Women in Wayfinding
2018 raised some hard-hitting issues surrounding gender equality, from pioneering movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, and enforcing gender pay gap reporting. These movements have forced us to reflect on our own experiences as women working in the design industry, to consider this effect on our professional lives, and to address where and how things can be improved.
Women account for 47% of the team here at Maynard, which reflects the statistics for the general female workforce of the UK and Australia1. Although, according to the European Commission for Mobility and Transport, the percentage of women employed in the transport sector in the UK is 20.4%2 and 21.4% in Australia3, below the EU average of 22%4.
We invited Maynard Associate Kate Pleban from our Melbourne studio, and Head of Wayfinding Hayley Branston from our London studio, to discuss their journeys and individual experiences as design professionals delivering wayfinding, graphics, and products for clients in the transport sector, and the challenges, achievements and lessons they’ve learnt along the way.
How did you get into the transport industry?
Hayley Branston: When I graduated in 2007, I started working for a large architecture and engineering practice as a wayfinding designer where I initially worked on airport projects. It was that graduate position in 2009 that also gave me my first taste of the rail environment, where we were awarded one of the contracts for Tottenham Court Road and Custom House Crossrail stations. That early experience in station wayfinding embedded the rigour into my design and strategic approach that I still rely upon today. It was a steep learning curve both fascinating and scary in equal measures!
Upon my move to Maynard in 2012 it wasn’t long before I ended up coming back to Crossrail - this time working on the Common Components team, which I am still part of today.
Kate Pleban: In the first 10 years of my career I worked as an urban designer and was involved in the design and strategic planning of numerous cities, towns and suburbs across Australia. As a keen cyclist, I’ve always been interested in how these strategies could help to influence people to choose more sustainable modes of transport as part of their daily routines.
I worked on a few projects that involved the planning and design of new footpaths and cycleways. I always saw wayfinding as a tool to help facilitate walking and cycling, and so my attraction to wayfinding was natural. In 2012, I worked on a project that involved the roll-out of a new bus infrastructure across Sydney. The project had a large wayfinding focus, and I suddenly felt I had found my calling – at the interface between urban design, wayfinding and transport.
What do you like about working in transport?
HB: It is problem solving at its most complex, and as a strategic thinker it compels me to develop new and exciting, creative solutions. You also learn so much, not just about your field of expertise, but about how to coordinate with multiple disciplines and work collaboratively.
KP: It sounds cheesy but working in transport gives me a chance to make a real difference to the future of my city. It’s so exciting to walk out of the office and see holes being dug right under your feet for the new Metro stations. It makes it all very real and relevant. Public transport has an impact on everyone – and designing for the public is what excites me the most. Living in a city that is very car-dominant, if I can encourage one person to replace their car with a bike and/or public transport, I will be happy!
Is there anything you find challenging about working on transport projects?
HB: Each transport project has its own unique criteria of environmental and human factors which always present huge challenges to resolve. For example, at London Bridge the primary focus was keeping passengers moving in a live station whilst it was undergoing transformation. For Crossrail it was making sure that the wayfinding for the nine, brand new central stations had continuity across the line, whilst ensuring the individual station teams delivered our strategy and vision.
When you first start out on rail projects the biggest achievement is getting up to speed with the language and character of the project; and understanding the magnitude of what you are designing. Between the hundreds of acronyms, standards, drawings, reports and data from other disciplines it can be overwhelming at first. My approach was to just be honest. If I didn’t know something, I would note it down and make a point of reading up on it later.
KP: I agree, the acronyms are certainly baffling! A key challenge for me in the beginning was having the confidence and finding my voice. Design reviews and stakeholder meetings can be daunting – at times you will be sat around a meeting table with experts and high calibre individuals from their respective fields. In these situations, it is really important to believe in yourself and to earn their respect, and to do that requires thorough preparation and knowing your facts to enable you to communicate in a compelling, authoritative and engaging way.
A successful wayfinding designer needs to encourage trust in relationships with clients, architects, developers, suppliers, manufactures, and the general public too. There is a complex mix of disciplines, deliverables and motivations required on any project. The architect will want to protect the aesthetic of the built environment, the client wants the most efficient station delivered on time and on budget, and the public want to be able to get in, out and around the space as efficiently as possible.
What are you most proud of?
HB: London Bridge is the first rail project that I have seen through to completion. This has given me the buzz, that excitement you feel when something comes together. It’s amazing. Large infrastructure projects can run for a long time, sometimes they go on for decades and there are inevitably hurdles during that period. Over that amount of time and with the intensity of information it is all too easy to get obsessive about smaller details. The key is to take a step back every so often and look at the bigger picture. When London Bridge was officially opened this year, it was a real achievement for me. I even sent my Mum and Dad a photograph of Prince William opening the station with one of our signs in the background!
KP: Working on the bid for Melbourne Metro was one of the most complicated and intense periods of my working life. At the time, I was also studying for my Masters in Urban Design, as well as building the Maynard business up in Melbourne. Receiving the news that we were the winning team for Melbourne Metro was a career highlight for me, and subsequently building the Maynard Australia team up from 2 to 12 people is an achievement that I am really proud of.
What would your advice be to women interested in roles like yours?
HB: Don’t be put off. Yes, statistically there are more men working on transport projects, but the majority of people in the industry respect you for the skills you bring and if you can prove yourself to be a knowledgeable industry expert then being a woman doesn’t make a difference. There are so many people and skillsets involved in a transport project, there is a role for everyone. If you are really interested speak to other women in similar roles and network within the industry.
And finally, don’t be afraid of not knowing everything at the beginning. You will be faced with many hurdles, but if your heart is in it you will learn from them and get an amazing sense of achievement.
KP: Trust and back yourself! Speak up and get your ideas out there, no matter how abstract you think they might sound. Use every day, each meeting, and each interaction as an opportunity to learn and expand your knowledge. Working in transport gives you the great privilege of working alongside some incredibly talented people. Don’t be afraid to reach out, ask questions and be a sponge - soak up all the information you can. There are so many great transport infrastructure projects happening in Australia at the moment – seize the day!