Opinion: Why Women Designers Need a Seat at the Table in Corporate Boardrooms and Beyond

Metropolis's director of design innovation discusses the influential women she has invited for a panel discussion this Thursday titled "Women of Influence in the Business of Design."
Susan Szenasy Pratt Women Business Panel

Panelist’s on the upcoming discussion “Women of Influence in the Business of Design” include (from left) Frances Bronet, Debbie Millman, Sybil Yurman of David Yurman, and Metropolis’s own Susan S. Szenasy, who will moderate. Courtesy Pratt Institute


Each time I turn on the TV or read a news report on my iPhone, I’m reminded of the deep-seated corruption in business and government—depressing and disturbing realities of life in 2018.

While the state of the government is, in itself, nauseating enough, today I’m thinking about the sad state of American business. From Washington, D.C. to Menlo Park, California come details of corrupt deals, mendacious behaviors, unethical uses of financial power, cheating, lying, defrauding. The word, “fixer,” used at one time in connection with Mafia dons, has crept into our vocabulary. If that wasn’t enough, the male-dominated power elite seems at ease with misogyny, despite the popular “Me Too” movement. In this world of bad behavior, I’m in constant search for the good in us.

I turn my eyes toward a discussion during Design Talks at NYCxDesign. The panel I’m preparing to moderate on May 17, “Women of Influence in the Business of Design,” will bring together the stars of academia and brand strategies. My group includes Frances Bronet, the Pratt Institute’s new president, and Debbie Millman, an influential writer, designer, and podcast host; their presence promises an hour bristling with positive energy, inspiration, fun, while pointing the way to success.

Now that designers such Frances and Debbie are invited to take their long-sought seat at the table of corporate and institutional decision makers, they can tell their design-world peers about the boardroom experience. Though there was a lot of wishful thinking about connecting with the power elite, it is hard to start a serious conversation when designers who have sometimes thought about their work as stylistic expressions.

These two women went beyond the superficial vision of design. Throughout their careers, they focused on the substance of design thinking, ideas, and solutions. They are among those who have, at last, taken design’s popular image from superficiality to one of necessity. And they continue to build a solid foundation for an informed, connected, and ethical design community that serves the complex needs of places and people, albeit beautifully.

Frances Bronet is the first female to become the president of Pratt. She likes to think of her new post as a think tank: great minds from every area of knowledge to which a university has access, including the sciences, the design fields, engineering, the arts—all engaged in discourses on the wicked problems of our time. Climate change, with its documented connections to the built environment is, for instance, about to reform how architecture is taught and built. And Frances, at the epicenter of this change, is shepherding a vital academic institution while connecting it with design professionals and their collaborators.

Her students are part of the new, tech-infused generation, committed to collaboration, community, the environment, and a desire to find meaningful work, not just working to make money. Frances, herself, is a great example for the new generation, for she has been preparing for her presidential role at each of her postings, including dean of architecture at the University of Oregon and provost at IIT in Chicago. I can’t wait to ask her what she was like at the age of six, when most girls tend to be fearless, and how she held on to her spunk through the years.

Debbie Millman is an authority on branding, the evolving practice of creating identities for countries, businesses, institutions, products, and people. Based on her in-depth understanding of brands and their importance to human connection and expression, I’m eager to ask her about how companies handle their identities in our volatile political climate. Having known Debbie through her writings, for years I looked forward to meeting her in the studio where she interviews designers, and those related to design, for her podcast series, Design Matters. I finally made it a few years ago. Debbie’s beautiful radio voice, supported by her deep dive into her subject, made her conversation with me, as with many others, both personal and professional.

Debbie and Frances are essential voices in design, and society at large. In an amnesia-afflicted world that needs their wisdom desperately, they are among the guides that will lead us out of our mental desert. During our panel, we will dig into how these women see the connection between design and business, and much more.

Come and meet us on May 17, at 6 pm, Durst Marketing Center, 4 Times Square, NYC.

Categories: Ideas