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InsightMar 08, 2021

Meet Three Women Leaders Shaping the Future of the Design Industry

Written by Rina Alfonso RGD, and Claire Dawson RGD

This International Women's Day, Rina Alfonso RGD, Claire Dawson RGD and Laura Sellors RGD share their experiences and show us how to lead with a purpose. 

Rina Alfonso RGD 

Founder and Creative Director, Studio Aorta

Rina leads Studio Aorta, a certified small, woman and minority-owned exhibition and graphic design firm embodying the synergy of narrative, design and art, based out of Washington, DC. Rina is also an adjunct Associate Professor at the MFA Museum Exhibition Planning and Design program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Did you have to overcome barriers to reach your current position? 

I faced both racial and gender microagressions throughout my professional career, although I didn’t necessarily recognize them as such at the time. As a younger designer, I was denied interviews or was put in a lower position due to my need for a work visa. I was told not to seek out promotions or reclassification (without good reason) even if my reviews were above average. I also faced a lot of doubt when I started my firm, because I was on the younger end of most founders and also not as well-connected as others. I definitely tried to overcome this in the best way I know how — showing up as my authentic self, flaws and all, and producing the best work that I possibly can.

Women are still outnumbered by men in senior positions. What does it mean to you to be a woman in a senior leadership role in the design industry?

A few months ago, I spoke with two young Filipina design students for portfolio reviews. I spoke to them at different times, but both of them mentioned that I was the first Filipina designer that they ever met and talking to me gave them hope that they could be a part of the design industry. Moments like that are what give my work and career meaning. Being in a leadership role in a specialized area of the design field is my opportunity to write my version of a story that hopefully shows other minority women who are trying to find their way that they can do it too. 

How are you using your position as a leader to incite change in the work environment? 

I’m using my position as a founder and creative leader as a form of advocacy for women, immigrants and minorities. We all have our unique stories and experiences and that impacts the work we create. It’s an unfortunate truth that despite the progress we’ve made in recent years, some of us still get stereotyped and are not taken seriously, likely due to circumstances beyond our control. The more voices we include and the more specific we are about who we are including, the closer we can get to some form of equity. 

Can you share any advice for the next generation of women leaders? 

Find your voice, be steadfast in your values and don’t compromise. Be passionate and brave, but also have compassion and empathy for others. Be patient with yourself but put in the work. Keep moving and don’t forget to do everything from the heart.

Claire Dawson RGD

Creative Director and Co-Founder, Underline Studio

Claire is an award-winning designer whose work has been recognized by D&AD, the New York Type Directors ClubOne Show, the New York Society of Publication Designers, the National Magazine AwardsGraphis and Communication Arts. She is currently President ofthe ADCC.

Did you have to overcome barriers to reach your current position? 

In my early- to mid-career, I never had the feeling that I was having to navigate a male-dominated industry. I had fantastic female and male role models and mentors, always felt very supported and worked in environments that felt equally distributed. Within thedesign industry, I’m not sure my experience would feel that different from a man’s. Once I hit senior leadership roles, I did begin to feel some barriers more because these roles require a more active engagement with clients and external companies. “The Boardroom” was and often still is, where I feel it the most. It can, at times, feel like a space that has been shaped by a very macho culture: demanding, unsupportive, fast-talking and full of showmanship. Learning to change it or just navigate it, while still being true to yourself, can be a challenge.

Women are still outnumbered by men in senior positions. What does it mean to you to be a woman in a senior leadership role in the design industry?

I feel a sense of responsibility, as a woman, to step into roles that often push me outside of my comfort zone. And perhaps it’s a female thing that I really do have to push myself to do them. I feel a sense of responsibility to say “yes”. A sense that in these roles, it’s my responsibility to bring my perspective, support and to make space for others. I’ll never forget years ago being on a panel with Hilary Ashworth speaking about her experience creating DesignThinkers. She said that men contacted her every week with offers to speak but that, at the time, she had never been contacted by a woman. I think women — myself included — need to be less afraid to speak up, to be loud, to be more confident. And honestly, I feel most proud that my children, both girls, experience their Mum as a hard-working and creative professional who loves her job. 

Can you share any advice for the next generation of women leaders? 

Do your homework, prepare and then feel the confidence that arises from knowing you are ready. That sometimes confidence comes from repetition and sometimes you just fake it until you feel it. That balancing life and work is a constant struggle, it’s an endless work in process and ever-changing. 

Laura Sellors RGD 

CEO and Sr. Business Director, Frontier

For over 20 years, Laura has shaped and led creative firms, from software startups to ad agencies to environmental design companies. Laura is a frequent speaker and past Board Member of the RGD and the Society for Marketing Professional Services’ Ontario. She currently serves on themanagement committee and co-chair of the outreach committee of ULI Toronto.

Did you have to overcome barriers to reach your current position? 

​Perhaps I’ve been fortunate to have worked with inclusive and welcoming companies. This could be because my early career was in the worlds of theatre, entertainment and art, which, while they have their issues, are not as historically male-dominated business environments. That’s not to say that I haven’t had to work hard to get where I am. I got my first job at 12 and have been driven by a “hard work pays off in the long run” mentality ever since. In my mind, I’ve always been on an equal playing field as my male peers. I also try to think strategically—to take what could have been a barrier and turn it into something that helped my career. For example, during the eight-year period when I was on and off maternity leaves, I used each return as an opportunity to renegotiate my role and my salary. I capitalized on how much employers recognized my value while I was gone.

Women are still outnumbered by men in senior positions. What does it mean to you to be a woman in a senior leadership role in the design industry?

​I’m grateful for the women who charted the path for today’s women to have the opportunities we do now. It’s nice to see increasing numbers of deserving women in senior leadership roles. I have not felt out of place on leadership teams and I hope that’s the case for my peers as well. I will say how incredibly inspired and happy I am for women business owners in particular. I’ve heard many tell their stories of "taking that leap of faith" and never looking back. It’s wonderful to feel great about what you do. Being a leader and in particular being a woman leader in the design industry requires self-confidence and that’s something I’m proud to say I’ve developed over the years. 

How are you using your position as a leader to incite change in the work environment? 

I’m doing a lot of listening. I want to understand the environments that younger generations want to work in. If we’re going to enact lasting change, we have to set them up for success. No company will thrive without all its employees thriving — down to its most junior team members. Everyone should grow. My role is about enabling healthy, sustainable growth at an individual and at a company level.

Can you share any advice for women starting their design career?

​I encourage women who are just starting their careers in the creative industry to get as much exposure to the business side of things as they can. You can’t put on a show without thinking about how to get people into the seats! Those early learnings have paid off many times over the course of my career. Exposure to all kinds of jobs and experiences has played a big role in how I’ve grown over the course of my career. 



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