Push each other, help and connect!

Pia Christmann & Ann Richter


»notamuse« focuses on the lack of visibility of female graphic designers in the design public. The meaning of the name is clear: not a muse. Unlike the muse, who inspires male, creative spirits through her inspiring but passive role, we are concerned with female designers who themselves are creative and actively participate in designing the creative landscape. »notamuse« places them in the center of attention on this page.

We wish for more female role models in graphic design and a more diverse design scene, beyond male graphic design heros. Therefore, in the spring of 2017 we interviewed 22 women and talked about subjects like the new working world and women in »male professions«, the differences between male and female designers and sexism in everyday working life. We discussed artistic approaches, work processes and personal experiences in the design world. This website offers the opportunity to compare the designers’ answers sorted by topic and thereby give valuable insight into design concepts, ideals and personal confrontations with gender equality, both in professional and private life. Statements of sociologists and design theoreticians complement this critical analysis.
In addition to this website we developed the book »notamuse – A New Perspective on Graphic Design«, which exclusively showcases the work of contemporary female designers. It is understood as a deliberate gesture that aims to compensate the male dominated discourse in design. The book will be published in 2018.

The team of notamuse: Silva Baum, Claudia Scheer und Lea Sievertsen (left to right)


Silva Baum, Claudia Scheer, Lea Sievertsen
Mainzer Str. 12
10247 Berlin


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Code by Jens Schnitzler, Tim Rausch and Jana Reddemann

Femke Snelting

As an educated graphic designer, Femke Snelting now works as an artist and designer, developing projects at the intersection of design, feminism and free software in the Netherlands and Belgium. She is a core member of Constant, an association for art and media, and De Geuzen, a foundation for multivisual research. Additionally, she is the former head of Libre Graphics and a founding member of Open Source Publishing. We interviewed Femke Snelting on being a woman in a mainly male dominated field and why free software is a relevant practice for feminism.

A big part of your work deals with free software which seems to be a very male dominated field.

How many women are actually in the free software community?

FS: Not a lot. The gender distribution in free software is very unbalanced, and we are only talking about gender, not about age, nationality or cultural background. I am always saying, as a provocation, that free software is a feminist project. When you look at the license of software, it talks about the right of everyone to study, to distribute, to change or to use it. To me, these are feminist principles.
If you look at the numbers, there are between 3% and 11% women in the free software field, depending on if you include the people who organize or document a project or if you only look at those who write the code. In commercial software, that number is significantly higher; there you have around 30% women working in technology.
If you talk about technology, the target shifts, depending on what is supposed to be proper technology. For example, when the sewing machine was introduced, this was high technology. Once it moved into the domestic area, it was not considered technology anymore. At the moment women get their hands on it, it is no longer proper technology.
The difficulty of free software is, that it is often done in free time as an addition on top of making your living. It does not have much structure around it. That makes it very difficult for anyone, who is not in the norm, to function with ease.

Do you actively try to change the situation and to involve more women?

FS: I don’t think once we have a 50:50 balance, the problem will be solved. I will be happy if the numbers change but for me the lack of women is a symptom of something. The problem is how software production deals with its own closed-mindedness. Its own thinking, that it doesn’t matter who thinks software, who deals with it, who speaks about it and who is involved—that is what I am working on.
At Libre Graphics Research Unit we have run an all women group for learning free software for a long time. It is very hard for women to not be overruled by people that feel much more confident with technology. So, we are very careful about who we invite and the way we speak. There are techniques we use to change the way people feel with technology. It’s not just about gender, it’s more about how diverse you can allow your group to be and what you can do to make sure that you don’t exclude by default.

Did you face any challenges when trying to involve more women in the free software community?

FS: Yes, of course. If people get together to do something they like, they usually look for people just like them. So these groups naturally grow quite homogenized. When they are asked to open up, it always creates some trouble, as there are suddenly new questions being asked.
There are many reasons why groups are unhappy with this homogeneity. There are different topics that some would like to address, but too often people have habits that are hard to break. There is an expectation of how people speak and what they speak about. It’s the combination of these two things that is difficult to break, especially when you are already out of the norm once you show up. When I came to the first International Free Software Conference, there was no woman speaking and there were two in the room. On the other hand I found very special people and very interesting conversations.

Can you tell us about the code of conduct that was developed at the Libre Graphics Meeting?

FS: Well, If you think about a school, there are many ways to regulate the life inside and if there are problems, there are systems to address them. Volunteer international technological communities are not structured by professional ethics, no kind of systems are in place. At conferences, people who usually work in very isolated situations suddenly get together. These are dangerous situations that are socially intense and things happen. Lots of tools have been tested to make these spaces more safe without institutionalizing. One of these tools is the code of conduct. It has two roots: On the one hand, gender activists who see violence asked how to change these situations. On the other hand some founders started to demand that the communities have a document like this in place. This is the professionalization of the situations.
When we developed a code of conduct in the community I was part of, it was quite an intense process. Some people were completely against it, because they felt it was turning into self-regulation and that it would take the spirit out of the group. Also, you can not make a document like this without saying what will happen when someone crosses the line. We had interesting discussions about what should happen and how it should be formulated. It was a very diplomatic work. At the moment the document is in place, but the practices around it are not so established right now.

Can a code of conduct also help in fields like schools, educational systems or companies?

FS: It is about certain principles or limits that are decided by a group. They need to think about where they are excluding and how they can start to include people and which problems might occur. I think, to understand these situations as a group, a code of conduct is useful.
The question is, what happens when something goes wrong? One thing activist groups say is that a code of conduct does not help, unless it lists what you consider as, for example, harassment. It is necessary to be explicit about what you consider a problem to prevent people who are in trouble from having to argue this trouble.

Why did you take yourself out of the free software community?

FS: I have been in that community for more than 10 years. After some time you become some kind of an institution. People don’t want to hurt you, but at the same time things might need to go different. So I decided to step back for a while.

Can you explain how free software and design relate to feminism?

FS: I studied graphic design and practiced it for quite a while until I discovered making websites in early days. I got interested in the relation between design and technology, tools and design practice. I noticed that every design was created with the same software. So I started to question if there is a relation between the tools and the technologies we use and the type of designs we make.
If you think about 3D-modelling, for example of a human figure, the rendering of the outside gets a lot of attention in relation to the inside. There were people working on how to show how the blood circulation colors the skin, but in general they are just bodies that have skin wrapped around some kind of inside. That affects the way you think a body works, how a body should look like or, for example, how you perceive gender. Often genitals are not modelled. In those models, gender becomes a very strange artifact, which is somehow there and not there at the same time.
By looking carefully at the recent technology with a feminist perspective, you start to see the relation between how we design, what things look like, the tools we use and how they are constructed. For me, that is where things come together.

Does the fact that software culture is mainly male dominated encourage you to work harder on feminist topics?

FS: The way gender has played out in technology is a very clear sign that feminist work needs to be done. Gender is the first check that makes you wonder about what the norm is. But it is important that it is not just about gender. Feminism can help to understand intersectional issues that talk about normativity or neutralizing with technologies. Feminist theory helps us to discover, to speak and to think about these topics.

You also teach at different schools.

Are there differences in the way male and female students work?

FS: I teach in different schools in Brussels, with different types of students and different issues. In a technological environment, female students are often curious, but not yet skilled. Men are more likely to develop a technological interest already at a young age. They decide to do a M.A. in that specific field, in which they already know the tools. That creates problems of confidence in the first entry, because you still have to learn the basic tools, while dealing with the fact that other students get bored by you not knowing how to do a loop, for example. It makes the tutors, who take care of it, feminists, even if they wouldn’t say it that way. Most of the women graduating from this programs might not be very skilled in the end, but have a lot of confidence in working with technology and speaking about it. They are usually very good in having an intellectual and at the same time technical practice.

Do you try to involve your feminist ideas into teaching?

FS: I am doing a class called »interfacing the law«. Books and publishing are getting more and more digital, but there is a problem with public libraries, which are not allowed to distribute their digital files like their physical ones. A group of people have started to create digital libraries, called »shadow libraries«, that overcome this problem, but are not exactly legal. I was interested in how knowledge is locked into academic silos, whereas I think it is important that material is available—especially when it is digital.
So, in this project I take the idea of the shadow library or the extra legal publishing to school. I want to discuss with feminist thinkers what this means to thinking the law, thinking institution, thinking knowledge. If we do this kind of civil disobedience, there is still the word »civil«, so I am also interested in what it means to bring it back into society. These are questions of care, maintenance and continuity that are part of a feminist project.