Gendered language in design.
Expanding our vocabulary beyond the binary.
During a recent freelancing gig for a branding project, I was in a feedback session for some of the concepts I had been working on. The creative director referred to one of my concepts as ‘too masculine’. It bothered me. Maybe it’s because of how I identify, as a queer, cis-woman. Maybe it’s because there’s a part of me that’s still not amazing at taking on feedback. Or, perhaps, it’s because using the word ‘masculine’ to describe a logo that was essentially a retro-looking-boxy-arrow-thing felt tired.
I asked the creative director if he could find other words aside from masculine and feminine to describe the work. He slipped up once more, and caught himself. We laughed it off, but it began an interesting conversation and effort on both our parts to use other words.
Using stereotypical language can be a pretty default place to go to when describing design, categorising as masculine or feminine, for men or for women. Most of us have been raised in a binary world of blues and pinks, very much conditioned to assigning things to one of two columns. So when it comes to describing the work we’re doing, of course we fall into those familiar patterns.
As designers, we’re good at challenging existing ideas and stereotypes. We’re good at looking at things from different angles and coming up with better ways to do them. What if we put a bit of that energy into challenging stereotypical, gendered ways of talking about visual design?
For example, it’s generally a pretty go-to stance to say that a hard-edged logo could feel ‘masculine’, and a soft-edged one ‘feminine’. The obvious next step would be to invert that, to say that hard-edged logos can be ‘feminine’, too (yes, they can!) and that soft-edged ones ‘masculine’ (yup, also true).
But the end goal should really be to not label something masculine or feminine. To stop assigning a gender to a completely non-gendered thing, whether it’s a logo, illustration or piece of type, any ‘graphic’. We should stop at the adjective that works as it is. Hard, or soft. It doesn’t need to go any further than that because it already makes sense. Nothing further is achieved by assigning a binary gender to it.
We don’t need to use gendered terms because really, what do they mean aside from reinforcing binary gender stereotypes.
Of all the problems in the world, yes this could be considered a pretty small one. But it’s actually quite a fun vocabulary challenge. Stepping outside of the familiar and tired words we are used to using is also a way to get better at writing about design. My go-to place for widening my vocabulary is always powerthesaurus.org. Especially if I need to use a word other than ‘bold’, even though ‘bold’ is the best word to use for all good design work.
A few days after our first chat about gendered language, during a meeting presenting the work to the wider team, the creative director described the work as robust, bold and retro. Those three words speak so much more to the work than the word ‘masculine’ would have. Robust describes strength and resilience. Bold (told you, great word) describes impact. And retro describes a nostalgic visual familiarity. By using more appropriate descriptive words, we’re able to say so much more about the work that we’re creating.
This message has been approved by the creative director mentioned throughout.