Design that sees beyond gender

Who says motor oil can’t be designed by girls? And why can’t a man design the latest breakthrough in sanitary care? Looking at today’s increasingly gender fluid world, it is interesting to explore how this is shifting how we approach design, and what we can do to make it a lot more diverse.

2018. The year that has witnessed the Women’s march, Beyonce’s empowering set at Coachella and a defiant global female movement in the form of #MeToo. Coincidentally, it also marked the 100 year anniversary of the female right to vote. Following years of relentless, passionate campaigning, in 1918 8.5m British women finally secured the right to have their say. Fast forward to 2018, and the world is a very different place. Women are now a lot more free to express themselves. To live independent lives. We are the most powerful consumers on the planet, accounting for 85% of all purchasing decisions. And yet. The question remains: have we come as far as we would like to think? As an industry, is there more we can and should do to embrace equality?

The 1950’s marked the golden age of booming consumerism and advertising that glorified the idealistic ‘housewife’. The 50’s female was the perfect companion: subordinate, silently grinning, and always willing. Her favoured products included Brillo Soap pads (‘twice the shine in half the time’) and Tide (‘Tide’s got what women want!’). The 1960’s saw the design of the first seatbelt, to male specifications. A design that means female drivers are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash. Entering into the 1970’s, we witnessed a change in tides for female liberation. Feminism, greater sexual freedom, the start of the fight for equal pay. Enjoli launched the 8 hour perfume for the 24 hour woman, who could “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and never let you forget you’re a woman”. A welcome, if slight shift towards both recognising and celebrating the multi-faceted roles of women.

And as our world has shifted, so have our attitudes. 2018 marks a year where 50% of young people proudly reject traditional gender labels. Where gender can be freely defined in 71 different ways. Where brands from Zara to Gucci have launched gender-neutral collections, to much acclaim. The focus has shifted from who you are designing for, to why. And many brands are excelling. Aesop create beautiful skincare packaging, using dark gloss bottles that focus only on what the product does for you. US-based Maude have redefined adult products, with organic, tasteful, genderless condom designs. For cosmetics, the shift is even greater still. Once upon a time the realm of the female, beauty today sees no boundaries. ASOS’ Face & Body collection uses bold, vibrant packaging that can proudly sit on the dressing table of whoever wishes to use it. Covergirl’s brand ambassador is a beauty blogger, who just happens to be male. Launched in 2018, Canadian skincare brand non-gender specific offer only one product: the sleek, glossy Everything Serum. The conditions for use? That you are human. All that matters now is that people are empowered to express themselves, whoever they may be.

But, if we think back to the infamous 2012 launch of Bic for Her, when it comes to packaging equality we still have some way to go. Take a pen, one of the most generic genderless products. Add some glitter, pink, a “thin barrel to fit a women’s hand”, a handy ‘for her’ label, and hey presto, you have a pen exclusively for women. Cue hilarious reactions from women all over the world, “it’s good that BIC are finally doing something to aid the plight of women”, “Bic, the great liberator, has released a womanly pen that my gentle baby hands can use without fear”. With men predominantly at the global helm of design, the tendency to revert to the pretty and pink strategy remains rife (a privilege we pay, on average, 7% more for). After all, that’s what gets women going, right? I can vouch for myself when I say absolutely not.

Solving this disparity has to start from within our own industry. Despite women accounting for 46% of the advertising industry, just 11% are creative directors. And when you dig deeper into branding and packaging, that figures plummets further still. 88% of young female creatives say they lack female role models whilst 70% have never worked with a female creative director or executive creative director. And, we remain guilty when it comes to gender delegating. It’s a beer brand? Dave would be best on that one. Packaging for perfume? Lisa should lead that. Why? Because she will definitely understand the end-user better. As unconscious as it may be, it’s still gender bias.

Thankfully we are in 2018. Where the time is ripe for us to drive change. To assign people to projects, based solely on their expertise, interests and capability. To do away with the ‘tokenistic’ female designer presence. After all, who says that a woman can’t design a male razor better than a guy could? That a man could not design the next innovation in sanitary care? There is indeed a man in the Interbrand London design team who has done just that.  We know that the most effective innovations are those that are completely inclusive. So let’s rewrite the rules, and design for the person, not the gender. And by 2118, raise that 11% to 50%.


Creative Director