Women in Design History: Defying Definition

Graphic design emerged in the mid-19th Century at the convergence of different specializations — including printing, typography, engraving, and illustration — which makes tracing its history rather slippery. Its place on the borders of art history and advertising complicates how we categorize both graphic design’s role and location in cultural record. Individual agency, power, and privilege are also key factors in this categorization, so placing women in an already murky history can be a challenge.

As design is often a collaborative practice, we must seek out and uplift what contributions have been overshadowed to present what design professor and historian Martha Scotford called a “neat version of history.” Where have women, as design historian Cheryl Buckley put it, “been accounted for within the framework of patriarchy?” Where have they been “subsumed under the name of their husband, lover, father, or brother”? With this need for clarification in mind, we introduce this series on the history of women in graphic design, which seeks to highlight those whose work transcends simple classification.

Part 1: The Transcendent April Greiman

The first installment of this series features April Greiman, a creative whose work evades definition. In fact, with the ever-changing presence of technology in mind, she personally eschews terms like “graphic designer,” preferring to have her work considered as “trans-media.” Her career has been dogged by the question of art versus design, but she challenges simple language and creates across media, suggesting a more expansive way to engage.

Her graduate studies at Basel School of Design (then Allgemeine Künstgewerberschule Basel) in Switzerland provided an education she describes as traditional and Modernist, but which planted the seeds for a defiant future. Under Wolfgang Weingart, whom Greiman has called a “Madman of Typography,” she began to see type as expressive, freed from rigid grid-based arrangement, even as its own imagery.

After Basel, Greiman recalls that working in New York often pigeonholed designers into specializations. “I always wanted to do all of it. I just didn’t have any particular track I wanted to focus on,” she has told Meg Miller for AIGA Eye on Design. Applying to firms at that time, she claims, “I was not hireable” — a suggestion that her portfolio was not fit for corporate design firms.

Landscape-oriented poster showing a long gallery space as a setting for collaged and layered images including a foregrounded woman from the neck up wearing heavy makeup, a pencil, a gymnast, flat photographs, film rolls, a cellist, and other assorted figures and symbols of creative practices. Typography appears on the diagonal and various collage elements recede into space. April Greiman and Jayme Odgers, Poster for CalArts, 1978.

In 1976 Greiman would move to California, a step in her career that many would credit with her style becoming more solidified. Her early collaborations with photographer and designer Jayme Odgers would lead to the pair being credited as founders of the California New Wave movement, an aesthetic description to which Greiman has some aversion.

“I kind of always resented later being called ‘Queen of New Wave’ or ‘Pomo’ (postmodernism),” she told Miller. “Those aren’t anything that I identify with. But then, you know, that’s how journalism sometimes goes. I felt like as soon as you’ve given it a name, it’s dead.”

Colorful magazine collaged cover centering a photograph of a long-haired man's face rendered in purple and pink tones at center wearing lipstick and a black bar placed over his eyes, as if censored. Layers of geometric shapes radiate from the central image and a variety of objects including a fragment of a sword, a fish, a flower, and an East Asian mask are scattered throughout.

April Greiman and Jayme Odgers, WET Magazine Cover, September/October 1979.

Her and Odgers’s work together was colorful, layered, geometric — often playing with space, perspective, and dimension. Typography was put on the diagonal and flat images receded into space.

Greiman became the director of the Graphic Design program at California Institute of Arts (also known as CalArts) in 1982. While there, she successfully lobbied to get the Graphic Design department changed to Visual Communications, as she considered the former term applying strictly to printed matter. She recalls to Miller the predominantly male faculty denigrating her work, saying things like, “she takes a bunch of typesetting and stands at the top of the stairs and throws it down, and where it lands is her design.”

Her role at CalArts provided her access to video and digitizing technology that would continue to sharpen her orientation toward cutting-edge work, which would include merging images borne of that technology with traditionally hand-set elements, as well as elaborate on the work she and Odgers had done together.

Greiman would return to full-time design practice in 1984, the same year she acquired her first Macintosh, a move that has become something of legend. Her early adoption of computer technology as a tool to explore design would stand in contrast to many of her peers within the graphic design establishment.

Commissioned by the Walker Art Center’s Design Quarterly to produce her own issue in 1986, Greiman’s technological and formal experimentation culminated in the provocative Does it Make Sense?, which reimagines the magazine as a poster.

Cropped layered digitized image with a long-haired woman's nude head and shoulders and with scattered images including a brain, cave paintings, a spiral around her. A timeline of technologies and atomic language is placed at the bottom.

Cropped layered digitized image with a short-haired woman's head placed opposite bare legs and feet. Digitized photographs, layered text elements, and a timeline of technologies is placed at the bottom.
April Greiman, Does it Make Sense? (details), Issue 133, Design Quarterly, 1986.

On its front, the three by six-foot foldout features a life-size nude self-portrait of Greiman layered with images tracing the history of life and creativity, including a dinosaur and a hand holding a slab of marble. These images are paired with cosmic and scientific elements. A timeline at the bottom charts the birth of the solar system as well as various technological advances, from the camera obscura to the Macintosh. The back merges fields of colorful video images with text that ranges from existentially poetic musings to meticulous documentation of the piece’s process.

Inserting image...
April Greiman, Does it Make Sense? (Back), Issue 133, Design Quarterly, 1986.

The title refers to Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and seems to probe at the question of what is considered to be an appropriate contribution to the history of design. One of the text elements also gives rationale to perceived chaos in nature and seems to wink at Greiman’s former colleagues’ staircase critique of her work.

A picture containing a primarily white folded poster with a black bar at center with the white text "Does it make sense?" A corner of yellow patterned paper with the small blue text "hello" peeks out at top right and a faint orange text next to it reads "Design Quarterly 133."
April Greiman, Does it Make Sense? (folded), Issue 133, Design Quarterly, 1986.

The inclusion of digitized and video images classically exemplifies Greiman’s use of what she calls “hybrid imagery.” With the emphasis provided by her self-portrait, the work was criticized for being too personal. The established male New York graphic design community suggested it wasn’t graphic design at all, but rather fine art.

In a 1988 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Greiman would advocate for the embrace of technology: “At the heart of the concept of hybrid imagery is a recognition that, in inventing new technologies, we reinvent ourselves.”

Does it Make Sense? as well as other work would eventually be adapted as augmented reality pieces in collaboration with Dale Herigstad and the group alt>dq.

Portrait-oriented poster featuring a colorful fragmented silhouette of a human body with differently colored brains over different areas of the figure. Other elements are layered behind and are semi transparent, including a fish and an organic spiral pattern at top left. The names of several people run down the right side of the poster and other assorted text is regularly placed throughout.
April Greiman, AIGA Communication Graphics: Holographic Model, 1993.

Greiman’s 1993 AIGA Communication Graphics poster would further show the development of her design practice and conceptual interests. Here, Greiman’s taste for the intersection of the spiritual and the scientific lives on. Images of colored brains are placed over a human form to represent the seven chakras, alongside text referring to psychiatrist Stanislav Grof’s holographic model of human consciousness. According to Cooper Hewitt: “[T]his poster equates digital and virtual innovations with physical and spiritual human energy.”

Inserting image... Warehouse C, in collaboration with RoTo Architects, Nagasaki, Japan.

As Greiman has become more established, eventually founding her own multidisciplinary design consultancy known as Made in Space, her work has taken on larger proportions and created as active partnerships with built environments. In several collaborations with RoTo Architects, Greiman has been the mind behind color palettes on significant architectural projects, including Warehouse C in Nagasaki Japan in 1995.

A building at a city intersection that features a colorful digital image split across two surfaces of the building. The image, whic is split into different sections that are colored differently primarily includes a bowl and a finger resting on it, suggesting a hand outside the image. April Greiman, “Hand Holding a Bowl of Rice” mural at the Wilshire-Vermont Metro Station in Los Angeles, 2007.

Another notable work of grand scale is an 8,200 square foot mural called “Hand Holding a Bowl of Rice” at the Wilshire-Vermont Metro Station in Los Angeles, installed in 2007.

These are among numerous explorations of art, design, and medium that make up April Greiman’s greater body of work. On embracing change, she told Ellen Lupton of Cooper Hewitt, “I’m just a very curious person. I have an insatiable appetite for questioning and trying things and technology’s been a perfect vehicle to try things and explore things in a way that I haven’t before.” In the spirit of this path fueled by curiosity, her work with Made in Space continues with one homepage mockup literally imagining a future project’s completion. With vision, passion, and a refusal to fall in line, Greiman will no doubt move forward forging a path of her own.

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