Design leader interview series: Lynda Decker

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.


President and founder of her design firm, Decker Design, and a co-founder of AIGA Women Lead, Lynda Decker knows a thing or two about making inroads into the design field. But that doesn't mean there weren't surprises along the way. Lynda spoke with AIGA executive director Julie Anixter about how she got through what might have been the most terrifying experience of her career, how existing biases affect professional mobility, and why, at Decker Design, collaboration is key to creating an environment that supports women employees.

Lynda, you became the chair of our AIGA Women Lead committee on top of your day job. What makes you want to commit to such a role?

Women’s leadership issues have followed me since very early in my career. In the late 1980s, Dean Morris, was on the AIGA New York board and he conceived a program called “Small Talks.” The chapter was so large, the small talk format allowed people to gather and chat about ideas, trends, and issues—more like a salon. They were always looking for new topics to explore and Dean felt that women should have a greater voice in the profession since they made up so much of the membership.

He gathered a group of us for lunch and we discussed a few ideas and initially I was just one of many contributors. The evening of the event, the woman who was supposed to lead the discussion wasn’t able to come and Dean asked me to substitute. I was totally unprepared for what happened and it was probably the most terrifying experience of my career. We had a much bigger crowd than anticipated—the group discussion was very lively. It ranged from the softer subject of “you can’t have it all” to some women questioning the men in attendance directly—“why weren’t women partners at some of the leading firms?” These are still issues for women, 20 years later. There was a lot of frustration in the room that evening.

Word got out that this was not your average small talk and we organized a second evening with an even larger turnout. I was better prepared as a moderator for the second discussion and we ended the evening with the formation of a “special interest group,” or SIG. The Women’s SIG met for a number of years—and was responsible for forging new chapter leaders—Emily Ruth Cohen, who advises designers on business issues, and Laurie Churchman, who is now an educator.

The AIGA New York SIG format lost momentum after a while and organically disbanded. I don’t think a great deal happened again until Su Matthews became the president of AIGA, and brought these issues front and center to the membership. It’s clear how important it is to her, and to Deborah Adler who originally chaired this committee. I think we as a society are more open and recognizing of the challenges that gender creates in the workplace than we were 20 years ago. It’s the right time to talk about these issues.

What do you think is most challenging for women in the creative industry?

I really think it has to do with facing all the challenges that arise from existing biases, which many of us don’t want to necessarily acknowledge. It can be behavior that is overt or covert and I think that—for both women and for men—being able to overcome hidden biases is really at the root of everything.

Traditionally men have been in the sole or primary power role in business—whether it’s a creative business or whether it’s investment banking—and as our workforce becomes more diverse those ideas of power can become threatened. The research that underlies the Gender Equity Toolkit told us that leadership qualities are associated with masculine characteristics. Instead of having empathy for one another, and appreciating our differences, those power dynamics come into play and shut out the other person rather than inviting them in.

It’s interesting because empathy has become such an important cherished and valued part of design these days; The need for empathy is so pervasive. How does Decker Design create a culture that supports the women?

I have always liked environments that were more collaborative—I never flourished very well in environments that were highly competitive or where I felt that my colleagues were looking to undermine one another to get ahead in the firm.

We’ve tried to create an environment in which everybody supports each other and collaborates on everything. We all know if “I don’t have a good idea today, well, then somebody else will.” We support each other. I’ll tell my team at times, “You know what, this just isn’t working; what do you think?” and there’s no negative repercussion—we just support each other.

I’m really proud when I overhear my designers speaking to somebody new, and they’ll say, ‘Well, yeah, we all help each other; that’s just how it is here.’

That goes for our clients as well. We’ll do what we can to help them. Many of my clients have small children at home and if they need to communicate off hours because they’ve put their children to bed and work later on in the evening, or they need to have a phone call, we’ll be flexible with them and help them out. It’s not something you want to do all the time but we’re really open to that and understanding that they’re people too. I guess you might say that we are applying empathy to the creative process, to the work environment.

What have you learned about leadership from some of your best role models?

I remember when I was a fairly young designer working at an ad agency—we’d always work in teams and I was working closely with a production director. There was a woman much more senior than either of us who couldn’t make a decision. It was driving us crazy. The production director looked at me and said, “Lynda, learn to make decisions; that is going to be the most important thing that you can do.” She said, “It is maddening to listen to the indecision, and it undermines her authority.” That’s something that has stayed with me.

One of the skills that I have developed over the years is to just make a decision. Most of the time you're not going to make the wrong decision.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced recently and how have you dealt with it as a leader?

A couple of years ago I decided to go back to school and went to the Design Criticism MFA program at the School of Visual Arts. I was juggling running a business full time, and a full time course load. It was my choice, but it was quite difficult. But it achieved exactly what I wanted. I began to look at issues and the designed environment differently. I was in the program when superstorm Sandy hit New York City and like many people, I was without power for a very long time. I began to think about how we might address these issues as a city in the future.

I began to research resiliency and climate change and the quality of the water around New York City. People lost their homes in the town where I grew up on Long Island—this area has a lot of income disparity. Low income people are so vulnerable and the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) housing stock is in such horrific disrepair right now. Many people don’t realize that the vast majority of NYCHA housing is located on the floodplain.

What’s going to happen to this population as climate change accelerates? And communication around this issue is non-existent. I am developing a very strong vertical in urban resiliency—but this is not an issue that offers business opportunities. It’s much more about public safety—and the most vulnerable are our poorest neighbors.

What have you learned that you wish you’d known ten years ago in your career?

It’s easy as a designer to want to sit and just put your head down and work. I think what I’ve learned, and wish that I had done more of, is engage with my colleagues on a more regular basis. When we were working in the Gender Equity workshop we were speaking about how often women let their network deteriorate because they’re raising a family, caring for aging parents or they’re starting a business. You put your head down and concentrate because you’re just trying to get through the day and get everything done.

But whether it’s learning about a new topic or just having emotional support after a hard day, those professional relationships are important, and I wish that I hadn’t let a lot of them go by the wayside when I was starting my company. I’m on a personal mission right now to reconnect with lots of people that I’ve known throughout my career, see them again, to catch up, and talk with them.

What advice would you give people in leadership positions who want to have more women in leadership roles?

There needs to be a concerted effort because women may be less inclined to promote themselves to their superiors. For those promotions they may be less inclined to take credit. They may be quietly doing work and not pushing themselves out in front. This was confirmed by Leyla’s research—she found that women are often responsible for the “soft” work in offices, such as cleaning up after meetings, arranging birthday parties, and such. Women are also less inclined to take credit for their role in group projects. I think one of the first steps is for corporations to be aware that sometimes because of these innate biases, women may not push themselves out enough.

There needs to be more recognition and leadership training for our younger members so that they can be mentored to put themselves out there, speak up, and have a voice.

We need to have an honest talk about getting a seat at the table. Not every woman is going to show assertiveness in a way that might be recognized by, say, a male superior. But it doesn’t mean that they’re not driven and that they don’t have the determination and the fire; they just may be quieter.

There is no reason for women not to be represented in the leadership ranks of any organization. There is no reason for any panel, in this day and age, to exist without a female representation on it. There are a lot of good women out there and good women who have the potential to become leaders. That gap needs to be recognized and we need to correct it—and that can happen through education and training.

Question from the Gender Equity Toolkit

During Women’s history month, AIGA is launching the Gender Equity Toolkit, a cardgame and tool to address gender biases and encourage empathy in the workplace. In the “Empathy Building” section of the kit, participants are presented with a card that has one word on it, and asked whether it triggers “male,” “female,” or “neutral” images. Here’s how Decker played that section of the kit, which helps participants overcome stereotypes by gaining understanding and insight through word association:

    • Conflict: Male. I associate conflict as aggression therefore a masculine perspective. Conflict makes me think of a battle.
    • Challenge: Neutral. I associate challenge with athletes and I know so many of both genders that I think of it as neutral.
    • Peach: I associate peach with the phrase “Georgia Peach,” an old fashioned southern belle.
    • Apple: Neutral. IAs a designer I have difficulty separating the company from the word—I think of my iPhone.
    • Table: Neutral. It’s just a flat surface.

About Lynda Decker

Lynda Decker headshotLynda Decker is President and Creative Director of Decker Design, the award-winning New York City-based consultancy she founded in 1996. Decker Design builds leading professional service brands through research, writing, and beautifully crafted design solutions.

In addition to her work with clients, Lynda is dedicated to the design profession, serving as co-chair of the AIGA Women Lead committee, and as a past vice president and longtime member of the AIGA New York chapter.

Recognizing the importance of the written word to the design world, and seeking to improve her own writing, she earned an MFA in Design Criticism at the School of Visual Arts. During the intensive two-year program, she excelled at balancing a full course load with running Decker Design.