BAPD9: Contextual Studies
Josiah Emsley
Wednesday, February 11th 2009



In what senses can design exploit gender differences?



The principles of universal design tell us that products should be functional for the broadest possible spectrum of users. But designers and manufacturers have long targeted two distinct niche markets: men and women. (Just think of razors: women’s versions look like plastic flowers, men’s like props from The Terminator.) Lately, however, we’ve noticed a handful of products and projects that toy with traditional gender roles. (‘Shifting Gendered Design’ 05.Mar.2008: Activity Book website).

This statement from Paul Makovsky, posted in Metropolis Magazine, comments on an issue that exists in all modern cultures, an issue of culture and the product of culture.

The issue to be raised is one that will look at how companies attempt to capitalize on the existence of difference between the genders of human beings. Firstly, what is ‘gender’? Aidan Arrowsmith, from Royal Holloway, states: “As distinct from ‘sex’ (which is biological), gender usually refers to socially/culturally constructed (invented) characteristics, which are then attributed to the different biological sexes. If sex is ‘female and male’; then gender is ‘femininity and masculinity’.” (‘Critical Concepts’: Royal Holloway website).

A way in which we sculpt the image of ourselves, creating who we are, and how we are perceived, is through what we consume. If one feels that they are a particular gender, they may pursue creating an image of how they see themselves or would like to be seen. The first tool to be used would be clothing. “In society we usually wear clothes that hide a lot of our bodies. While for the most part we do not reveal our genitalia to people we meet casually, we usually have little problem deciding whether they are men or women. Because people usually wear clothes which present gender cues, social evidence is complicated by bodily evidence.” (Woodward 2000:49). As it is not commonly acceptable to go about your daily routine without any clothes on, some may feel the need to express themselves and attempt to communicate visually to others, qualities they may possess. This is when methods such as branding, advertising and product styling can be utilised by companies to persuade a target consumer to want a particular product over another. In the book, The Gendered Object, Christine Boydell analyses the training shoe as a product that has been highly gendered, and looks at the differences between training shoes intended for male consumers compared to that of female consumers.

“For young males an important quality embodied in the shoe is the possibility of the communication of status to their peers achieved by wearing the most expensive brand name” . . . “Competitiveness, aggression and male bonding are notions used by advertisers in the promotion of trainers for men”; she continues to state “women are targeted in a completely different way from male consumers, and are rarely depicted in advertising as active competitors. (Kirkham 1996:121-122).

To back up the notion that a consumer wants to communicate qualities possessed through their clothing, she continues to point out that even the names of the training shoes are specifically chosen to feed the desires of the potential consumer. Names such as “‘Cheetah’, ‘Tiger’, ‘Lynx’, ‘Puma’, with fast and wild animals suggests that they were aimed at men who thought themselves fit, fast and animal-like” (Kirkham 1996:123). The brand is aiming to create a training shoe that a potential consumer can relate or aspire to, creating a desire for that product. This method is not so evident in the naming of women’s and girls shoes, with names such as ‘Lady Jane’, ‘Vickie’ and ‘Princess’. These names do not suggest anything other than that they are intended for the female consumer.

Acting slightly more than just a visual cue, to which gender the product is intended for, is colour. Kirkham figures that “the predominant colours for women’s shoes are white with pink, purple or lilac trim; for men trims are dominated by black, navy blue, green and red.” (Kirkham 1996:123). Not only is colour a visual aid to which gender it is targeting, but also suggests the context in which the product should be used.  A brightly coloured shoe, for instance, suggests that it is an accessory to fashion and can be used to improve the way one looks. However, in the case of the male shoe, the use of industrial, sober tones, gives them a look of seriousness; that they are another tool or machine to help improve their performance.

The most influential way in that the use and context of the training shoe is suggested and can be determined, is through the marketing of features and aspects of design. “Improvements in the design of men’s training shoes are related to injury prevention and enhancing performance when taking part in competitive sports; in women’s shoes technological innovations are developed to protect the foot during aerobic exercise.” (Kirkham 1996:124)

Other products that act as a good example of how the naming and other branding methods differentiate between differing genders are cosmetics for men. The image below shows a range of cosmetics targeted at men by the brand Clinique.



Fig. 1


With Alex Weller, Kirkham puts together a strong case study on the cosmetics of Clinique. Similarly to the use of branding in training shoes, the name of a product plays a big role in persuading a potential consumer. For the male intended range of cosmetics, the subtitle ‘Skin Supplies for Men” is added after the brand name Clinique. The word ‘supplies’ “suggests an organized system of necessary feeding, even a health or life-giving activity.” (Kirkham 1996:201).  Then, with the names of each different product, such as, ‘Face Scrub’ and ‘Scuffing Lotion’, they embody rough qualities, suggesting a harsh but necessary regime. Discussing the way in which the products are described within the adverts, Kirkham demonstrates that:

the codes and conventions used include those of utilitarianism, science, rationalism and efficiency, with words such as ‘convenient’, ‘simple’, ‘no fuss’ and ‘unscented’, working to this end – together with references to ‘experts’ such as dermatologists including those who ‘favour aloe to avoid shaving discomfort’. Some play is made with the language of business; the male face has ‘an important meeting’ with a bar of soap. (Kirkham 1996:198).

In the use of this language within the advertisements, it can be seen that the emphasis is firmly on speed and convenience for the user. It is suggested that this may have arisen from the “knowledge that the taking of time to cleanse and make-up are established points of the complex processes and rituals of being/becoming ‘feminine’.” (Kirkham 1996:199).



Fig. 2


Fig. 2 is an example of an advert for Clinique, ‘Skin Supplies for Men’. Immediately, one can see the referencing to male lifestyles and how the product is attempting to associate itself with the potential consumers present life. In addition, the fact that it is presented in black and white tone, rather than previously common for female advertisements, full colour, gives it “documentary ‘realism’. And a ‘factual’ and ‘sensible’ style”. Kirkham suggests that it is an “essential element in the overall ‘rational’ and ‘objective’ tone of the ‘male’ advertisements. There is a boldness in the strong contrast. By comparison, the pastel colours of the ‘female’ advertisements signal softness, purity, gentleness and innocence” (Kirkham 1996:197). Comparing the exterior packaging and advertisements for the ‘male’ and ‘female’ cosmetics, an imbalance can be seen in the amount of information provided about the product depicted. Relative to that of the female cosmetics, which is very low, advertisements intended for male consumers contains a considerably lower volume of information. This imbalance could be explained through arguing that it is not a ‘males’ place to have knowledge of such products, and that if they wanted to gain knowledge, then they would rather not ask but simply be told. It could be thought that, in the case of the ‘female’ cosmetics, this amount of information is not necessary, as females would have learnt through word of mouth between siblings, friends and magazines.

“The production and use of male toiletries are evidence of the blurring, if not breaking down, of what have been rigid gender boundaries in the ‘touchy’ area of male cosmetics” (Kirkham 1996:203). However, it is not only the area of male cosmetics that is witnessing the decay of rigid boundaries, it is the whole concept of gender that is evolving through cultural change.

Science fiction scenarios, in which people morph from male to female in the blink of an eye, have become all too familiar. The line between fiction and reality seems to be increasingly fuzzy now that we can present ourselves as whatever gender we want through Internet personas. The proliferation of gender identity clinics, which enable female to male and male to female operations, also suggests that sex/gender is much more malleable than we might have once thought . . . sex isn’t what it used to be – and neither, it would seem, is gender. (Chanter 2006:1)

In the past, it was thought that there were two genders – the masculine, possessed by biological males, and the feminine, possessed by biological females. However, after time, it became apparent that this concept was not entirely durable. There was homosexuality, differences in class and cultural change to consider. Members of the ‘prepcom’ committee, made reference to in Judith Butlers Book, Undoing Gender, make an interesting reference to this first concept and back up the theory that gender is a social product: “We will not be forced back into the ‘biology is destiny’ concept that seeks to define, confine, and reduce women and girls to their physical sexual characteristics . . . The meaning of the word “gender” has evolved as differentiated from the word “sex” to express the reality that women’s and men’s roles and status are socially constructed and subject to change.” (Butler 2004:182). [1]

Differences in gender can be exploited through methods in design. This is possible because gender is culturally specific and socially constructed.[2]

Consumption decisions can be driven by functional or social needs. Clothes satisfy a functional need, whereas fashion satisfies a social need. Some personal care products serve functional needs, but others serve social needs. A house serves a functional need and a home, a social need. Culture influences the type of house in which people live, how they relate to their homes, and how they tend to their homes. A car may satisfy a functional need, but the type of car for most people satisfies a social need. Social needs are culture-bound (Hofstede 1998:58).

With differing genders in mind, a company can create a social need to reinforce a particular gender type within oneself. However, do different genders need the differences found in gender specific design, or are the needs socially constructed and ‘gender’ now a simulacrum? As proposed by most gender theorists, there are not only two gender types, masculinity and femininity, but many. Would it be possible to design products that cater for the needs and desires of all genders? Eliminating the exploitation of gender differences. Surely this is just good design, that anyone can associate with and is globally desired among all gender types – humans. Could the products of Apple represent this gender-neutral style of design? Emotionally neutral, the consumer is free to see what they like in the object, associate with it what they please. The white t-shirt of product design; the epitome of universal design. ­Although, this design does not exploit differences in gender, it does however exploit the nature of human beings, of which, all successful design should have achieved. Therefore, it could be argued that it is far easier a task to exploit differences among human beings, than to take all types into account when designing products.



[1] Kath Woodward splits these two concepts into two categories: “Essentialist categories claim to be clear and immutable, so they tend to remain fixed. Fuzzy categories, on the other hand, can and do drift a bit, so what it is to be a woman, or a man, may vary as times and cultures change.” (Woodward 2000:52)

[2] “Who one is, is more and more communicated to others, as well as to oneself, by what one has, wears, drives, does during periods of leisure, and so on. The other side of the coin is that in contemporary (Western) culture people largely make their judgements about others on the basis of what others consume and how they (re)present themselves through what they use, wear, and so on.” (Costa 1994:217)










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Chanter, T. 2006. Gender: Key Concepts In Philosophy. London: Continium International Publishing Group

Costa, J. 1994. Gender Issues And Consumer Behaviour. California: Sage Publications, Inc

De Grazia, V. 1996. The Sex Of Things. California: University of California Press

Herdt, G. 1993. Third Sex Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History. New York: Zone Books

Hofstede, G. 1998. Masculinity and Femininity: The Taboo Dimension of National Cultures. California: Sage Publications, Inc

Kirkham, P. 1996. The Gendered Object. Manchester: Manchester University Press

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Plant, S. 1998. Zeros + Ones. London: Fourth Estate Limited

Roberts, M. 1991. Living In A Man-Made World: Gender Assumptions in Modern Housing Design. London: Routledge

Woodward, K. 2000. Questioning Identity: gender, class, nation. London: Routledge

‘Royal Holloway’. Critical Concepts