NOTE: In order to make communication easier, in this blog post I will refer to stereotypically perceived male design attributes of the components of a corporate identity (image, logo, graphics, logo and colours) as “male” and typically female assigned as “female”. As this bases on stereotypes it in no way suggests that this is always the case and that design attributes can be categorised in such a way. Society nowadays is so diverse and ultimately the division into male and female is not possible. However as it was my aim to find these “grey areas” between stereotypically male and female design to be able to pinpoint where gender-neutral design starts, I will use these stereotypical assignments I researched in semester 1.
My aim for the semester was to test gendered design and what characteristics make a design more targeted towards a certain gender. I was hoping to see if there is a generalised formula you can utilise if you want to adapt branding/ design to be considered gender-neutral. I wanted to keep a certain aspect to base the design on and decided to keep the imagery static while step by step changing other gendered characteristics like typography, graphics, logo and colours.
After having experimented with different layouts and different industries using gendered characteristics, the outcome can be found in the specific blog posts. Here is the detailed analysis.
Experiments in fashion
MALES. What I already expected before starting to work with designs for fashion imagery was that there would be differences between the different styles and their perceived gender. Street style on the one hand is usually perceived very male, however in the last few years has started to shift to often being unisex. Therefore I wanted to see if this change has impacted the way we design for this style industry. I also wanted to take a closer look at other styles like business which is still very classic and therefore more targeted towards males or “preppy” where the male fashion is often already quite feminised. In general, I was also aware that choosing imagery that only portrayed men, would influence the perceived gender already a lot.
I have to say I was quite surprised by the outcome of the fashion experiments. In the areas, like street style where I expected the transition to be easier, I feel like the step-by-step targeting towards women did not completely work but on the other hand, the imagery related to business was more successful. I do believe the “moods” of the images here had quite a large impact on the design as a whole, so perhaps using imagery with both genders would make this easier. As already stated throughout the different experiments, I felt like the images, typography and colours had the most impact in the end, so I started to focus on those.
FEMALES. Here I also structured the experiments into categories and expected some areas like street style to be easier to make perceived male and high fashion to be the 2nd. Accessories (sunglasses, beauty, scarves) I expected to be the hardest as this is an industry typically targeted towards women.
In general, it was a lot harder to change female designs to male, as expected. From the research in the first semester it was clear that male stereotypes of being perceived less strong aka. female was associated with failure as a man, so this transition not working does not surprise me. In the areas like street style, however I feel like it was easier.
Experiments in other industries
As touched upon before I wanted to analyse if people effect the way we perceive a gender in design. For that I chose the categories product (drinks) and interior design as both are very diverse and rather gender-neutral. Here I could really closely analyse the impact of different components of a corporate identity.
For both product and interior design, I feel like the transition to the opposite gender worked. As assumed before the lack of people and therefore gender-neutrality probably helped with that. Here I think the colours were the biggest impact on the design and usually were, in my opinion, the point of transition. In general, these industries provided a lot of space for interpretation and gave me room to experiment quite a lot.
In general, it can be said that changing the perceived gender is not as easy as it seems to be. A lot of factors also play a role that are not taken into consideration between the components of a corporate identity like the mood of the imagery, the presence of people or the often associated gender with an industry (like cars, sports, beauty, etc.). As assumed, turning male into female designs was much easier due to the societal issues with masculinity vs femininity and the female “disadvantage”. However some industries where a change is on track, like in street style, it is not as big of an obstacle. I do believe however, that I have not as hoped discovered clear “grey areas” which indicate gender-neutrality and can give an indication on how many female vs male characteristics equal gender-neutral design. I believe it has much more to do with a lot of other factors that have be considered individually when wanting to design gender-neutral. Some factors do have a larger impact than others, like colour, image or typography but in the end, unfortunately there is no “one rule fits all” solution to gender-neutrality in design.
After experimenting on male imagery, I wanted to do the same for females. I categorised into 3: accessories focussed, high fashion and street style. Step by step I changed different components from the corporate design to make it fit more into male stereotypes.
Experiment 1: Accessories
Experiment 2: High fashion
Experiment 3: Street style
For the very stereotypically female images like the accessories industry, it is hard to add male characteristics to change the perceived target group. For other industries like high fashion and street style, altering was easier. Again, the characteristics like colour and typography made the most impact in my opinion and I am quite happy with the results. I would like to analyse next how other characteristics in different more neutral market industries like product design or interior design can affect the design and its perceived gender stereotype.
To stay within the topic of fashion branding, I decided to firstly experiment within the fashion graphic design industry. I structured the experiments based on different fashion styles as I think different styles are more likely and some less likely to be considered “more” or “less male/female. Based on “male” considered images, I changed components within typography, logos, graphics and lastly colours to showcase the process of adding more and more stereotypically considered female components of design. Here is the outcome:
Experiment 1: Street style
Experiment 2: Business style
Experiment 3: Preppy style
As I assumed I feel it’s quite hard to make male dominated pictures “more female” only through changing characteristics such as typography and graphics. Even after completely changing colours of the design, I think the designs still are quite male dominated through the imagery. This makes me assume that imagery has a very high impact within gendered design. Colours as well as typography however, also have quite a large impact, whereas graphics and logo have less. As assumed in fashion styles like “preppy” it was easier to regender the design and make it more stereotypically female, whereas street style and business style was harder. The outcome to me actually feels more feminine despite the “male” imagery. I am excited to see if the female imagery shows a similar outcome, as previous research suggested.
As mentioned within my last blog post, I plan to experiment with the boundaries between stereotypically assigned female and male design, where exactly these boundaries lie and where gender neutrality could be perceived.
Set up experiment parameters
Set up areas to experiment within
Research & produce pictures
Research typography, logos, etc.
Design advertising with mix of male/female characteristics
For that, I want to begin with setting some parameters within the research and define which areas I want to experiment within. This will give me a brief overview of how the experiment can be conducted. Then, I will produce material for the experiment through photography, researching online, downloading fonts, etc. Next, I can use the materials I collected and start composing designs with different elements to experiment with the use of “female” vs “male design”. After a number of examples are done, I will ask participants to choose if they consider the design more male or female or even gender neutral.
Firstly, I want to give the experiment some sort of structure so I can somewhat compare my findings in the end to come to a conclusion, even though it is an experiment and changes could occur throughout. To stay within the topic of branding, I would like to use the components of the corporate identity: logo, typography, colours, graphics and imagery, with images being the focal point of the experiment. For photography, I will not have any limitations to the subject but will rather see which industries and imagery inspire me to use within this testing.
After researching and taking pictures, I will combine the stereotypically male vs female images with one, two, three or four components of the opposite gender. For example: I will use a “female” image with stereotypical attributes such as friends, flowers, shopping, etc. and combine those with male characteristics within logo, colours, graphics and typography. Here the question then lies if even replacing one component like colour will already make the design perceived male or only after 2, 3 or even all others. Also it will be interesting to see if some components will have a stronger influence than others and when the in-between stage lies, so a design can be gender neutral.
After the experiment I hope to be able to come to some sort of conclusion. I will summarise my findings and what was interesting and start to categorise the results. I am excited to see what this experiment brings.
After having a closer look at other unisex-clothing companies and quite different outcomes and interpretations, I would like to see how theory defines a gender-neutral corporate identity. Again, to simplify how this blog article is structured, the different elements will be analysed based the elements of a corporate identity: colours, typography, images and graphics and as an extra: language. The element logo is not included as it is mainly created with the use of either typography and graphics, only graphics or only typography.
In general, it is quite hard to find literature or scholarly articles about this topic as it is a fairly new development within the branding and marketing industry, so the main sources utilised are online articles. Added to that, gender stereotypes are often forbidden rules that designers follow, resulting in only a handful of sources that actually speak the unspoken. It should also be said that these guides and stereotypes are a generalisation of examinations and should not be taken for the norm. Mixed with the practical analysis we have conducted, it can however show possible next steps in the realisation of a gender-neutral fashion corporate identity.
Which colours are stereotypically assigned to which gender and which are typically gender-neutral?
When speaking of stereotypical colours, many of us have heard the sentence “blue is for boys, pink is for girls”. This starts from a young age with for example gender reveals using these two colours as indicators for the sex. Even though a lot of people and brands want to distance themselves from this gender stamp, it is still utilised in branding for specific genders. This also translates to neighbouring colours in the colour wheel, with green for boys and purple for girls. In general, it is often said that males prefer brighter, bolder colours compared to females gravitating more towards light and pastel shades. Interesting to see is the statistic that blue actually is the favourite colour for both genders in adult life, and orange and brown often the least. From these facts, many guidelines suggest white, greys, browns, yellows, greens and black as safe colours for use. When comparing this to the comparative analysis from the last blog post, you can see a lot of overlaps in the companies, except for the brand Collusion. They specifically used lighter, pastel colours incl. pink and purple symbolising femininity, as well as gender neutral colours green, yellow, white and black, but also stereotypical masculine colours like bright red. For future implementation it could be interesting to decide to either perhaps break the norms of gendered colours like Collusion or stick to gender-neutrality like other competitors.
Stereotypical gender-based typographyoptions
Typography stereotypes also originate from a young age, explaining to girls that a thin, round, curved, flowy handwriting is desirable. This derives from the gender norms of feminine character traits symbolising girls to be kind, quiet, shy, dainty and pursue hobbies such as ballet and art. The opposite in typography is geometric lines, serifs, geometric spacing and bold lines. These traits are often assigned to males and can similarly be translated to desired characteristics such as strong, assertive, sporty, and bold. To find a common ground and combine some elements from both genders, Helvetica is often mentioned to be the perfect example of gender-neutral typography due to its simplicity. It comes to no surprise that other unisex types are also derived from the classic library of fonts often also used in the web like Garamond, Roboto and ITC Bauhaus. The examples for unisex clothing brands from the previous post, also reflect on these “guidelines” by using non serif, more simple typefaces, whereas Collusion again plays with the norms and uses a stronger thickness. Even Human Nation occasionally utilises bolder but rounder fonts, playing with these male vs female characteristics.
Some specific characteristics for stereotypically female/male typefaces can be mentioned to further explain differences often found. Boldness is one indicator for gendered fonts- typically male targeted typefaces use boldness, whereas female fonts are more light. Serifs can also show which gendered target group is chosen due to male dominated typefaces utilising more stronger serifs like slab serifs to highlight geometry. As mentioned before ornamentation is also sometimes used as an indicator for gender: ornamental types used for women and male types contain hard edges.
Some sources state that typography and colour correlate with one another and a balance between these is important. Language usually assigns genders to words already, either through definite or indefinite articles like in the French or German language or through meaning, like in the word “ballerina” which is often combined with feminine attributes. If a more stereotypically masculine typography is utilised for such a word, this can cause an imbalance. However, wouldn’t it be fun to actively break these norms?
Is there actually a difference in gendered imagery and graphics ?
One rule one can obey when creating or choosing imagery for a company’s CI, is using women in female targeted products and men in male. Women are often portrayed having fun with friends, getting ready and men are seen doing sports. Especially in the fashion industry imagery and the portraying of women has become a heated discussion. Photoshop and other image altering software are used to change body characteristics or whole images resulting in an incorrect sense of body perception in many females. A development is being seen amongst the industry today with more and more brands either forgoing editing images or using disclaimers to try and change the negative impact it has had on society. Images used in CI in general should be always used with the target group in mind and what kind of experience should be conveyed. If a gender-neutral brand wants to portray being inclusive, then this should also be included in the imagery, featuring both genders as well as genderfluid or non-binary individuals. Gender stereotypes to group individuals should be avoided e.g. avatars that indicate a specific gender and if so, the intention should always be apparent. The gender-neutral and unisex brands presented in the last article, all make use of imagery to present their products through studio shots of the products by themselves or worn by models. The lookbook styled imagery however, is often neutral and shows diverse people showcasing the fashion. More vibrant brands like Collusion focus more on fun and colourful imagery and edits, portraying the different end of the spectrum.
Stereotypes in graphical means are also very apparent within graphic design. Websites for men often contain dark colours, bold fonts, harsh layouts and geometrical shapes and forms. This also reflects itself within graphics like icons, with men stereotypically having preferences for straight, pointed shapes, whereas female targeted icons are more rounded and smooth cornered. To create gender-neutral graphics often minimalist and outlined icons are created including both rounded and sharp edges. Other than that, there is not a lot of info on what gender-stereotypes exist within graphical means, but analysing the previously presented unisex fashion brands from the last blog post shows that there are not very apparent distinctions.
What language can I use to be gender-inclusive?
As a bonus, language should be included into the stereotypical guidelines of a gendered and gender-neutral design, as very distinctively, gendering through language plays a big role in these. Use of correct gender-neutral or gender sensible language is a big and also somewhat complex topic, so it will only be touched upon in this paragraph. As mentioned before, many words already have a gendered meaning, also often indirectly without us knowing, and these should therefore be avoided. Examples are words like “guys”, “ladies” or words like “cameraman” or “landlord”, which specifically indicate a gender. Starting in the website layout of a unisex brand, a distinction between male, female or other should not be indicated through categories for men and women but should rather be united to be considered unisex. Pronouns are also becoming a more outspoken topic. Companies like Instagram now enable to include pronouns within the bio and this should also be considered within the corporate identity. If company values are focused on a more personal approach, this should be kept in mind when addressing the target group through e.g. means of advertising. In grammar, there are also certain rules that hint towards a specific gender. Examples are sentences that include his as a reference word: “A CEO should use design to portray his values of the company”. Here replacing “his” with “their” can already make the sentence more inclusive. Examples like this should always be considered when trying to utilise gender-inclusive language. Another often unnoticed stereotype is within occupations or other stereotypes. Instead of saying “John and Mary both have full-time jobs; he helps her with the housework.”, a more equality-focused phrase would be “John and Mary both have full-time jobs; they share the housework”. Occupations like “cleaning lady” should also just be changed into “cleaner”.
The content itself is advised to be concise when targeting men including keywords that highlight “solutions to problems” to the product advertised. Women-targeted ads however, should be more detailed and descriptive and provide help and the feeling of being understood. For gender neutral advertising, a mixture of these characteristics could be the balance between the two.
In general, a CI focusing on gender-neutral/ unisex clothing or products should use inclusivity and equality within their values. The design strategy and advertising strategy should always consider this aspect and question every component on its gender-inclusiveness. All websites shown in the comparative analysis from the last blog post integrate the non-categorisation between men and women, but only use the subcategories of dividing into clothing types and pages. In general the language is determined by the identity the company has chosen for itself, so there is no clear distinction between the language of a gender-neutral CI.
So should I only design in black, white and grey and use Helvetica for my gender-neutral branding?
In general, these stereotypes are only indicators and should only be used as such. Every brand can decide for themselves if and how they want to implement gender stereotypes into their corporate identity. Sometimes going against these norms can be effective and actually target the desired target group successfully than following certain guidelines. Especially as gender-neutrality only provides a limited amount of options to choose from in different components like colour, typography, images/graphics and language, stepping out of these norms may be an approach for a gender inclusive strategy that promotes gender equality by breaking these stereotypes. All in all, a corporate identity should be appealing to the target group and depends on what kind of customer you want to attract. A target group analysis can gain more insight into preferences in a much more effective way than listening to gendered design stereotypes or guides on gender-neutral design.
Before we go into what unisex entails and how to define the word, it is important that we pinpoint the constructs that lead up to the term. Unisex and unisex fashion plays with the cultural concepts of gender and society and how gender boundaries are perceived, so therefore when we start from a broader perspective, the question we must ask ourselves first is: what is “gender”?
Gender vs. sex
The construct “gender” frequently leads to confusion as it is often interchanged and mistaken for the term “sex”. When referring to the sex of a person, it includes the division of society into male and female reproductive organs as well as sexual identity and desire/activity. Gender on the other hand, is defined by Sally McConnell-Ginet as following:
“The word gender […] refers to the complex of social, cultural, and psychological phenomena attached to sex, a usage common in the behavioral and social sciences.”
McConnell-Ginet, Sally. 2014. “Gender and its relation to sex: The myth of ‘natural’ gender.” In The Expression of Gender, by Grenville Corbett, 3-38. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter GmbH.
To further define what is meant by the social, cultural and psychological aspects, McConnel-Ginet clarifies the term sociocultural gender, as “a matter of […] the significance attached to that division [of female and male], the institutions and ideologies, the pre-scribed and claimed identities, and the array of social practices that sustain those institutions, ideologies, and identities.” This means that e.g. gender roles play an important part within gender constructs, which will be further defined below.
Gender roles, boundaries and stereotypes- what’s the difference?
Gender roles have been present for a long time, however the term was first coined by in the 1950’s by John Money. He refers to these as things that reveal a person being a woman or man, including sexuality, habits, attitude and behaviour. He also mentions conversation topics, dreams and speech determining the gender of a person. It has to be said that as this definition was published about 70 years ago, with multiple generations following, this explanation can be seen as somewhat bizarre. Nowadays gender roles and with that, boundaries, still exist within society and are usually present already from a young age. According to a paper by Anne-Kathrin Meyer’s, this happens in order to distinguish between groups and simplify the complexity of the social world and is necessary for adaptive living. Often, these roles fall into stereotypes, which are socially shared opinions on characteristics such as behaviour, capabilities and other individualities. These can be realistic but can also often be untrue and too simplified. In terms of gender, these often also negative stereotypes are occasionally found within categories like school subjects or sports, where girls are said to have a disadvantage. As these boundaries and stereotypes are a social construct, society is starting to reveal inconsistencies in gender both physically and psychologically and rethink split gender models. Through this shift, the term unisex is gaining popularity.
Unisex and fashion:
Unisex as a concept showcases an interplay between gender boundaries and roles and is continuing to gain presence within society. The term itself is also very subjective and fluid and can therefore be interpreted in many ways, with artists in the design world varying their understanding of the term immensely. In the Collins Dictionary the term is described as “[…] designed, or suitable for both sexes; not distinguishing between male and female; undifferentiated as to sex”. The term is not only limited to the fashion world but can also refer to places such as hairdressers or bathrooms. In fashion, unisex usually refers to clothing that does not comply with the socially and culturally assigned gender boundaries within clothing. This can be either by e.g. men wearing dresses or women wearing boxer shorts. Another form of unisex fashion encompasses basic clothing, accepted by society for both sexes like t-shirts and jeans, tailored for the wear of both through inclusive sizing and use of colours, graphics and patterns.
Now that the basic terms are clear, the research can continue on e.g. differences, if existing, between ungendered and genderneutral clothing.
Collins Dictionary. n.d. Definition von unisex. Accessed November 24, 2021. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/de/worterbuch/englisch/unisex.
Hively, Kimberly, and Amani El-Alayli. 2014. ““You throw like a girl:” The effect of stereotype threat on women’s athletic performance and gender stereotypes.” Psychology of sport and exercise 48-55.
Kuo, Yu-Pei, Jirawat Vongphantuset, and Eakachat Joneurairatana. 2021. “From Eastern Inspiration to Unisex Fashion: a Case Study on traditional Chinese Shenyi Attire.” Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Studies 535-546.
McConnell-Ginet, Sally. 2014. “Gender and its relation to sex: The myth of ‘natural’ gender.” In The Expression of Gender, by Greville Corbett, 3-38. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter GmbH.
Meyer, Anne-Kathrin. 2021. Mutter-Bonus in familienrechtspsychologischen Entscheidungskontexten. Eine experimentalpsychologische Untersuchung. PhD Thesis, Hagen: FernUniversität in Hagen.
Money, John. 1973. “Gender role, gender identity, core gender identity: usage and definition of terms.” Psychoanalysis (Johns) 397-403.