Gender and Design

It’s a common mistake to think that the idea of a multi-gendered society is only a contemporary one, but in fact, the acceptance and even embrace of multiple genders is not only age-old, but also found in several cultures across the globe.

Two-Spirited People

One example is the Native American peoples, where they had, in fact, 5 different genders: The female, male, two-spirited male and two-spirited female and the transgendered. The Two-spirited gender was considered very special even sacred, as a gift.
It was only after the Europeans conquered and established colonies in the continent, that this multi-gendered tradition was eradicated, and the binary of Female & Male was established.
These two genders were rigid and came with very separate and specific roles. And this continued to be the tradition of the dominant cultures in the Americas.

The Samoan Fa’afafine men (“in the manner of a woman”)

Another example comes from the Polynesian islands of Samoa in the south-central Pacific Ocean. They recognized the existence of a Third-gender, which included people that did not fir the male/female binary.
They were called Fa’afafine and these were men who lived as women. This, however, had nothing to do with sexual preference, it was more about identity. We will clarify more these differences later.

Here is a Gender map of the world, which is really fascinating because it sheds light into the fact that all over the world, in many cultures, this idea of a multi-gendered reality has always been accepted.

I think it’s important to get more clarity in terms of what is meant by gender.
Gender is culturally dependent, it’s about perception of self, it’s about identity and it’s fluid. In fact, some people can transition through different genders in one lifetime. So, it’s changeable and can be transitory.
On the other hand, sex is about your physiology, the biological traits you were born with, it’s about the chromosomes, it’s natural. We have female, male and intersex (which has biological traits of both sexes).

Now that we have established some terminology, let’s move to how gender roles (as we have established are cultural constructs), and in particular how the gender binary (male and female) are used in marketing as a way to segment markets and ultimately sell more. The video below is an eye-opening explanation of how the gender binary is strengthened to facilitate marketing objectives.

The problem with these strategies is that they not only limit the experience for people, but also help the already rigid separation of genders in society, so they reinforce the male vs. female cultural dynamic.
I did a quick search in google to see what I could find with the keywords ‘toys for boys’, and not surprising, these were the results:

What’s interesting is that if we deconstruct what these toys are communicating, we find that they are a series of values they want boys associated with, such as empowerment, power, usefulness, action, strength, and they use a wide selection of bright colours.

In contrast, if we search for ‘toys for girls’ we find this: (image above) a world of pink, purple and pastel colours, and references to motherhood, home and cooking, beautification, delicate and soft.
These are the things that society still expects from each gender and it’s not only clearly defined, but extremely limited and dis-empowering, especially for women.

For us, as designers, it’s very important to understand the dimensions in which objects communicate. Everything around us has been designed in some way or another and the way we design is influenced by our culture. Objects are cultural interfaces, we engage with culture through them, so in order for us to create meaningful design we must break out from the visual clutches of the binary.

A bit of a summary:
Design is a cultural activity, everything created by humans carries cultural values. It perpetuates them through its life cycle.
Culture itself is invented, it’s designed, so it comes with a doctrine behind it. We as designers inhabit this cultural reality.
And culture responds to what is most important to us as society. So, cultures evolve when what we care most about changes.
In terms of the gender binary, it’s because it was a valuable strategy for a portion of the population to hold power. Gendering is about power, because once we establish these divisions, we can establish supremacy… who is better than the other.

Things are changing though…
There are many forces that are creating this change, but we are starting to open up more to the complexity of our human experience. We are starting to realise that life is richer that black/white, male/ female, me/others.
And this is being also supported by shifts in consciousness brought about by, among other things, science itself: through quantum physics. This latest theory of the nature of our reality is having an impact on all aspects of how we live. One, very crucial one, is the acknowledgement of the existence of a much more diverse and complex world.
This is having a real impact on gender and certainly on how we design for the future.

Two years ago, National Geographic put out a really interesting issue on gender, called the Gender Revolution, and it brought even more to the mainstream the fact that the gender binary is not only being challenged but at the grassroots level in many places is almost history. It also helped raise awareness around the complexity of individual human experiences.

It’s interesting to see these changes in popular culture. New heroes and heroines are beginning to challenge the traditional gender roles and open the space for more fluid interpretations of gender. At the same time, the traditional comic-book hero stereotypes are being questioned and a new wave of heroines embodying traditionally male characteristics ans well as male heroes with more female characteristics are appearing more often in the mainstream.

I find this image really interesting (Above), it’s called Heroes in crisis, and I think it very clearly represents the crisis of whet these heroes and heroines stood for. These ideals of men and women are being de-constructed and in many cases completely re-invented.

Design has been attempting to respond to this binary gender crisis in many ways and its responses are often in a direction that is refereed to as ‘neutral’. Neutral colours, simple shapes & minimalistic aesthetic.
This is an attempt to be gender non-specific.
Here are a few examples from the packaging industry:

Image result for basik
Image result for gender neutral packaging

But what is interesting is that this aesthetic is heavily influenced by Modernist architecture, which sought to bring a more analytical perspective to all the arts and called for the eradication of ornament and a more rational use of materials. So we see simple and functional geometry, honesty of materials and a monochromic palette.

Ornament is Crime. Phaidon

This movement was all about a rejection to tradition and an adoption of innovation. The founding architects, designers and theorists of Modernism were all men. (Walter Gropius, Mies Van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Adolf Loos). Modernism is a highly masculine aesthetic that represents what men valued at that time such as reason, industry, simplicity, functionality and technology. The famous ‘Form follows Function’ is a foundational principle of Modernism.

So, to me its not congruent to use aesthetic devices influenced by such a dualistic gender binary like Modernism to define a post-gender design aesthetic. We need to look deeper.

Fashion has a long tradition of playing with gender and exploring new ways to reinvent how we play with identity and it’s always benefited from the expansion of these possibilities. So we see a lot of new aesthetics today that are responding to the current gender fluid reality. The work of Scottish designer Charles Jeffrey focuses precisely on exploring the gender spectrum and provides some interesting possibilities of how design can embrace all genders with openness and potentiality, rather than a descriptive, rigid approach which the so-called ‘neutral’ design proposes.
So, in contrast, here, we see lots of colours, patterns, different references joined together. So this approach is about expansion and expression. It’s about complexity and diversity.

So, the question for us, designers of products is : how can we address this profound time in history where gender is being de-constructed so much, that is potentially disappearing? How can we respond to this social trajectory?
How can design help widen the human experience?
As we discussed before, we experience culture through our material world. So how can we create material interfaces that empower individuals rather than box them in?

We need to design for the men who feel like women, for the women who want to be mothers, for the men who are also women, for the women who were born as men… for everybody, for the whole spectrum of humanity.

Hombres Tejedores

This image shows the ‘Hombres Tejedores’ or knitting men of Chile, they are men who love knitting, get together and talk and knit… why not?

I would like to finish with a few principles to help us design for the post-gender era:

•Actively Recognize Gender Bias in your Design Process

•Target ALL users (the more we design for under-represented groups the more diversity design can foster)

•Challenge Gender-based Differences

•Embrace Complexity and Fluidity

•Avoid Categorization

•Avoid ‘neutralizing’ Human Expression

Diana Simpson Hernandez

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