Mirella Arapian on Womentor’s mission to improve gender equality in the design industry
Womentor is a global mentorship programme for women in graphic design. Launched on International Women’s Day in 2018, the independent initiative is run by Mirella Arapian, founder and Creative Director of Melbourne-based studio Vertigo. The programme offers career support and guidance to senior designers by pairing them with creative directors, providing them with the tools and confidence to take control of their creativity, career and future.
EM Have there been any particular experiences in your career to date that led you to found Womentor?
MA Many. When I studied design there were only 4 women in the school, including staff. We weren’t taught about women in design history (so, unfortunately [and perhaps naïvely] I didn’t think there were any), and all of the lecturers and guest speakers were men. After I graduated I had an internship where I was the only woman in the team, and after that, I got my first agency job where I was the only woman in the entire art department. I had a lot of ideas but none of them were implemented, let alone heard. I was always left out of conversations, meetings, and client presentations. I felt deflated and invisible, and to be honest if I didn’t have a passion for design I would’ve done something else with my life. That passion is what keeps me going, and still does to this day.
I didn’t have any design role models, mentors or anyone I could go to for folio feedback, advice, or even just a chat. My parents were business owners – having bought and built 2 businesses from basically nothing – so I was lucky I could go to them for guidance. But I didn’t have anyone in the industry I could turn to, which was very frustrating. When I started Vertigo in 2013, we had a couple of clients ask if there were any ‘male directors’ they could speak to about their projects. I’ve been experiencing sexism and gender inequality since the first day I entered the design world. It’s so tiring.
In 2014 I joined Women of Graphic Design as a contributor where I spent 4 years researching, sharing, and documenting the work of women in the design industry worldwide and throughout history, which not only was educational and inspiring, it affirmed how prevalent the gender issue really is. In 2017 I was a mentor in the Australian Graphic Design Association’s (AGDA) Mentorship Programme which I found incredibly rewarding, so it was from there – along with a 20-year culmination of bullshit – I conceived the idea for Womentor. I started developing it in November 2017 and it launched on International Women’s Day 2018.
EM You’ve really channelled your experiences into something positive. How’s it been going since kicking off ?
MA Womentor has become bigger than I ever imagined. When I was creating it I honestly thought 1 or 2 people would apply and I’d be the only mentor. The first programme ran in Melbourne, with 4 mentors. The demand was so high that I ran a national programme the same year, with 10 mentors across 5 states (a growth of 150%). The demand kept getting bigger, so this year I launched Womentor internationally for the first time, with 22 mentors across 5 continents (a growth of 120%). As a result of the 3 programmes so far, mentees have found new jobs, launched new businesses, landed bigger clients, expanded their networks, received pay rises, grown their self-confidence, and we just had our first senior designer be promoted to creative director. I’m so proud of all the participants and forever grateful to the mentors for helping their mentees achieve their goals. I’m also grateful to be in a position where I can give back and offer women something I never had but so desperately needed during my years as a designer. I cannot stress the importance of mentorship and how life-changing it is.
I've been experiencing sexism and gender inequality since the first day I entered the design world.
EM How do you go about selecting the right mentor for someone?
MA Firstly I conduct thorough research on each potential mentor to understand their backgrounds, work, practices, and suitability for Womentor; then through our discussions, once they join the programme I get to know them as friends and on a more personal level. Applicants are required to fill in a questionnaire outlining their strengths, ambitions, expectations, and also a bit about themselves (this is where they tend to talk about their hobbies and interests, family, personal life, etc). From there I cross-reference that information with the mentors’, also factoring in location and a bit of woman’s intuition. I’ve had a pretty good strike rate so far with only two instances when the pairing wasn’t right, and they were due to conflicts of interest.
EM Is there one particular success story you’d like to highlight?
MA Yes! We recently celebrated our first creative director, Emma Holder. Emma joined this year’s programme as a senior designer, and with the support of her mentor, Nerida Murphy of Futurebrand Australia, Emma has been promoted to creative director. It’s such a huge milestone for the initiative because not only does it prove that it works, it also contributes to improving gender equality in our industry. I know it’s a small step but it’s a start and a sign of bigger things to come.
I believe that design should always be about more than the design itself.
EM Are there any women in design that you feel particularly inspired by, who haven’t necessarily been given recognition in design history?
MA As a contributor to Women of Graphic Design I researched many brilliant and inspirational women in design history who I’d never heard of before, and one still stands out to this day: Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. Friedl was a student and eventually taught at the Weimar Bauhaus, working across textiles, printmaking, bookbinding, graphic design, and typography. In 1942 during WWII, she and her husband were deported to a camp and ghetto called Terezin, where she gave lectures and taught art. She also arranged secret classes for the children there, where she helped them understand their environment and emotions through creativity. In 1940 Friedl wrote: “I remember thinking in school how I would grow up and would protect my students from unpleasant impressions, from uncertainty, from scrappy learning… Today only one thing seems important — to rouse the desire towards creative work, to make it a habit, and to teach how to overcome difficulties that are insignificant in comparison with the goal to which you are striving.” In 1944 she was transported to Auschwitz and killed by Nazis one month later. She inspires me because in the face of adversity (and ultimately death) she shared her passion for and gift of creativity with others to help them overcome their fears. I believe that design should always be about more than the design itself; that we should find a bigger purpose and use it to help others.
EM That’s both an inspiring and harrowing story. What advice would you give to people that feel like everything is against them in trying to accomplish their goals?
MA As someone obsessed with goal setting, the best advice I can give is that no goal is impossible if you get super specific about what you want and create a plan to make it happen. Break down your goal into smaller, actionable short-term goals and give yourself a deadline for each one; that way it’s easier to achieve and the momentum will propel you to move on to the next smaller goal, and the next, and the next. Once you’ve written your plan, spend some time visualising how you’ll feel when you achieve your goal and what that will look like to you. This is where you daydream with no limits, and where your subconscious starts finding ways to help you make it all happen. If you can envision it, you can do it.
EM The Womentor identity acts as an antidote to gender stereotypes. Can you talk about the process of creating it?
MA The name came to me in a dream before I even started thinking about what to call it, and it’s what ended up forming the entire brand. My main considerations for the identity were:
1. Beautiful, powerful, and memorable, avoiding clichés; 2. Representative of the initiative, its participants, and the community; 3. Accessible to everyone regardless of gender or background; 4. Appeal to the world’s leading creative and managing directors as potential mentors; and 5. Strong enough to attract potential sponsors and investors.
I knew I wanted the ‘W’ to be the core element of the identity. The two ‘V’s as a ‘W’ represents the partnership of mentor and mentee, and the supporting zig-zag brand pattern of ‘W’s symbolises all the mentees and mentors in the program coming together, as well as inclusivity for women in the design industry. The colour system is a direct response to the outdated ‘blue for boys/pink for girls’ gender stereotypes. It’s one of the most rewarding identities I’ve ever designed and I’m proud of what it’s achieved so far, including being a finalist in the 2019 AGDA Design Awards.
EM What are your future plans for the programme?
MA I want to scale it to allow for more mentorships and also introduce a Level 2 tier programme: mentors for mentors. Some of the feedback I received from past mentors was that they wish they could join the programme as a mentee, so that got me thinking about offering mentorships for mentors because I don’t believe that anyone is beyond needing help. I’m very fortunate to currently be mentored by a creative director with tons more experience because as a creative director myself as well as a business owner there’s still so much more for me to learn. So that’s something I’m looking at developing next year and launching the year after.
Because the mentorship aspect of the programme is targeted at senior designers (due to there being little to no support for women in those positions), I want to expand that to help designers at all levels, so other plans I have are an annual print magazine, online resources such as e-books, templates, articles, a podcast, meetups, and events. These offerings will all be underpinned not by design, but by self-confidence and women’s empowerment (part of why there are only 11% of female creative directors globally). At the moment I’m looking into ways to get funding for the initiative so I can keep it running and sustainable in the long term.
With the Womentor community rapidly growing and the demand for mentorship higher than ever, I want to give women what I never had.
EM Thanks Mirella.