Obsessions: January 4th, 2010

I’ve seldom needed to look into the differences between the genders when making design, but recently, I found myself designing for a good friend taking his business law practice solo. His industry is, in his words, “ridiculously butch.” According to his casual observation, his field seems to be about 80 percent male, and about 95 percent heterosexual male—the sort of heterosexual male who wishes to be addressed to as such. He wanted to approach them in their comfort zone. Youch.

I’m sort of intrigued by single-gender design, because there are so many visual cues to use, and they almost never address what it means to be a man or woman in any individual sense. Instead, they’re linked to what it means to belong to a social group comprised of that gender.

As I did research for the project, I began to see cues so generalized that they seemed aimed at ideas of masculinity rather than masculine people (i.e. lots of blue, black, babes, and Bond). It began to shed a lot of light upon the reasons behind some particularly bitter conversations about sexism and discrimination I’ve seen in publications for which I’ve previously made work. The primary reason these conversations seem to happen around media-presented images of gender is that the media is a place that we look to find our individual identities among our peers, yet the individual and collective identities become muddled very easily since we are looking to a public space for bits of self-definition.

To date, my only major experience designing to a gender group was a character portrait I created for Jezebel, an online women’s magazine with a serious eye toward womens’ portrayal in the media. It was a daunting piece of work. I faced several challenges: I needed to create a sort of feminine Janus, both angry and alluring, to show the schism between the two polarities. She also needed to be perceived as beautiful by many people—lovely to both men and women, alluring to both and threatening to both—and she needed to say “American woman,” with no racial subtexts. That’s her, below.

For this new, and very male, project, I put myself back into the frame of mind I used while designing Jezebel, and looked again to the iconic rather than the specific. I found a surprisingly wide-ranging spectrum of masculinity. (It’s worth noting that I was trying to find extremes.)

First, I looked to the middle ground at Axe products (the actual products, not the advertising campaigns—I’m interested in subtler cues towards gender, not pictures of women ripping through walls to get to a man). I chose this particular line because they take a uniquely brash tack in addressing the heterosexual dandy who doesn’t really see himself as such. The scents of their shampoos are reminiscent of pretty, natural scents, but processed in a way that they are rendered clean and emotionless. They smell modern, manufactured. The packaging design is equally synthetic: It’s a black robotic Tower of Power. Interestingly, the products aren’t terribly different from some of those marketed towards women. Just a bit of a palette shift might actually make them seem girly. So strange.

Next, I looked to the opposite end of the masculine spectrum to some of the most revered design made for gay men: the ridiculously cool Butt magazine. It’s a nuanced collection of writing, photography, video, and letters from readers. The creators are completely aware of the camp sensibility the title imparts, and they add to that with the seemingly undesigned appearance of the rag: crap typography painstakingly typeset on throwaway pink paper. It adds to the seaminess, the sense of propaganda, and the sense of separateness so crucial to make a magazine for gay men identifiably a participant in the culture. It has a sense of otherness clearly not made for or by a straight man. But intriguingly, it’s also very masculine. (Also surprising: the link is fairly safe for work.)

I have also always been aware of Fantastic Man, which is usually described as Butt’s older, cooler brother, but I never looked too closely (I always regarded it as a fashion magazine, which I don’t read a lot of). It turns out that Fantastic Man, with its tailored typographic sensibilities, regimented language, and exact photo cropping that renders models as information graphics rather than people, is a fascinating straight male flipside to Butt’s bawdiness. The tone is without overt mannerism, a justification of the over-the-top title: The men inside are actually fantastic, and the title is really just a simple statement of fact celebrating its subjects. However, if you look closely, the design is quite funny. The creators clearly know this.

So within this spectrum of masculinity, what did I find? Some odd things. First, it seems that design for men has to be a little campy, but “hidden.” Bring the function to the forefront, and let style seemingly disappear into a background—felt rather than seen. A man’s design needs to feel functional, not styled (although it is highly stylized). No bright color, enthusiastic use of rich black, typography with either a high degree of either historicity or modernity, and above all, no smiling. Men do not smile. We don’t emote, unless we’re responding to a woman. (Or unless we’re gay. Then, apparently, we emote all over the place, and in inappropriate contexts.)

I’m not really sure where I’m going to land for my friend’s work in this sea of gender-driven design, but the results will definitely be an intriguing exercise in butching it up as I am a huge fan of color (especially pink). I’ll post more when this particular piece is finished. My goal: to make my friend look masculine without going around the bend into ridiculous. My mission is set. Fingers crossed.

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