THE SITE MAGAZINE X VANCOUVER DESIGN WEEK
To launch Volume 38: Feminisms and this year’s Vancouver Design Week, The Site Magazine’s Michael Taylor discusses “Impact” (the theme of VDW 2018) and its overlap with the themes explored in this issue. Three designers, Jennifer Cutbill, Andrea McLean, and Jane Cox, who are active in the leadership of Vancouver Design Week, share their experiences and ideas pertaining to “Bodies”, “Work”, and “Stories”, the three sections of Volume 38: Feminisms.
To read the issue, and the full breadth of content under each section, please visit our buy page where you can find a stockist or order a copy online. To see the VDW 2018 agenda and read more about the theme “Impact,” visit Vancouver Design Week’s website. VDW 2018 will be held from May 7–13, 2018.
STORIES // IMPACT
Discussing approach over gender and its power in creating new narratives with Jane Cox.
Jane is the Principal of Cause + Affect, a branding and strategy agency, and a Director for Vancouver Design Week.
Michael Taylor: Your company Cause + Affect focuses on brand and strategy so I want to talk to you today about storytelling. This topic probably sounds like the most fun out of our three themes in this discussion series—certainly more fun than work—but I suspect stories, as they relate to brand and narrative and impact culture and identity, are something you take pretty seriously. Can you explain how a branding and strategy firm was born by a designer?
Jane Cox: I was in the Interior Design program at the University of Manitoba and as soon as I started my thesis I knew this discipline would be a stepping-stone. During my time in the program, it seemed to me that there were two types of designers: those with signature looks, the type of designer that pushed an aesthetic or an idea consistently; then there were those who asked questions, their designs helped uncover the problem at hand. I was always interested in culture and understanding why groups and individuals express themselves in certain ways.
When I started my career, I worked in corporate interiors for two years. I spent a lot of time asking my clients who they were and that became the driving force behind my design work. Needless to say, I am the type of designer in the latter category. At Cause + Affect the process is very similar to that in design; I can’t imagine taking on problems related to branding and identity with a different background. For me the medium doesn’t matter, it’s all about the content. With my clients now, I still feel like a designer, but I also feel like a translator or a choreographer. Design is a tool that I can leverage: it helps me uncover uniqueness easily, but most importantly it allows me to translate ideas into action through holistic listening.
MT: It’s so fantastic that as I lead you into a discussion about storytelling you begin by telling me how important listening is.
JC: Everyone—designers, strategists, leaders, whoever—forgets this!
MT: Especially when they are of the male variety?
JC: I think it’s a little outdated to say, “this is how women work and this is how men work.” I much prefer to discuss approach. I think that in design, what I would call “feminine” approach is often used because it prioritizes iteration and collaboration. At Cause + Affect we touch on a number of disciplines and we see the value across sectors that processes like design thinking can bring. This requires a lot of empathy to relate to a user and vulnerability to be able put ideas out there fluidly. The increasing value of design thinking, for example, will definitely elevate this approach and show how valuable listening skills are for everyone.
MT: Do you see a “masculine” approach as being counter to, or even less effective for your work, than what you describe as a feminine approach?
JC: There should be no debate that we are working in a world that is set up for the masculine approach, if not for men. I ran Cause + Affect with my husband for the first fifteen years. Now that I am the principal I am very aware of when I need to direct my energy in what I would say is a more conventionally masculine way, which I believe to be much more linear and singular. Jennifer and Andrea talked a lot of about the many steps toward gender equality in the workplace. I think a balanced approach amongst leaders, regardless of gender, will be a really important step forward.
MT: Jennifer mentioned how persistent gender norms can be and how aware she is now, as a mother, of the fact that boys are still often taught to be brave while girls are taught to be perfect. Since you bring up leadership, do you think that these prevalent gender norms are barriers to women being seen as fundamental in leadership?
JC: I think any parent is concerned with equality—I myself have two boys, but I think if discussions persist with gender as their basis we will never get past the stereotypes. Women take a less linear approach in their career, they juggle community and family and make it all work, but this approach could be just as easily taken by a man, at which point his leadership abilities might be questioned under today’s conventions. As a whole, we need to learn to work more collectively if we are going to be able to bring a balanced approach into an organization at any scale and eliminate the gender disparity in leadership.
MT: Since you are a designer of brands as they relate to identity, I am interested in hearing your take on how, on a personal level, it’s possible to cultivate a narrative that rejects that normative approach. Controlling one’s own narrative comes up often in popular media that touches on feminism. What should a woman today be doing to cultivate her own brand or narrative–I’ll use these terms interchangeably–in order to be impactful on her own terms?
JC: I reacted viscerally when you used the word “controlling”. As a woman, I see the value of not blindly adhering to established patriarchy. So, while taking control might be valuable, controlling might be a little fake. I went to an event recently that targeted female business leaders with the goal of changing perceptions around the use of medicinal marijuana for physical and mental well being. The number of questions throughout the presentations astounded me. So many women were being curious and insightful despite the potential for embarrassment. No one was afraid to sound silly or inexperienced. I think if that were a room full of men, it would have been a really different atmosphere.
What a “feminine” approach benefits from is its candor. To embrace this approach is to necessarily be yourself and live your values. I think it’s so important to think about our narratives in social terms, not just as something to take control of within an outmoded system, but also as an opportunity to enact the values that we want to see around us. When someone is vulnerable, asking questions and being authentic, they give permission to everyone around them to do the same. That’s why controlling your brand doesn’t sit with me. You can craft it as carefully as you want, but unless you are living it, your brand or narrative won’t be authentic and probably won’t have much impact.
MT: In my questions that have been specifically about the female condition, you continue to defer to approach. You’ve made clear that using the lens of gender will only reinforce stereotypes, but can thinking in terms of a “masculine” and “feminine” approach create the opportunity to usurp stereotypes? If vulnerability is critical to the “feminine” approach, exploring empathetically and showing up authentically as you say, isn’t this approach inherently brave and doesn’t this offer an opportunity for girls to see themselves as such?
JC: Brené Brown wrote a whole book on this. She studied vulnerability in various contexts and the most valuable take away she offers is that being vulnerable means just showing up. When I think of my boys—who quite possible have been encouraged to be brave from a young age as Jenn pointed out—I hope they can be brave in the “feminine” way: by showing up as themselves. A lot of people aren’t comfortable with that; I suspect that a lot of people think they aren’t worth it.
You know, the Yin is a quiet power and it’s complementary, not oppositional, to the Yang. I think “masculine” and “feminine” approaches are complementary too, but there needs to be a balance and right now it’s completely out of whack. If gender-loaded words like “brave” can be understood within both approaches then men and women can collectively find equilibrium. Maybe that means more women are given the opportunity to take a masculine approach, because men are more comfortable with the feminine. Maybe that means leaders are empowered to use each approach when appropriate, regardless of whether they are a man or a woman. The one thing I will say about gender is that both need to be in the room for these sorts of discussions. So, I am grateful to The Site Magazine for putting a male editor up to this task.
Michael Taylor is the Commercial Director of The Site Magazine. He spoke to Jane on May 1st, 2018 at her office in Vancouver via Skype, as she prepared for the launch of Vancouver Design Week.