Baseline Shift: Untold Stories

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday September 30, 2021

For all the typophiles and hand lettering freaks out there, Baseline Shift: Untold Stories of Women in Graphic Design History is a must not miss. Edited by Briar Levit, a graphic designer who produced the documentary film Graphic Means: A History of Graphic Design Production, the book includes fifteen essays by experts in the fields of Publishing, Activism & Patriotism, Press & Production, and Commercial. The topics are as diverse as the world of design. Among the subjects are Monotype’s UK Type Drawing Office, which primarily recruited technically educated women around the age of 18; Women of the Federal Art Project Poster Division; Press On!—Feminist Historiography of Print Culture and Collective Organizing; Typist to Typesetter: Norma Kitson and Her Red Lion Setters. Above: Marget Larsen, environmental graphics for Shandygaff Restaurant, San Francisco, California,1971. (Courtesy of Communication Arts Magazine) Right: Robert Mugabe with the Madame Binh Graphics Collective: ZANU Women’s League print, 1982, poster. (Courtesy of Mary Patten)

The chapter titles offer clues to the nature of the editor’s mission—and the title, Baseline Shift, aptly captures the idea that women in the world of graphic design were prevalent; being overlooked by the primarily White male-dominated field of advertising and graphic design is where an attitude shift is wanted. There are many star designers who are women, such as Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, Bea Feitler, and Paula Scher, to name a few. But every design field, like every industry, is filled with people doing the daily work that keeps those ships afloat. These are the women celebrated in these well-illustrated pages. Right: Ellen Raskin, cover of The Smile on the Face of the Lion, P. M. Pasinetti, 1965. Raskin used woodcut lettering to make the type of groovy new forms that were popular in the 1960s. (Courtesy of Ellen Raskin Estate)

The book is fun to read in the sense that there is no particular order in which it needs to be read. Browsing is a good way to start because the illustrations are so varied in subject, style and timeframe. A chapter on women printers in the Colonial era, for example, is a tribute to the strength and resilience of women who were, in fact, the chattle of their  husbands. Sarah McCoy tells the story of the first printer in America, one Elizabeth Glover, who left England with her husband, a nonconformist minister who aspired to preach in freedom and to publish, unfettered, his sermons and homilies. Glover died on the voyage, leaving Elizabeth to establish a print shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the assistance of her husband’s type compositor. Her most ambitious project was the three-hundred-page Bay Psalm Book. 

Elizabeth's second husband, Henry Dunster (who later became the first president of Harvard University) continued the operation, which formed the beginnings of the Harvard University Press. Other women portrayed in this chapter were not quite as fortunate, and struggled against enormous odds to keep an inherited press going after the death of a husband, with a houseful of children to rear. Below: Dora Laing at the drawing board in the Monotype TDO, in Salfords, Surrey, UK, probably during the mid-1950s. (Richard Cooper personal archives)


The last chapter is a profile on typographer and graphic designer Betti Broadwater Haft by Anne Calperin, done from recent interviews with the designer and her colleagues. Haft, then Broadwater, began her career on a night school scholarship to New York's Workshop School of Advertising Art, in 1949. There she studied lettering with Paul Standard, the eminence grise who also taught at Cooper Union; he urged her to apply, and she won a place in the certificate program, where she focused on type design and letterpress printing.

Receiving her education when schools were flooded with men studying on the GI bill instilled in her a professionalism that served her well as she entered a field that was previously closed to women. She landed a job with Will Burtin Incorporated, from which she later moved on to become the first woman to work for the Geigy Pharmaceutical Design Office, in Switzerland. The chapter delineates the major stages of Haft’s career, which included designing several fonts for Photolettering Inc. [PLINC] to becoming the head of communications design at the College of Staten Island. Throughout her fifty-year career, Haft’s talent and worth ethic positioned her to take projects that bore her own name, for example the Haft Grotesque type family for PLINC.   

Baseline Shift: Untold Stories of Women in Graphic Design History, edited by Briar Levit (Princeton Architectural Press 2021), is available for pre-order at

Debbie Millman, host of Design Matters and chair of the MPS in Branding program at SVA writes,  “While the founders of graphic design have long been thought to be exclusively White men, Baseline Shift emphatically and empirically proves otherwise. The essayists have expertly investigated the forgotten history of graphic design and reveal that it is gloriously diverse.”

On November 11 Millman will be joined live at the Cooper Union’s Great Hall by Maira and Alex Kalman for discussion that considers "How do you create a life with purpose and meaning?" The free public program is in honor of the curated anthology Why Design Matters: Conversations with the World’s Most Creative People which features text from Millman’s conversations with the world’s most gifted creative minds, leaders, and intellectuals. Copies will be available through the Strand Book Store at the event. Registration is required for this free public program at Attendees must show proof of vaccination and wear a mask indoors.

In the course of prowling further, I also discovered the recently reinvented Photolettering Inc. website, created by Grainedit