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Design stereotypes are everywhere. One of the most noticeable is the one that separates designs into feminine and masculine.
Even though designers tend to follow the feminine / masculine stereotype to reach the right audience, gender-neutral design is becoming more relevant. In all realms of design, we can see how gender neutrality is taking over. Gender-neutral design is not widespread yet, but seems like it will be in the years to come.
A few weeks ago at Visme, content creators and graphic designers were working on the new free presentation design e-book. When choosing the colors for the designs in the book, most of the female designers reacted positively to the pinks, purples and blues. Meanwhile, not all the male designers cared much for them. In order to reach a middle ground, the designers added more blue and took out some of the pink. This phenomenon is classic proof of how color perception is different for men and women and why gender-neutral design is so important.
How can you make your designs more gender-neutral? By finding a balance between masculine and feminine. Let’s look at the different ways that the feminine / masculine stereotype manifests itself in different aspects of design. With this knowledge, you can make informed decisions about the overall look and feel of your designs and how gender-neutral you want them to be.
You can view the visual summary of this post below or skip ahead to read a detailed explanation of each aspect of gender-neutral design.
Gender color stereotypes start to affect our perceptions at a young age.
Light blue for newborn boys and pink for newborn girls. When kids grow, the colors widen to blue, red, and green for boys and pink, purple, and fuchsia for girls. These color stereotypes are so common that they are ingrained in the general population. You will notice these color differences in designs geared toward children.
According to a study conducted by Joe Hallock in 2003, both males and females stated that blue is their favorite color and that orange and brown are among their least favorite colors.
Meanwhile, men stated that purple is among their least favorite colors, while women widely appreciated it.
In terms of design, the types of colors that will attract a specific gender depend greatly on your product or service. Let’s take a look at the marketing campaigns for a popular shaving brand. Gillette has two separate lines: one for women and one for men. Gillette Venus is mostly blue, pink, purple and yellow. Gillette for men is also blue but in a deeper tint with white and yellow details. If you look closely at how colors are used in each campaign, it is easy to see that Gillette follows the feminine / masculine stereotype.
Now, let’s look at a similar product geared toward both genders: Dermalogica. This is a skincare brand that boasts usability and quality. The colors used on the Dermalogica website are completely neutral. In fact, they make a point of using testimonials from men and women to appeal to both genders.
Light browns, greys, black and white are all gender-neutral colors. Since blue is a color liked by both genders, it can be considered a gender-neutral color as well, but not in a very dark or pastel tone. A minimalistic color scheme like the Dermalogica product line is a great example of gender-neutral design.
To accomplish a gender-neutral design, use accent colors to balance the feminine and masculine connotations. For example, notice how the main color scheme in Dermalogica is comprised of tonalities of grey, with details in purple, yellow and turquoise.
These color scheme ideas can give you a good starting point when designing for your audience. Nevertheless, it is always important to analyze your client further to know exactly what colors will resonate with them.
Gender roles in typography are easy to notice. Feminine fonts are cursive, thin, slanted or smooth. Masculine fonts have straight lines, sharp edges and geometric lines. Feminine handwritten fonts are usually decorated or bubbly, while masculine ones are geometric and sharp.
Some fonts bend the rules in terms of shape, but maintain a gender specific connotation. For example, GRIND has rounded corners like a feminine font but the spacing is geometric and the texture is rough and masculine.
Calligraphy can be either masculine or feminine, depending on the quality of the ligatures and flourishes. Heavily slanted and rounded letters have a more feminine connotation, while short straight letters with sharp brush strokes are more masculine.
There are more gender-specific typefaces than there are gender-neutral ones. Nevertheless, the most popular gender-neutral typeface of all time is Helvetica. Helvetica is a widely used typeface for all kinds of brands, from clothing to corporate businesses. The medium weight Helvetica font has been used in logos and marketing schemes geared toward both genders.
Helvetica doesn’t just exist as a gender-neutral medium weight. It can also be quite feminine when in UltraLight or masculine when Extra Bold.
Another typeface that can be considered gender-neutral, although slightly masculine, is Garamond. Used in most printed novels, Garamond is an easy-to-read typeface that appeals to men and women alike.
It’s always important to consider the context in which a color and font will be used together. The word “power drill” would look out of context if written in a pink script font. Meanwhile, the word “ballerina” would look odd if written in dark camouflage green.
These examples are pretty drastic. Nevertheless, being conscious of the connection between color and typography and how to balance the two is important when attempting a gender-neutral design.
Using a typeface like Helvetica along with a color like black, grey or blue will help you achieve a gender-neutral design.
In terms of websites and graphics, layouts can also have female and masculine connotations. Straight, sharp lines and shapes are generally masculine. Curved and sloped are more feminine.
Layouts include elements like colors, shapes and typography. All these should be balanced in order to attract the those within your target audience.
You might have noticed how some websites are very feminine. There is a trend of female entrepreneurs using layouts that include pinks, rose gold or turquoise. A lot of these layouts are set-ups of feminine-style workspaces with cups of coffee and flowers or succulents in pretty pots.
This "fempreneur" style is the embodiment of the feminine design stereotype. Women react positively to it as well.
A great way to research gender-neutral layouts for your designs is to study websites that cater to everyone. For example, Amazon, Ebay or even Google. None of these sites lean heavily in any one direction.
It almost goes without saying that if you want to target a certain demographic group, then you should reflect that segment of the population in the images you use across your marketing campaigns.
A group of women having coffee in an airy atmosphere could be geared toward women who like having coffee with friends. A photograph of a group of men watching a sports game could be directed toward men who like sports.
When choosing imagery or photography for your designs, it’s best to pick ones that reflect your client. Customers like to feel understood. If you have the chance to commission a photographer for your brand, use it to your advantage. Create scenes of what you envision your clients and customers doing.
The general color rules for the feminine / masculine stereotype can also be applied to photography. The general feel of the photo, the background, the elements and even the clothes that people are wearing in the photo can have an impact.
Product photography can be feminine or masculine depending on the layout, angle and lighting. Let’s compare Dove and AXE. Both are deodorant brands with very different product photography and design.
Lately, AXE ads have become less sexist. When AXE ads were all about “getting the girl,” the use of the masculine / feminine stereotype was through the roof. It was so drastic that when people started realizing that Dove and AXE were owned by the same company, they received a lot of backlash for being so hypocritical. Both brands now steer away from gender stereotyping, but they still use the design stereotype to reach their intended customer.
It’s a reality that men and women sweat differently, there is no question there. But even though Tom’s of Maine knows this, they produce a deodorant line for both men and women. Tom’s of Maine is known for being natural, not for being stereotypical. Its website is a great example of a gender-neutral design for a product that is generally separated as masculine or feminine.
One more design element that can have feminine and masculine connotations are icons. Infographics rely greatly on icons to visually tell a story or relay information. In general, infographics are designed neutrally. Everyone needs information! When the information is geared toward men or women, only then does the design start following the stereotype.
We mentioned earlier how straight, sharp edges are masculine and smooth, curved lines are feminine. We also mentioned color preferences of each gender. Icons follow the same principles when they represent something that is not feminine or masculine to begin with. For example, social media icons, symbols or online business icons.
The most gender-neutral icons are glyph and outline icons. These hold no specific color or dimension and are perfect for any kind of design. Some line icons have rounded corners and others have sharp corners. Choose the style that matches your brand best.
Breaking gender stereotypes is the future of design. The line between what women and men respond to has been thinning. More and more people respond positively to gender-neutral design. If your brand’s values are mold breaking, then a gender-neutral might be the right path to take.
Nevertheless, many women respond better to flowers and coffee while men feel more in tune with sports references. Get to know your ideal clients to find out what they prefer.
Analyze your reader or ideal client in as much detail as possible. Is your product for everyone or only for women or men? Are your customers young and trendy students, or are they over-40 entrepreneurs, stay-at-home moms, or sports fans?
What direction do you think design stereotypes will take in the future? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.