The designing women of Minnesota

Stepping into the College of Visual Arts gallery in St. Paul, it’s hard to know which way to look.

The room is covered with images and words all designed to grab your attention, and then intrigue, persuade, educate or seduce you. The show is titled WOMN: Women in Minnesota Design, and it celebrates the rather formidable community of female designers here in the state.


Monica Little

Target Team Member Communications

Since 1995

Cynthia Knox is the president of Kilter, a marketing and communications firm with a strong design edge. She says while most people get what they know about the advertising industry from Mad Men, the past 20-30 years have seen some real changes, especially in smaller design firms.

Ad agencies have to be more aggressive, and as a result they tend to to reward the people who are putting the long hours. In design firms it’s less of a day to day battle for women. It’s what you bring to the table, not how late you stay at the office.

Knox says the Twin Cities, populated with such retail and food-oriented companies as Target and General Mills, created opportunities for women to take on positions of leadership in marketing departments. She says you’ll also find many independent design firms runs by women.

Now we have more women in senior roles – we have a bigger voice in bigger companies. There’s a way for women to keep their careers and be flexible. We’re seeing more real women and real scenarios in advertising, versus the idealized and glorified images of what women should be, according to men.

Knox says women create a more sensitive, nuanced message to give a portrait of a brand or product experience.


Werner Design Werks

Mrs Meyer’s Clean Day, Packaging and Catalogs


Looking around the gallery, the Target brand logo pops up repeatedly. Knox says the company has an unusual amount of power and influence on the local design scene.

Without them the warehouse district would be a bit of a ghost town. Because Target pushes designers to do creative work and embraces it, it ends up in a lot of our portfolios. However I know there are lots of changes going on in Target, so this might not continue, which would have a huge impact on the local design scene.

There’s also a distinct Minnesota design style, Knox says, which she can often pick out of a line-up of ads.

It’s sensitive, detail oriented, with layers and subtext. There’s a crafted quality that you don’t see in New York. We’re closer to San Francisco in terms of the level of sophistication.


Laurie DeMartino

Hurricane Katrina Poster


This is the 7th year the College of Visual Arts has put on a design-based show, and the first year it chose to focus on women in design. Out of the 25 designers it invited to attend, 23 participated in the show. Knox says she’s not that surprised:

It’s a large and yet closeknit group. I’ve lived in some other cities, and we have a large proportion of female designers here. NYC is more competitive; here we network more, support each other more.

Still, Knox says, woman have a long way to go to be on an equal stance with men in the advertising industry.

It’s really funny working for cosmetic companies and hearing male execs talk about what women need, as though we’re from a different planet. They rely heavily on research, not on their own women designers.I think it’s absurd for men to be telling women what they want.

WOMN: Women in Minnesota Design runs through November 13 at the College of Visual Arts gallery on the corner of Selby and Western in St. Paul.

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