If you know anything about Robynne Raye, you know that she’s outspoken, passionate, and a fierce advocate in the design community. As cofounder of the now legendary design studio, Modern Dog, her poster designs have been regularly lauded in industry publications, and the firm’s tongue-in-cheek package designs for Blue Q (among other clients), put them in an enviable position among their peers. For more than 25 years, Modern Dog was at the top of their game.
Then from 2011 to 2013, Robynne and her partner, Michael Strassburger, became embroiled in a copyright infringement case against Disney and Target. It nearly bankrupted them financially, and broke them spiritually. Fortunately, they persevered and the big corporations settled, but the firm was fractured and displaced, and Robynne and Mike were exhausted. Although Modern Dog still exists, it’s now a part-time venture for the principals, who have since taken on new roles.
Mike is an art director at the Seattle Aquarium and Robynne has been teaching full time and taking on projects of her own. If you ask her, though, she wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s busier than ever and she loves it. “When you’re running a studio, you’re managing people and projects, not actually designing. Design is what I love, and I’m happy that I’m able to do it again without the hassle of running a studio. I don’t see myself ever going back to that,” she says. “For 27 years at Modern Dog, I felt like I was taking care of other people. Now I only want to take care of myself.”
And she still likes to be part of the design conversation, especially when she sees something she doesn’t agree with. A few months ago, she unintentionally started a debate over an AIGA event in Seattle called Woman Up, that featured a panel of leading female designers discussing challenges they’ve encountered in their careers. Robynne was disturbed by the intent of the event, so she posted this on Facebook:
“If women designers are on the same level as men, why are we being separated? I saw this [event announcement] earlier today and thought, ‘Oh no, not again.’ Not that I have anything against any of the women on the panel (all talented and some of them I’m lucky to call friends), but I am dismayed that in 2016 we are still (collectively) separating women, and giving them their own ‘women platform.’ Why not just call this a leadership panel? Gender really has nothing to do with their talent. … I look forward to the day that this kind of thing stops.”
There was backlash and support, as the thread wound down the Facebook chain. Robynne will tell you any day of the week that it’s the work that matters, not what’s between your legs. “People were contacting me and telling me that I have to be a role model for women. I am a role model,” she asserts. “The truth is, at Modern Dog, I always got way more attention than Mike, and I think part of that is because I am a woman. I don’t see how it’s hurt me in any way. In some cases, I think my business partner got overlooked because he was male. I find it almost offensive when the AIGA is asking for women to get together and discuss gender issues, when the AIGA is about promoting design. Why leave the design element out of it?”
“Sexism is not a unique part of being a female graphic designer, it’s part of a challenge a person deals with if they are born with a vagina. If I’m going to attend an event that includes smart, talented women designers, then I would like to hear them talk about their work. If other people would rather talk about sexism and gender issues in the field of graphic design, then I’m not attending.”
Robynne acknowledges that sexism exists—in any field—but personally, it’s never been an obstacle for her. She believes you’re either a good designer, or you’re not. If you’re good, you can come up with a solution for any problem. Case in point: She teaches graphic design at Seattle Central Creative Academy, in Seattle, and she recently assigned a male student to design the packaging for a healthy herbal supplement that eases menstrual cramps. “I always think it’s funny when people assume you can’t design outside of your demographic. There isn’t any reason why this guy can’t do this,” she says.
As a teacher, she is mentoring and nurturing the talent of young designers, and she loves it. She hears first-hand the frustrations from students who need guidance, because they feel pressured to be good at everything. “It’s become a badge of honor to list 15 different things you can do, but 13 of those things you don’t really love, and it will show in the work. I tell my students that there’s nothing more satisfying than being good at one or two things. If you’re good at what you do, the work will come.”
She’s also compelled to educate her clients, and let them know when they don’t need something. For instance, a few years ago a former client asked her to redesign a logo she did for them ten years earlier. “They thought it was time to update it,” she says. But after looking at it, she told the client that there was no way she could make the logo work better than it already did. They said OK, and they didn’t change it. “I could’ve made money doing it, but I felt like it would have been irresponsible to try to take something that’s already working really well and make it different.”
In a similar vein, she’s doing several projects for a cannabis company. Originally, they wanted her to redesign the packaging, but she couldn’t find anything wrong with it. “It’s really quite brilliant. It doesn’t use a lot of resources—no glue, no plastic—so it’s already sustainable; the graphics are good; the simple diecut holds the product securely. There’s no reason to change the packaging,” she says, adding, “It just needs to work a bit better,” which is what she’s doing.
“I’m at a point in my career where I’m not desperate to take money from someone. I feel better telling someone what I really think, and it’s a good place to be as a designer.”