1. Ann Willoughby, Willoughby Design Group, Kansas City, Mo., 27 years
2. Lynda Decker, Decker Design, New York, 10 years
3. Bonnie Siegler, Number 17, New York, 12 years
4. Ellen Lupton, DesignWritingResearch, Baltimore, 16 years
5. Louis Fili, Louise Fili Ltd., New York, 16 years
6. Paula Scher, Pentagram, New York, 25 years
7. Jennifer Morla, Morla Design, Inc., San Francisco, 21 years
8. Kim Baer, KBDA, Los Angeles, 23 years
9. Deanna Kuhlmann-Leavitt, Kuhlmann Leavitt, Inc., St. Louis, 4 years
10. Cheryl Heller, Heller Communications, New York, 3 years
11. Jeri Heiden, Smog Design, Los Angeles, 6 years
12. Debbie Millman, Sterling Brands, New York, 10 years
13. Sharon Werner, Werner Design Werks, Minneapolis, 14 years
14. Cheryl Towler Weese, Studio Blue, Chicago, 10 years
15. Robynne Raye, Modern Dog, Seattle, 19 years
16. Jessica Helfand, Winterhouse, Falls Village, Conn., 8 years
17. Emily Oberman, Number 17, New York, 12 years
You’ve not only heard their names and seen their work (many on the pages
of STEP), but you’ve probably seen them speak at conferences and you
may have even met them in person. These women represent the cream of
the crop of the design world. But what do we really know beyond their design
accomplishments? We see the easy part —the finished design, the facade
of the successful studio, the accolades—yet we rarely get a chance to
find out what happens behind the scenes.
I had the privilege of asking each of these women about their experiences of owning their own
businesses, their drive to be successful, and how they balance the chaos of running a design studio
with their home/family lives.
Nearly all of the women featured have a degree in design or a related field, some have master’s
degrees; all have taught design/communications or are currently teaching. Their art influences
are varied, and not all were encouraged to pursue design as a career. In fact, Paula Scher recalls,
“When I told my mother about my plans [to become a designer], she said, ‘Oh Paula, don’t do
anything like that. It sounds like it takes talent.’” (I laugh every time I read this.)
Some have children, some don’t (by choice, I might add); the ones that do have children talk
about maintaining a healthy balance in their lives (it isn’t easy) and what works for each of them.
There are no black-and-white answers here—what works for one person doesn’t work for others.
Trying to draw out the differences between men and women in business situations proved a
bit more challenging. Some of the women have experienced chauvinism in their careers, some
haven’t; some say there’s a difference in the way they approach work compared to their male
counterparts, others say there isn’t. Many agree that the pay scales for men and women have
never been equal, but women must demand it.
If there’s one thing I learned from this series of interviews it’s this: What makes each of these
women successful is her drive, her dedication, and her skills and knowledge. Gender doesn’t factor
into these traits. Gender, however, did play a role in how some of them were treated early in
their careers, but the challenges made each of these women better designers, smarter businesspeople,
and more compassionate human beings. See for yourself.