Harnessing the Power of Design
2022-03-03 • Julie Kennedy
She also asks important questions about who has been excluded from that history, what qualifies as graphic design and who gets to call themselves a designer.
“Graphic design history was established when the field was in the process of professionalizing,” Toppins says. “But some of the most catalytic artifacts in the world were made by amateurs doing things like protest graphics. Something doesn’t have to be designed by a professional to be important.”
This history of exclusion is a theme that hits home for Toppins. She faced hurdles as a first-generation college student from a blue-collar background working toward her dream of being a graphic designer.
“The first week of college, I had to buy tubes of paint that cost more than any article of clothing I owned,” she recalls. “And I remember looking at this paint and wondering ‘How am I going to do this?’
She sympathizes with first-generation students because “college is a mystifying world of strange words and procedures. It’s a culture that not everybody has access to.”
She notes that women make up more than half of graphic designers in the United States, but those numbers haven’t translated into equity.
“Most of my students are women, and when I was in school, most of my classmates were women,” she says. “But the interesting thing is that leadership positions are usually held by men, and women are still paid less than men.”
After 10 years as a working as a graphic designer at agencies in Cincinnati and Chicago, Toppins knew it was time for a change. She decided to get her graduate degree and enter academia. She taught for eight years at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she served as the first female department head in art, before coming to WashU in 2020.
“The confluence of teaching and research is really exciting,” she says. “It’s a different engagement with the field and one that I prefer. I still work long hours, and sometimes I have a lot on my plate, but I get to choose what’s on that plate.”