Meet The Establishment’s All-Female Design Team

For Sarah Sandman, it made perfect sense to parlay a passion for design into a 3,000-mile bike trek across America. As part of the aptly named Gift Cycle project, Sandman cycled her way from Providence, Rhode Island to Seattle, Washington, to exchange art from city to city.

The ethos behind that unconventional project — to use art and design as a means of community-building — is at the heart of Sandman’s work, and of the company she co-founded with fellow Rhode Island School of Design alum Jill Peterson: Public Displays of Affection, aka PDA.

“Designing event­-based experiences that bring people together — for research, fundraising, learning, protest, or exchange — is how we differentiate ourselves from traditional design firms,” Sandman says. “We design happenings that bring people together for a common good.” This mission has led the firm to design everything from an interactive giant Jenga set featuring the portraits of TED fellows, to a game of human scrabble, to a Brooklyn-themed miniature golf course.

It’s also what led PDA to manage the development and design of The Establishment; what better way for us to build a community-building website, after all, than by hiring a design team whose mission is founded on leveraging art to bring people together?

The visions of PDA and The Establishment dovetailed in another way, too: a shared desire to shift the paradigm of male-dominated industries. Like The Establishment, PDA is entirely run by women, and looking to disrupt the status quo through this simple, yet sadly radical, act.

“We think there is a gender gap in many industries, but particularly with leadership in design, where you more often find panels full of men representing the industry,” Peterson says. “As we grow, we don’t expect to be solely made up of women, but would like to level the imbalance at the leadership level.”

PDA co-founders Sarah Sandman, left, and Jill Peterson, right
PDA co-founders Sarah Sandman, left, and Jill Peterson, right

As part of this mission, PDA is in the throes of launching a design camp for young women. Say Sandman and Peterson:

“We’ve noticed a drop in the numbers of women enrolling in the classes [we teach] in the South Bronx and see this as an opportunity for the young women whom we’ve already worked with to mentor new ones coming up, creating a sense of community among women in design and encouraging others coming from communities of color or places where the higher education in design isn’t necessarily a common path.”

This ideology can be felt in the design elements of The Establishment; Sandman notes that she and Peterson were careful to create something that didn’t conform to narrow stereotypes about what quote-unquote “women’s websites” should look like. “Our design objective has been to avoid the overtly visually gendered aesthetics (be it imagery, typography, or color palettes) that you see so often in mainstream, women-­focused media sites like Cosmo, or even Nylon,” Sandman says. “We wanted to be provocative and honest, like Jezebel, but with more of an inviting feel and a systemic approach to the aesthetic structure.”

Bright green was selected as the primary color in part because it’s situated opposite from pink on the color wheel — an act of “opposition to our culture’s default feminine color.” Clavo was chosen as the display font because it uses serifs at an unexpected angle that separates it from more traditionally feminine serif fonts — “classy but with an edge,” as Sandman describes it. And Jen Mussari was hired to hand-letter a logo that would “evoke the raw honesty of the brand and speak to the subversive use of the word ‘Establishment’” — a name, incidentally, that PDA was instrumental in selecting. (The team also brought on a brilliant female programmer, Catherine Lewis, to handle the back-end dirty work — because, as Lewis deftly puts it, “cool projects require code.”)

Poring through color palettes for The Establishment
Poring through color palettes for The Establishment

As PDA continues to take on new projects, its core beliefs remain very much intact; current fighting-the-good-fight clients include Planned Parenthood and Acadia Center, a Northeast-based nonprofit dedicated to clean energy. Sandman’s work to use design as a tool for social change has also earned her a designation as a 2015 TED Fellow, alongside such illustrious makers as a South African spoken word artist and a Swiss quantum inventor.

“We want to provide design direction for causes and communities while also providing room for individual expression,” Peterson says — whether that involves a cross-country bicycle trek, a giant Jenga set, or, as the case may be, a female-run and decidedly not pink multimedia site.

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