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 with graphic design in fashion, I wanted to see what kind of differences may occur within other industries. I decided to focus on the industries: product (drinks) and interior design as these are considered quite gender neutral. I wanted to see if giving these gendered characteristics will impact the perceived gender and if changing to the opposite will do the same.
Experiment 1: Product design(male to female)
Experiment 2: Product design(female to male)
Experiment 3: Interior design(male to female)
Experiment 4: Interior design(female to male)
I am quite surprised by the outcome as I believe changing the gendered characteristics actually had an impact on the design. Even in smaller considered changes like typography, you could already see the difference and slight tendencies towards the opposite considered gender. However, between the industries I do not see as much of a difference in the impact which is also surprising. This shows that there may be differences in industries if you compare the outcome of the fashion industry. A deeper analysis however will follow in the conclusion blog post.
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.