From top left: ĀKAU, Allessandra Banal, Amy Yalland, Caitlin Rassie, Carol Green, Ella Sutherland, Elisapeta Hinemoa Heta, Anna Wilkinson, Alice Connew. Portrait of Catherine Griffiths by Jinki Cambronero.

This time last year, graphic designer and artist Catherine Griffiths launched a protest. The Designers Institute of New Zealand (DINZ) was staging its annual awards, and Griffiths took issue with a gender imbalance: DINZ’s top accolade, the Black Pin, had been awarded 40 times to men and only three times to women. A similar imbalance was apparent in last year’s judging panels for the awards, which contained 46 men and only 15 women. 

Griffiths’s first response was to design three protest posters using the stark statistics as content, and release them into the wild on social media. She then set up the blog platform, Designers Speak (Up). This later led to an open call for posters from women designers. From Wednesday 18 September, Britomart is hosting Present Tense: Wāhine Toi Aotearoa, some of the products of that open-source poster series by women creatives that Griffiths instigated as an attempt to showcase the depth and talent of women designers. Here, she talks about how the series came about. 

[Here are links to our interviews with two other designers in the exhibition, Sarah Callesen and Elisapeta Heta]

After your initial protests, how did this poster project come about?

We set up a blog platform to provide what seemed to be a necessary channel for both written and design thought, and launched a Directory of Women Designers. Then Wendy Richdale [from Hamilton’s RAMP Gallery] extended an invitation offering the gallery for the month of May. And so we set out to engage directly with designers via the Poster Call — which has since become the mark of this project.

You’ve issued an open invitation to women designers to submit posters. How have you felt about the response?

Early this year we made an open call to women designers – and in this call we include wāhine-identifying and gender non-binary designers – to use the poster medium to address any social, cultural, or political issue of choice. The result is astounding – not only the posters, and the texts that accompany them, but the email messages that accompanied the submissions — they were often very moving. The project has revealed so much more — such depth and feeling — expressed and articulated in what we hope is a “safe” space, even though it is online for the world to see. 

You specified the designers could work in a single colour – why did you choose this particular red?

With such an open invitation, it was necessary to set up parameters around the technical side of the project, one being the vibrant colour red, also known as #ff3333, a hexidecimal (or hex) numeral system used in mathematics and computing, and in digital space. While this red is hard to achieve in print, there’s a luminosity and brightness on-screen that felt right for the project — simple yet powerful. A statement.

What do the posters say collectively about women graphic designers in Aotearoa?

To record the current landscape of women in design and give visibility to the unsung diversity of Aotearoa design is necessary and urgent. What does this landscape look like right now? What does it sound like? Who is out there? How to find these voices? Those were my questions, and now the clues, perhaps the answers, are starting to appear — I think this question is one for the viewers to try and answer! The posters have revealed a strength of voice rarely heard from women designers, and through those voices, we see the issues that concern us. 

You’re a graphic designer and artist yourself. Are you surprised at how this project has taken off?

I’ve known the struggle for women in design (and other fields) to be heard, and feel relieved first, before feeling surprised. I think if you put something out there that comes from the right place, people do respond. The Directory has been a useful and informative gauge, in that it has gathered many of us in the one space, and so we were able to connect the Poster Call as way to encourage people to join the Directory. Of the 450 or so designers now indexed, 114 have spent time and contributed to the poster project — that’s a pretty fine record — an uplifting response! The energy and generosity of people who have volunteered, offering their skills, resources, discounts, koha of personal time and mahi to help us realise the project is overwhelming. Being offered the Britomart Works on Paper site — a run of 34 A0 sized black frames in one sitting — is pure synchronicity. For Phantom Billstickers to donate the printing and paste-up of 94 different posters is enormously generous: a rotation of posters each week over four weeks. This, right now, is the record, a visual landscape of Aotearoa’s women designers, right in the middle of town.

Britomart Works on Paper with Phantom Billstickers will showcase 94 Wāhine Toi posters, printed at large scale, rotating every Wednesday for four weeks from 18 September to 16 October, 2019. There is an opening hui for the Works on Paper display on Tuesday 24 September 2019 at 6pm on the corner of Customs Street East and Gore Street, followed by a gathering at The Brit, 122 Quay Street, Britomart.