Women heading up design businesses tell their career progression stories

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Last week, Kerning the Gap founder Nat Maher spoke about the career progression challenges that women face in the design industry. Now, we ask creative directors and managing directors how they got to their roles today, and what advice they would offer others.

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Pipa Nissen, director, Nissen Richards Studio


“My career was a long and winding one before becoming director of a design practice. I was incredibly lucky to have studied at a time when everyone got a free education and so was able to study both architecture and go to art school. I was fascinated by architecture, but found the commercial, male environment something I didn’t feel entirely comfortable in. I was quite shy, but knew I had a voice somewhere.

When I had children this put things sharply into focus. I went back to work almost immediately, feeling that I had to match my male colleagues, but every day I questioned every task I completed and whether it was better than playing with my kids.

This led to me starting my own practice, making my own rules, and doing the kind of creative work that I wanted to do. My practice has grown since 2010 to just over 20 people. We always have a good mix; it’s currently 60% women, many with children. I take every opportunity I can to reinforce that it’s okay to combine being a mum with being a hard-working, creative professional who works equally alongside men.

My advice would be: stick to what you enjoy, and find a place that lets you be who you are without judgement. Otherwise try being your own boss, or find other people you can team up with to create a set-up that allows you to work in the way you want to.”

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Erika Clegg, co-founder, Spring


“Throughout school and university I’d taken regular work experience at advertising agencies and design consultancies in London and the north west. I started my career at a small agency called AMD, which sold to Bell Pottinger and grew massive, then moved to Attik before launching Spring in 2006.

Our work increasingly depends on developing a deep understanding of people, which led to our Hyperlocal Everywhere research process and, ultimately, Spring’s formation of the Hyperlocal Everywhere Network. Some might argue this is quite a female skill.

I’m lucky that I grew up with a female prime minister and Queen, and was always encouraged to pursue a career. I’m also a crusader and do see that having focus and vigour helps you overcome the grey suits. My best advice would be to meet and learn from people you admire, find good mentors at each stage of your career, follow up on things and support people coming up behind you.”

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Sophie Thomas, founding director, Thomas Matthews


“I was blindly determined and ambitious when setting up Thomas Matthews, and people often see this as a male trait. This is rubbish, of course – but being female in a male-dominated industry can often be tiring, and it’s no wonder we lose so much talent along the way.

Top tips: build your confidence, but don’t become dismissive; believe in your abilities and be generous; don’t lose your humanity; enjoy being the only woman in the room and build a strong network who can support you at times of need. Don’t accept talking gigs about what it’s like to be a ‘woman who designs’, because no one ever runs talks about what it’s like to be a ‘man who designs’! Above all, do great work, and do us proud.”

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Jodie Wightman, creative director, Together Design


“My career path started after graduating with a very enthusiastic reach-out to companies I looked up to. That led to my first job at NB:Studio where I was spoilt for knowledge from inspiring mentors. After five years there and a five-year stint in New York, I’m now creative director at Together. My advice is that there’s always more to learn, so try to be around people who inspire you and projects that challenge you. And if you feel nervous or out of your comfort zone, embrace it; you are probably growing your skills more than from something you are excelling at.”

khKaren Hughes, founder and creative director, Edit_Brand Studio


“I’ve been lucky enough to have spent the last week judging at D&AD with 10 amazing designers, half of which were women. I’m writing this after a mind-blowing day watching Marina Willer, Morag Myerscough and Colleen DeCourcy. There are amazing women out there doing extraordinary work. Some of them go above and beyond. They are leaders, sharing what they do and inspiring others to do the same. They take risks and challenges. So my advice is, don’t be afraid to be seen and heard. Looking back, I realise I spent a lot of time waiting; waiting to feel good enough; to be good enough; for other people to realise I was good enough. Don’t waste time waiting. Push past the doubt, be brave and get yourself out there.”

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Aileen Geraghty, managing director, 999 Design


“I met with just one or two studios before contacting 999 and my timing was just right.  I was an eager young creative and lucky enough to be exposed to a real variety of projects. Looking back, the exposure and huge variety in my role was incredibly motivating and is what helped me grow in those early years. I often found myself in at the deep end, inexperienced, excited and nervous but I pushed through and the trust in myself, and my abilities grew.

I progressed ‘through the ranks’ as the business grew from a small independent consultancy to having three UK locations with international clients and I eventually left behind my role as design director in Glasgow to head up the London studio.

At the time I think I was quite unaware I’d accumulated a real wealth of additional skills that suddenly enabled me to take on this new, exciting role. As managing director I wear many hats each and every day. But the principals of why I still love working in the creative industry and my attitude to success are: personal drive and attitude are key; ensure you feel challenged and are continually learning; embrace the fear and unknown of new challenges; and work collaboratively – but give it your all.”

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Angela Drinkall, partner, Drinkall Dean


“At college, a female tutor told the female students that in design we would have to be strong in a man’s world. That stuck with me, and though it was tough at times, I couldn’t pretend to ‘be strong’ to overcome a gender gap. I had to be myself; I lacked confidence but I was fortunate to have a male boss for 20 years who helped me flourish in business, eventually starting my own. My advice is to have confidence in your ability and be yourself.”


Are you a female founder, managing director or creative director of a design studio? Tell us about your career progression story in the comments section below.

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