The Daily Heller: Should Gendered Typography Exist?

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XX, XY: Sex, Letters and Stereotypes is Marie Boulanger's MA thesis, and on June 7 it fell short of its Kickstarter campaign funding goal. Originally written in French (known for its masculine and feminine gender grammar), the project investigates the relationship between letters and gender stereotypes, and how that affects the design world. There are six interviews, featuring such designers as Louise Fili, Antoine Ricardou (be-pôles), Lizá Ramalho (R2 Design) and Atelier Ter Bekke & Behage.

"I think this is actually a good thing," says Boulanager about the funding shortfall, "because traditional publishing is looking like a better and more viable option. … The English manuscript is ready. The book is 226 pages, printed on Olin Paper, with a pink-to-blue gradient sprayed on the edges." Failure in one venue often results in success in another. In the meantime, while the next steps take shape, I asked Boulanger, a London-based independent type designer, to further discuss her ideas of "gendered typographies."

How do you define "gendered typography"?

Gendered typography should not exist, but it does. Letterforms are just shapes, but especially in the context of branding and advertising, a lot of people are willing to give type a gender. I would define it as unfortunate practice rather than a fact. Words can be male or female (binary) depending on language, but can letterforms be interpreted given sexual characteristics?

This is actually the very first thing I raise in the book. The research framework was to examine the main gender markers we are used to and see whether they could translate to type, including of course biological characteristics. This was made easier by the fact that we have built a lot of parallels between letter shapes and bodies. Just look at the name of letter parts: eye, spine, leg … that willingness to see humanity in letters is extremely powerful. But it also doesn't get us very far. Aside from reproductive systems, hormone levels and body hair, which don't apply to letterforms, the main differences we could envision are body fat percentage and height. Women have more body fat than men—are bolder typefaces more feminine, then? It quickly becomes apparent that the perceived masculinity or femininity of typefaces goes far, far beyond that.

I would argue that a typeface can be bold or soft, light or dark … but does that necessarily translate into gender characteristics?

I would agree with you. The reason why I want to talk about this research and hopefully educate is because I think that saying things like "we need a more feminine typeface here" is a poor way of describing type and making design decisions. It taps very deeply into what we believe of gender roles and stereotypes, and brings gender to a space where it is not useful. One of the most interesting takeaways from this project for me was that the assigned gender of certain typefaces comes from layers and layers of stereotypes in all aspects of the design space, such as color, layout, usage and, of course, bias—not just the letters themselves.

What reason is there for assigning gender characteristics to type?

There is a very close link to marketing. Segmenting things is a way of selling more. This is especially relevant because of the huge gap between male and female spending in consumer goods. On a semiotic level, creating signs which are instantly perceived as male or female creates a faster way to sales, as far as archaic product marketing goes. This is why we have pink razors and deodorants for men with volcanoes on them. Type is part of that; it's extremely powerful, and it's up to us to say that we know better.

Unsurprisingly, with text typefaces, the marketing element is less present (as opposed to letters for a logo, for example), and so is the temptation to gender them. I think your question perfectly raises the absurdity of trying to gender type. One of my favorite examples in the book is the weird and wonderful case of Mrs. Eaves, the beloved text typeface by Zuzana Licko. I pulled up some archived comments from blogs and forums where people describe it as soft-spoken and warm. Is it the shape? Is it the name? Is it the fact that it's a female designer? Is it because it was marketed towards literature and poetry? I use it to bring in the gender marker of usage. Usage is split into two things: how designers hope people will use it, and the features they add to influence that; and how people actually use it. The official specimens for Mrs. Eaves and her sans serif companion Mr. Eaves make wonderful case studies, but I'd encourage you to read the book for that.

Can a typeface gender be assigned when it is designed, or after it is used?

You could always try to assign a gender to a typeface you create, but I don't think that would get you very far. Do architects make male or female houses? Moving right on from the past question, I would argue that usage is a considerable gender marker in typefaces, perhaps coming in second only to our own biased perception. It is also crucial because it involves the creative community on a global scale, since we make decisions about where and how we use typefaces.

How will gender play a role in typography in the future of language?

There are massive shifts happening in the way we use language, especially in languages which feature a heavily gendered grammar. In French, my native language, the default gender of everything is masculine—it's a rule. A group of 1,000 women and one man is masculine, grammatically speaking. There is a lot of push for a way of speaking and writing in a more inclusive way. That involves typographic innovations such as glyphs which encompass several gender-dependent suffixes in one letter, so you don't need to choose anymore. I think it's very possible that they could be incorporated into
Unicode and implemented through OpenType features. To me it circles right back to the Latin alphabet being so deeply human to the people that use it. Just like humans and all of their social constructs, letters can change.