building a better future for those around us, and the Women in Design Deep Dive, held in San Francisco on May 3, 2019, offered us the chance to build a better future for ourselves too.

The designers gathered in San Francisco were rehearsing the future of the industry—an industry of diverse perspectives and lived experiences with a powerful passion for bettering the world. 

Part of what made the event so powerful is how open and honest the speakers were with their stories. They shared their flaws, mistakes and struggles and revealed how their journeys molded them into the powerful examples of female leadership they are today. I found a richness and authenticity to the conversations held at the Deep Dive that enabled open and candid conversations among the designers in attendance. But women continue to be under-represented in the design process, especially in leadership and decision-making roles. The reality is that there is so much work to be done to create a more balanced future for our industry.

A Diversity of Voices

To create this future, we must look first to the past. Vicki Matranga, H/IDSA, the design programs coordinator at the International Houseware Association, is an advocate for the secret histories of women in design. She shared with us the legacies of the unseen women who have been shaping products for half a century. Matranga shared a quote from designer MaryEllen Dohrs (of GM and Sundberg Ferar) that captured a sentiment I heard echoed in talks and conversations throughout the day: “I still resist calling me and my type WOMEN designers—unless writers preface others as MEN designers.” 

The women at the Deep Dive are not just great female designers. They are great designers—period. 

As attendees settled in, absorbing Matranga’s lessons of the past, Suzanne LeBarre, editor of Fast Company’s Co.Design, chatted with Victoria Slaker, the vice president of product design at Ammunition. Ammunition and Slaker’s work with Beats paved the way for her to create an organization empowered to take risks and to take control of their work. But many women in design—myself included—cannot shake the recurring question that sometimes rises to the surface: How would things change if we were free from fighting for a place at the table? 



When LeBarre posed this question, the women around me nodded, listening intently. “If I was a man, would my career be different? I don’t know. Maybe. But I don’t frame my career like that,” Slaker responded. And she’s right. In framing our work through a lens of resentment, we lose the focus of thinking about what our work means for the future. Yet it would be short-sighted and frankly damaging to ignore the repercussions of the status quo. 

Laura Silva, the vice president of accessibility technology, UX design at Bank of America, offered us guiding principles that helped to reframe our understanding of the work we do and understand how to engage in actively promoting inclusivity in the design industry. Silva asked the audience to examine the intersecting identities that shape our experiences as human beings, introducing the theory of intersectionality as developed by civil rights advocate and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. As designers, we can leverage our understanding of these intersecting identities to create experiences that embrace everyone equally. When we break the habits we’ve developed over years of practice, we can become more inclusively disruptive. Silva urged us to hire and promote diversity in talent, lending our platforms to those who would speak about their experiences. “Listen,” Silva encouraged when I asked her how to better support women of color in our communities and organizations. “Don’t try to tell her story for her. Use your privilege to step back, hand her the mic and let her speak.”

2019 is the year we stop talking about the gender gap and start doing something about it.

Isabelle Olsson, the design director of home and wearables at Google, reinforced the importance of embracing diversity in our organizations. Our cultural perspectives change the work we do, and she reflected upon the industry culture that led to the homogeneity of consumer electronics. The aesthetic uniformity of these products comes from a lack of diversity in the experiences that led to their creation. But by enacting inclusion in its teams, Google was able to create a radical shift in consumer electronics (and a series of seriously successful products) by bringing designers with a wider range of experiences to the table. This is the kind of shift that makes a difference, and it’s what made the Deep Dive so invigorating—to see the incredible effects of enacting this vision for the future in both our industry and in the products we design. Seeing the positive outcomes of Olsson’s action inspired me and my fellow Deep Dive attendees to become more proactive in our organizations. 


The visionary futurism I heard throughout the day came to life perhaps most eloquently in the presentation of Katharine Hargreaves, a self-described culture alchemist whose FEARLESS Workshop inspired attendees with her transformative journey. Hargreaves asked the crowd to look within to examine our challenges and tensions and to vividly imagine a version of ourselves one year from now. “What is your vision asking of you?” Hargreaves asked. “Our world is the story we tell ourselves. And we can change it.”

Toward a Better Future

What does our vision for a diverse and equal industry ask of us? We have the power to shape our world through our narrative and our actions going forward. If we can imagine each step as a call to action toward this vision of a better future for design, we can become empowered to enact the lessons we learned from Women in Design. 

So I ask you to envision a future for our industry of inclusivity and diversity, embracing the perspectives and experiences that make our lives and our work meaningful. A single day is not enough: We must live these lessons 365 days a year, and in doing so, we will create a future we believe in. 



This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of INNOVATION magazine. 

Caterina Rizzoni is an industrial designer at Kaleidoscope. She is passionate about leveraging co-design and human-centered design practices to better serve the needs of the end user. Rizzoni is also the vice chair of the Central Ohio chapter of IDSA.