Identity and the Designer Arwen Lindemann

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Identity and the Designer
Arwen Lindemann

Essay Topic 3.

What defines a person’s identity? Who or what decides on that which makes up the defining factors that contribute to one’s identity. If a person is viewed one way by their peers and see’s themself another way, which view holds more weight when it comes to defining a human being’s personality and identity? I will examine a series of defining characteristics that make up the fabric of our identity and discuss how these identities are formed, and finally relate these factors back to my own personal identity and professional practice.

Every day we are judged and pass judgment on others based on a set of arbitrary rules society has set out for us such as the clothes we wear, our hair, make-up, skin colour, gender, background, social standing, education, voice, facial expression and body language. Years of social conditioning from both the media, and our peers, combined with whatever is flavor of the month at this particular point in time, has left us with a specific archetype for how an acceptable person should look and act. A student who speaks up often in class can be labeled a nerd, a girl who has many partners can be labeled easy, someone who gets nervous around new people can be labeled a shy person despite their personality being completely different given the right time, place and group of people. A woman with a variety of male partners might never identify herself as easy, and yet if others label her as such, does that make it so?
How much of our identity is chosen for us by external influences such as family, friends, the media and societal structures? Mrkich (2006)1 suggests that Identity is more fluid than fixed and is comprised of a myriad of inner qualities and outer representations of self, innumerable defining characteristics that can change at any given moment.
The fabric of ones identity can be defined by a variety of factors such as age, race, gender, work, education, political leaning, religion and sexual orientation. Hogg and Terry (2000)2 argue that for many people their work and professional identity may be more pervasive and important to them than any ascribed identities based on gender, race, ethnicity, etc. Many working adults today spend more time with their work colleagues than they do their own family so it is only natural that people would consider their work to be a defining factor in their identity.
Gender plays are large part in defining ones identity, if not the biggest part. From birth society places a set of rules on us, blue for boys, pink for girls. Society tells us that boys are stronger, tougher and rowdier, while girls are softer, gentler and more cautious. The jobs people end up doing for the rest of their life, may well have been predetermined for them based solely on their gender. Careers such as engineering and mechanics have long been populated by a majority of men whilst careers such as social work and nursing and primarily occupied by women. Both genders have the capacity for either career and it is only through a predetermined set of values society has set out for us that we as humans are led to believe that a person from a certain gender acts one way while someone else acts another way.
A person’s race is another important characteristic that contributes to the structure of one’s identity. Madan’s essay ‘Home and Identity’ taken from ‘Traveller’s Tales, Narratives of Home and displacement’3 discusses the distinctive situation that people of mixed races find themselves in. Their identity is often a hybrid of two sometimes very opposing characteristics. A person born from a traditional Chinese family but brought up in a western country may find an identity somewhere in between the two, bound by the traditional family structures and values, yet influence by the western upbringing and modern day youth culture.
For many people their political leaning defines who they are. A left or right wing view of the world can bring about it a set of values, belief systems, and all-encompassing sense of right or wrong. But how deeply rooted do these politically affiliated personality traits such as conservative and liberal really go? And what part do the political leanings of a child’s parents have on their own politics as they grow older? Which brings us back to the question of how much of our identity is chosen for us. In 1969 Block4 conducted an experiment to discover how deeply rooted our political leanings are. He asked a group of children questions and made predictions on their future political leanings and then two decades later checked back on them as adults to discover the results. The conservatives were described as quiet, neat, compliant and uncomfortable with uncertainty, whilst the liberals were expressive, energetic, curious and self assertive.
The culture of our family and friends as well as the country we grow up in both have a major impact on a person’s identity. The different defining characteristics of each nation are so well known they border on cliché. Between the obnoxious American, snotty Frenchmen and lazy Australian all nations on earth have a myriad of both positive and negative characteristics associated with them. We all buy into the stereotype despite the obvious fact that it is impossible for a whole nation to have such defining personality characteristics. The Australian stereotype is the nice, friendly, outdoorsy, bogan, beer drinking relaxed person, and yet, as I’m sure the same can be said for the stereotypes of many nations, I’ve met many people quite the contrary of this and as such I believe we cannot truly have our personality identified by our nationality.
My identity as a young female, white Australian, politically liberal design student, brings with it a myriad of clichés and stereotypes associated with that. If I was to be introduced and described like that to a crowded room of people, already preconceptions and judgments have been formed before I even open my mouth.
For starters, the role of women in the design community bring with it a whole new level of discussions and debates. Whilst 65% of design students are female5, only 30% of females make up higher tier positions in design firms. This fact coupled with my identity as a young female brings about the question of; will I ever be able to make it to upper level management positions? Or will their only be certain area’s of design I can advance to? Even today different aspects of design are associated with different genders. Females work in fashion and interior design, whilst males work in industrial design and brand development for large corporations. Are male designers capable of creating design aimed solely at women or should a good designer be able to create an effective design solution for the client regardless of gender.

My identity as an Australian holds little prestige in the international design community, unlike New York or London or Paris, Australia has very little weight in the minds of those in the design community who are not directly associated with it. Whilst many Australian students study and follow the works of American, British, Dutch, Swiss and various other European designers, people in other countries have little knowledge of Australian design heavyweights and Australian design culture outside of the cliché.

Finally, someone’s political leaning identity may inadvertently have an impact on their design practice. Lets say for arguments sake that we are buying into the cliché viewpoints held of both conservative and liberal politics. A liberal designer may find issue with taking on larger big business clients that do not share their values. As designer’s we have to power to shape, make and break brands and politically liberal designers may find themselves questioning the ethics of increasing the popularity and profits of a large corporation aimed at stamping out small and independent businesses.
A portion of our identity given to us and is pre-determined for us at birth. Our race, gender and country of origin will always be something we have little control over. However this portion of our identity does not define us. As humans we have the power to shape, change and reinvent our identity, and as designers we should be particularly proficient at this. The way people see us forms a part of our identity yes, but it is by no means the only part, it is us who truly hold the power to shape and define our own identity.

1 Author: Dana Mrkich‘Do you choose your identity or is it chosen for you?’ (2006)


Author(s): Michael A. Hogg and Deborah J. Terry
‘Social Identity and Self-categorization processes in organizational contexts’. The Academy of Management Review, Vol 25, No. 1 Jan, 2000 pp. 121 - 140


 Sarup, Madam (1994) ‘Home and Identity’ in George Robertson, Melinda Mash. ‘Traveller’s Tales, Narratives of Home and Displacement’, Routledge, London.


 Jack and Jeanne Block. Study conducted 1969, results published 2006.


 The Guardian, 29th January 2013. Rebecca Ratcliffe.

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