Design leader interview series: Lita Talarico

For AIGA Women Lead’s first interview series, we sat down with women pioneers at colleges, design studios, agencies, and large companies to share their unique stories: the journey from mentee to mentor, frank assessments of women and the design field today, and how they’ve demonstrated a commitment to gender equity in the workplaces they now lead.


As co-chair and co-founder of the School of Visual Art's MFA design program, "Designer as Author," Lita Talarico has been interacting with emerging designers on a daily basis for over twenty years. What has she learned from them, and what insights does she have for students who have their whole lives ahead of them (and might find that intimidating?) Lita spoke with AIGA executive director Julie Anixter about why it’s important to take risks even in the face of scrutiny, why you should be a person who says “yes,” and why only increased awareness will lead to change in gender parity (find out how, below).

Tell me about what your role at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

About 1997 Steve Heller approached me; he had this idea for a new design program. He was sending it to Albany to get approval and he contacted me and said when it gets approved he’d like me to get involved and run it.

It was approved! I interviewed with the College’s principals, David Rhodes, Silas Rhodes, and Anthony Rhodes, and became the co-founder and co-chair of the MFA Design program, which has morphed into what is now “SVA MFA Design / Designer As Author + Entrepreneur.”

I’m still in that position and the program has evolved. It was initially a multidisciplinary program called “Designer as Author” and was focused on authorship; very quickly it also became about entrepreneurship. We were looking for students across disciplines and we realized that if they were going to be authors they also had to have viable products to bring to the market.

We were the first MFA design program to do many things: to conceive and put products into the marketplace, to have our own large design studio where students had 24-7 access, and to have a future-forward curriculum that included the business of design. It was important to me to continue to be at the forefront of everything as we went along.

What’s most challenging for women in the creative industries right now?

In general there is more scrutiny of women in leadership positions.

It’s harder to take risks when you have that much scrutiny. Failure is part of growth and change—but it’s harder to be a risk-taker when you’re being judged by different standards.

I have never shied away from taking risks, but I always felt that there was more scrutiny and I had to defend myself more when doing so. Which was okay. I wanted to do it and I did.

How does your MFA program create a culture that supports women?

When I co-founded the MFA Design program in 1997 there were five graduate programs at SVA and during our regular meetings with the president 1 of the College I was the only woman sitting around the table. Now there are 21 grad programs and almost half of these have women at the head of the department, which is good.

It just creeps into the culture. There are many companies currently trying to overcome gender bias. There are many movements addressing it including at SVA. For instance, in fall of 2016 the Master’s Series recipient was a woman, Louise Fili, whereas traditionally it had been men. It’s a good sign that they chose Louise; not because she’s a woman but because she deserved to be honored in that way.

There are surveys that indicate this and one that I became aware of last year is Elephant in the Valley, a report that documents workplace challenges in the tech industry. We need to make people aware of what’s going on, and only then can we have change.

What have you learned from your mentors about leadership?

Here are some of the things that I’ve learned along the way:

  • Learn when to have control and when to let go.Details are important for successful outcomes but at a certain point you have to let go, and that might be a little harder for women than it is for men. When you’re launching something and everything is done, there is a moment when you have to just stand back, and let it develop its own energy.
  • Be someone who says "yes." ​This is something that I had to learn, and that’s how I’ve grown, because I’ve always embraced new challenges and change. Saying yes doesn’t mean that I’m going to do whatever is asked of me, but I like to try to determine what the request is, what’s possible, and where to go from there. That’s what I try to infuse in the program as well as with the students.
  • Don’t take things personally. It might just be my personality or it might be my gender, but I’ve noticed along the way that in situations where there are different points of view, men don’t take it personally. I used to take it very personally. Now when things are going in a way that I hadn’t wanted or anticipated, I am able to not have it be personal.
What advice do you have for organizations to support women’s leadership?

Well, just do it. And I am seeing more evidence of that. Ultimately it’s a decision that you want to make it happen. Traditionally, when a company was looking to fill a position it was about “finding the best man for the job.” Don’t leave it at that - do a little extra digging and searching and end up with the best person for the job which could also be a woman. Don’t leave it as “Let’s find the best man for this job.”

Is there anything that you know now that you wished you’d known ten years ago?

When collaborating with other people on projects and they slow down the process, realizing that most of the time they are just trying to do the best they can. When there are differences or you get to a place where you are at a standstill but everyone is trying to do the best they can, you have to be able to acknowledge that.

What is the greatest challenge that you’ve faced in your career and how did you deal with it?

The greatest challenge? There were so many.

I was always embracing new territory and taking risks. There’s the challenge of simply having the confidence that a project develops as it needs to and that’s okay. It’s not only about successful outcomes. There is a process involved too - to try to enjoy that process more.

That was a big challenge; that everything has value, regardless of the outcomes—and some are going to be more successful than others.


About Lita Talarico

Lita Talarico headshotLita Talarico is co-founder and co-chair of MFA Design: Designer as Author & Entrepreneur program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In addition, she co-founded the SVA Masters Workshop in Rome, an ongoing summer typography workshop.

Previously Talarico was founding associate of Bill Lacy Design where she directed architect selection competitions and design initiatives and conferences. 

She is co-author of Design Firms Open for Business; Typography Sketchbooks; Becoming a Graphic DesignerThe Design Entrepreneur-Turning Graphic Design into Goods that SellGraphic: Inside the Sketchbooks of the World’s Great Graphic DesignersDesign School Confidential;  Design Career: A Practical Guide for Beginning Illustrators and Graphic Designers. Formerly she was a reporter-at-large, Italian Design Graphis; and founding managing editor, American Illustration & Photography.