Women In Design – feat. Esther Rees-Lamb

We caught up with Esther Rees-Lamb, Creative Director and Founder at ERL Creative, to get her take on being a woman in the Design industry.

The purpose of article series ‘Women In Design’ is to feature, showcase and share the reality of being a woman in design. We gather and showcase stories, career journeys, as well as advice and wisdom.

Could you please introduce yourself as well as your background?

Of course, Hi I‘m Esther… and that’s usually as far as I get before I start panicking about how best to condense the next bit!

TL:DR – Been in the business for 25 years… and counting. Started in magazines, moved to agency, went in-house and came back out again, started my own thing. Loved print, geeked out on websites, had a tinker with most things inbetween. Managed to manage a bit, processed a few processes, set up departments, shared learnings, learnt to share, doubted myself. Failed and f****ed up plenty of times, always got back up… eventually. Curious, often confused, wears heart on sleeve, asks ‘why?’ a lot, loves a new hoodie and fresh kicks, enjoys good coffee and croissants. Cat fan and hugger. Still not 100% sure I know what I’m doing… but doing my best

In an attempt to capture some of the Wisdom you’ve gained as a woman in the design sector so far, what are 5 “stand-out things” you’ve learned that you’d like to pass on to your peers as well as the future generation of talent within your sector?

Being you is a superpower – embrace it, use it

YOU and everything you are, is amazing. How you experience the world, how you understand and see things is an invaluable, unique perspective in the room and you should never feel that your opinion or experience is invalid or irrelevant, especially not ever when compared to someone else’s.

The world, sadly, is still built around a male default perspective. And that has so many knock on effects, some small and some literally lethal for women (if you haven’t already check out Caroline Cerido-Perezez’s book Invisible Women for some jaw dropping examples),  but almost all of us take the current way of things and thinking for granted. We don’t have to.

In design, taking an alternative view is often what’s required if you want to create an experience or generate the ideas that nobody else is doing. It’s not easy moving against the tide but diversity and inclusion isn’t just the current corporate trend, it makes a very REAL difference to products, experiences and people – your perspective could unlock the next big thing.

Ask why

All ‘why’ is asking for is clarity and it does no one any harm to clarify their thoughts, ideas or instructions. In fact it’s a good habit to get into when reviewing your own work or ideas too. In doing so, one can often cut away the unnecessary, tighten up an idea or make a process even better.

Asking ‘why?’ is not, as I think some people sometimes feel, confrontational (or at least in the context I’m talking about it shouldn’t be!) and it can lead to some really interesting conversations.

If you’re struggling to understand a brief or a concept or a process, it is unlikely that you are the only person in the room that is wondering ‘why?’. But we tend to follow the herd, so when everyone else is nodding, it can be hard to be the one to say you don’t understand. If you don’t get it, ask ‘why?’, and look for the relief on the faces of other people, I guarantee you weren’t the only confused person in the room!

Stay curious

You can never know it all. You will never be able to keep up with the speed at which technology and its applications change. In design you often need to be a ‘part-time’ expert in lots of random fields. Your client list may vary wildly, finance one day, healthcare the next and you need to understand the pain points of users and businesses alike to help solve what can sometimes be really complex problems.

Play to your strengths and use the expertise in your team to shore up the gaps in your own knowledge. Read widely, on multiple topics – follow passions and keep an eye out for inspiration in unlikely places. Lateral thinking is a beautiful thing. I love the kind of thinking you see from people like Rory Sutherland (Check out his book ‘Alchemy’) a lot of what he talks about is ‘how do we improve experiences?’. It’s not always in the ways you might first think and sometimes counterintuitive ideas are gold dust.

Be curious about how the thing you’re concepting might be made and used – be it an app, a website or a brochure. Know a little bit about the process it will go through to become reality, it’ll help you understand how to build a good concept or set up your documents correctly – you need know the rules to be able to break them properly.

Understand who might be using it and where, it sounds like basic UX – but with all the demands on designers sometimes it’s surprisingly easy to forget to be the users advocate. Context is Queen.


It’s true what they say, people don’t leave jobs, they leave bad managers. Don’t be a bad manager and don’t stand for bad management. Micro management is almost always the sign of someone who either lacks confidence or hasn’t got a clue what they are doing. Never underestimate the value of trust and respect. Whatever level you’re at.

The analogy I always use is one of learning to ride a bike – You fall off and graze your knee, your manager comes along and helps you dust yourself down, tells you you’ll be ok. You’re nervous to get back on the bike, but they hold the saddle and encourage you back on, to try again. You start to peddle, you pick up speed, you’re doing it! Only to turn around and see your manager, in the distance, smiling and waving – they knew you could do it, they just needed to give you the confidence they’d be there if you wobbled.

If, on the other hand, you’re manager has nicked your bike and is riding off into the sunset themselves, added stabilisers or given you a unicycle instead and no offer of a hand to hold, just to prove you can’t do it – think about finding a new place to ride your bike.

Know your worth

Women routinely get paid less than men for the same job. Men talk for a higher percentage of time in meetings/conversations than women do, there are more CEOs called John than there are female CEOs in the world.

Women are taught to make themselves small, to not cause trouble. Don’t be loud, don’t cause a fuss. Be the caring one, the soft one, the compliant one. If you’re not, then you’re bossy, you’re ‘too much’, you’re ‘difficult’, ‘cold’. In fact chances are if you display attributes that are considered positive for your male counterparts, they will be viewed negatively if you’re a woman. Men don’t get called ‘bossy’, they get called confident or efficient.

I’d love to say that all of this is outdated thinking. I wish I was a dinosaur of a forgotten time. I wish this didn’t happen any more, but it isn’t, I’m not and it does. And it’s exhausting and upsetting and frustrating.

What’s my point? Be aware of it. We, as women, are just as guilty of holding negative opinions of our female colleagues or being utterly unaware it’s happening to us. Misogyny has been ingrained in all of us. Our expectations can be depressingly low by default.

Is the head of UX ‘bossy’ or is she a confident, assured woman, an expert in her field who knows exactly what she wants and how she wants it done.

If you’re in a senior position and/or a man – be an ally, a proper ally – it’s a doing word. Hand over one of those opportunities you got given by default, to a female, possibly more junior, colleague.Take a step back, you’ll get another chance. Those chances will keep coming your way but that one, small act of giving someone else a chance they wouldn’t normally get, could make a massive difference. Don’t take it personally, nobody is saying you’re a bad guy. You’re not, it’s not your fault that you find yourself with this privilege you didn’t ask for. But it is within your power to use that privilege to help level the playing field. It doesn’t mean you’ll lose out on anything but everyone stands to gain with better equality.

What is your take on the importance of role models?

I’m a huge believer in ‘if you can see it, you can be it’. Which is super important not just for women, but people of colour, people with disabilities and the LGBTQ+ community, to name just a few.

As a woman, to see women on company boards, winning awards, running companies, being Creative Directors – and paying it forward is super important. But not just that, seeing confident, talented women, at all levels – doing their thing and doing it well, is inspiring.

I have never worked for a female Creative Director and I’m often curious what that might have been like – that’s not to say I never will I guess, but 25 years in and all my CDs have been male.

If you can’t see it, if you don’t experience it then you only really have what you’re ‘told’ you should be like, how you’re ‘told’ you should act as a reference point – be it consciously or subconsciously. As a woman, sadly, a lot of those messages are more negative than positive – which can make it a hard landscape to navigate when you feel alone.

I’ve always tried to be myself – it became easier as I got older but it’s still a struggle sometimes. Who I am is very much not the ‘out-of-the-box’ cookie cutter female professional 1.0 that, on many occasions, I’ve thought I should be or people have suggested I should be.

I always try to be open and honest about my experiences, as I’ve found over the years it’s rare that your experiences are totally unique and sometimes it can make a world of difference to someone to know they are not alone.

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