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GENDER PARITY? YES PLEASE!

Studio

This year, the theme of International Women’s Day is gender parity, and is calling for people to pledge to “help women and girls achieve their ambitions, call for gender-balanced leadership, respect and value difference, develop more inclusive and flexible cultures or root out workplace bias”.

As designers, we help shape the world. Even if that seems counterintuitive in something as frequently ephemeral as brand design. But what and how we design absolutely reflects and influences society. Coca-Cola created the very image of Father Christmas. Racist Victorian-era Pears adverts and packaging were used to advance and cement Empire. Just two examples among many.

Today, looking at the gender binary, it’s hard to escape just how pervasive it is: think Impulse and Lynx at two extremes. There is unquestionably a wider role that brand designers can play as well as ensuring our own workplaces are authentically diverse and gender neutral. The graphic language, names and vocabulary we use can either reinforce or help break down the gender gap.

So it’s fantastic to see a shift away from the extremes, with clients now starting to ask us how to create design solutions that equally appeal to men and women. Increasingly, consumers of all ages don’t necessarily navigate towards products according to gender (unless it’s a specifically gender-related product), particularly true in hair care, sports nutrition and wellness where the focus is on the product’s intrinsic performance. The backlash against Protein World’s Beach Body Ready ad demonstrates the extent to which this is increasingly true. Consumers are also becoming more aware of the "sexist surcharge" of women-specific brands and are reacting against it.

From the client’s perspective, they are seeing gender-neutral design as a business opportunity in two distinct ways: cost-effectiveness and premiumisation.

From a pure production level, it’s easier to make one line of products than splitting it out into two gender variants. The aesthetic language of gender-neutral design – predominately neutral tones, stripped back, contemporary fonts with a serious nod to Scandinavia – also shares its cues with that of luxury and premium products, giving brands sophisticated credibility. It’s current, relevant and also allows consumers to project more of themselves onto the brand.

Most importantly, it’s not patronising consumers by forcing them to choose brands through the lens of gender. At one end think Serge Lutens, Frédéric Malle and Le Labo nice fragrances and the new unisex Calvin Klein CK2 in the mass market. Interior design is also changing, ditto fashion. Ruby Rose, Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox. There is a third way arising that enables people and brands to be more creative because strict boundaries are removed.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the exuberant representation and celebration of gender. But much gender binary design is limited and limiting to the individual. Gender parity doesn’t mean saying that people shouldn’t express themselves or buy products in a traditionally ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ way. It’s about acknowledging all of us as individual human beings, whoever we are and however we identify. Hair care and sports nutrition brands are a small start in the grand scheme of things if we think of those never-ending aisles of man and woman-designated products, but it’s most definitely a start.

#PledgeForParity

Raj is DewGibbons + Partners Design Director. Read her previous blogs:
DG+P joins the 'lunar tribe'
Death to Mediocrity: the D&AD Award Showcase