Design is a universal visual language communicating diverse ideas, signs and symbols to different kinds of people. It’s important to consciously design without gender bias precisely because of how easy it is for gender bias to unconsciously creep in and influence creative thinking.
Good graphic design easily targets specific audiences. Excellent graphic design targets the specific audience, and everyone else along the way.
Designing without gender bias makes good business sense too. According to a report by trend forecasters Wundermann Thompson Group about Generation Z (the cohort born between 1997 and 2015 and set to become the largest group of consumers over the next 15 years), we need to educate ourselves about gender design bias and understand that this is a bit more complex than simply design unconsciously skewed towards a male or female gaze.
– 80% of 13-20 year olds believe that gender does not define a person as much as it used to;
– 56% of Gen Z said they knew someone who went by gender neutral pronouns such as ‘they’ or ‘ze’, compared to 43% of millenials;
– 54% of millenials always bought clothes designed for their own gender, while that’s true for only 44% of teens.
The design sphere is taking notes of these seismic shifts away from Generations X, Y and Boomers assumptions about gender. Across the creative industries, designers are becoming increasingly aware of the challenge they must meet when creating visuals to remove gender bias in their work. It’s both cultural and commercially savvy for designers to remove bias and focus on design as a service that aids and talks to the entire community.
Fresh Start Mediation: A case study in bias-free design.
Case in point: Curated Content’s brief to create a gender-neutral brand identity for Fresh Start Mediation: a confidential mediation service aimed at, well, everyone.
Workplace disputes don’t have a particular ‘face’, conflicts and relationship breakdowns occur across all sectors of society and disputes occur across sectors of society and therefore everyone is a potential client. Fresh Start needed their branding and identity to be unbiased and communicate the idea of universal relevance from the get-go – and not present as a professional service skewed to the viewpoint of one particular gender or family model.
Before getting stuck into the design part, we started with a checklist to help keep us on track:
– Is gender diversity visible across all facets of the project?
– How does bodily form imply the presence of gender/s?
– What is the balance of genders presented? Is there an imbalance present – and if so – how can this imbalance be equalised?
– Does gender-inclusive copy accompany imagery? Are neutral pronouns used?
– Is photography used? If so, avoid using stock photography or other imagery based solely on physical appearance.
– Avoid at ALL COSTS the sexualisation of a subject to make an image more ‘eye catching’
So how did we go in consciously removing the first iota of bias from entering our design thinking in approaching this project?
Hint: it was doable, rewarding but also challenging – because we realised we all have deeply ingrained biases in our thinking from years of practice and exposure to gender bias!
In the spirit of sharing ideas and resources, here’s an exploration of How We Learned To Stop Worrying And Ditch The Bias:
The first design consideration on the mental chopping block was removing any bias implying that only women or only men would seek the services of a professional mediator. Not all women think pink is a colour that represents them. By the same token, not all blues are exclusively ‘boy colour’. Gender-neutral colours are typically muted, mixed and minimalistic, as per the colour chart below. We think Wes Anderson would approve:
We erred on the side of bold tones rather than muted colours in order to stand out from the crowd, considering other mediation practices in the industry generally use muted colour combinations as a ‘safe’ choice. Who says a gender-neutral colour palette can’t be interesting and eye-catching?
We landed with a bold, vibrant, positive and energising palette (below) to convey confidence and structure to people seeking services of a professional to help them work through a situation causing anxiety, lack or certainty or apprehension in their lives.
Colour is one design element, but when thinking about removing gender bias from design, illustrating human form is another kettle of tricky fish entirely. What makes a body inherently male-looking or female-looking? Is it the muscle tone of a thigh? The presence of a waist? Long or short hair – or indeed any hair for that matter?
In our thinking about illustrating figures, we knew we had to get back to basics and draw the human body in its most elemental form. Fresh Start Mediation services a wide range of clients – including many from the LGBTQI+ community and Rainbow families – so it was extremely important that the website icons were as broad and as relatable as possible to remove all assumptions around a hetero normative offering only. Note the use of a t-shirt to remove any assumptions about waist measurements!
Patterns are an integral part of any branding package and need to be usable and flexible across a wide range of applications. With a bold colour palette, we embraced a stylised graphic and geometric sensibility to attract the eye, while adhering to the gender-neutral colour palette:
Fonts have one very important job to do: make it easy for people to read what’s on the screen or the page. They also need to embody the spirit of the brand, but shouldn’t detract from the crucial task of readability. We wanted to avoid an ‘overly elegant’ font that reflected a style of handwriting (think Instagram) as this felt too ‘fashionable’ for the professional services industry. In addition, some overly elegant fonts can skew towards the feminine (hello tampon fonts) which was obviously problematic for us given goal to cut the gender bias. For Fresh Start, we selected a font that was uncomplicated and approachable. It couldn’t be too masculine or overly feminised – it needed to be a simple font that spoke to everybody – much like the brand itself.
Gender stereotypes are outdated mental shortcuts we use when our brains are on ‘autopilot’. As designers, we’ve learned it’s important to be as conscious as possible about gender bias, to avoid falling into lazy mental habits that effectively exclude members of the population from our work. Once you’re aware of it, and when a brief asks you to address a wide audience, it’s not *exactly* rocket science. And what’s the use of spending valuable time designing a website / business card / brochure when it excludes a portion of your audience?
It’s equally important to note that besides gender bias, cultural and racial bias is also rife in design. Design shouldn’t favour one particular culture or race over another; although a quick visit to one of the many stock imagery sites, for design or photography suggests otherwise, with outmoded thinking still firmly in place.
The good news is, many designers are making inroads to changing our thinking and the community’s exposure to unconscious bias in design (present company included). There are many habits to change and attitudes to shift before we are immersed in world truly free of design bias.
The golden rule? If you see design that is discriminatory or biased, keep in mind; what you ignore, you permit. What you permit, you condone.
For more info on challenge of overcoming design bias check out our thoughts here.
Check out Fresh Start Mediation’s website here.