One of the most popular general definitions of design is “identifying a problem and solving for it.” While the unbridled, nuanced, and ever-evolving world of design is far too complex to fit into any neat and tidy definition, this principle has served as a helpful guide to many in the field. This is definitely the case for art director, lecturer, and self-described “Nocturnal Visual Artist” Hedieh Anvari, who’s used her position in the design world to address its lack of representation for the menstrual cycle.
To fill the void of this blatant omission, Anvari launched an ambitious series of projects under the umbrella of Ooh Any Day Now, in which she continuously uses design to dissect and reframe conceptions of the menstrual cycle. Since 2015, this comprehensive endeavor has explored menstruation from various angles and points of view, often in collaboration with other artists. “I do that to spread the knowledge among creatives,” she tells me. “I ask, ‘Do you want to use your skill sets on this topic?’”
One of the ongoing 13 design studies within Ooh Any Day Now is a numerical design of numbers one through 28 called “Phasal Font Design THREE – ‘A Regular Menstrual Cycle,’” which Anvari created in collaboration with one of her students, Ashwaq Fahem. This experimental typeface visually represents how Anvari experiences each of the four phases of her (approximately) 28-day menstrual cycle. In an extension of this exercise, Anvari worked with one of her students at the University of the Arts London, Sofia Wang, to create an animation of these numbers entitled “Phasal Font Design FOUR – ‘It Is What It Is’.”
Before Ooh Any Day Now, Anvari studied graphic media design at the University of the Arts London and then became an art director in the fashion industry. “I moved to Paris and worked in an agency where I worked on beauty more,” she says. “I started doing advertising for a fragrance, and that was the moment I realized I wanted to move on.”
After an attempt to move to New York City for a job at Estée Lauder failed due to visa complications, Anvari went back to London to regroup. “I was a bit distraught, to be honest, because I’d invested so much energy in the whole New York experience,” she says. “So I took a big break and I was devastated. But then I thought, Okay, I’m going to upscale.” She enrolled in two courses, one in coding and one in user experience design. “Not to become a UI or UX person,” she explains, “but to be able to really work closely and easily with UX people. And that was the induction.”
It was in this UX/UI class that a lecturer recounted his experience solving the problem of ordering a pizza online through an app. “He used the word ‘problem solver,’” Anvari remembers. “I thought, what’s a recurring problem I can solve? And ‘problem’ doesn’t mean in a negative way— it’s a situation that needs to have an answer. So I thought, Oh yeah, there’s this monthly thing that happens: the period. That really was the moment it happened, in this lecture theater.”
“I started to do research, and I had this ‘aha!’ moment,” she continues. “I realized, oh my God, there’s so much stigma! There’s so much bad language about it. The whole idea of being ashamed of it never ever had occurred to me. Maybe I was living in my little bubble.”
Once the course concluded, Anvari put her skills as an art director to use in repositioning the menstrual cycle as something beautiful worth celebrating. “I thought, Okay, I’m very strong in making things beautiful. That’s been my job as an art director in fashion,” she explains. “Fashion isn’t about reality; it’s about making things more beautiful and more appealing. I remembered the times I’d been to my doctor, and the pamphlet they give you about the menstrual cycle is such an ugly and unattractive thing. You just want to cry! And that was what I wanted to change. The menstrual cycle needed some beautification.”
Much of the conversation about menstruation and its prevailing depictions center around blood. Anvari admits that even she gets a bit squeamish at the sight of blood, so she wanted to essentially give the menstrual cycle a visual rebrand. Her mission was to shift the focus to other aspects of the cycle, zooming out to a broader perception of what happens in the body holistically. “It’s one of the core structures of our wellbeing,” she says. “It’s so intertwined with our psyche, our sensations, our sense of smell, our body temperature. Still, many, many well-educated modern women and girls don’t know that there are four phases, and what happens in them. It’s because it’s been neglected. It’s become something ambiguous and not very clear, and no one’s been talking about it.”
Anvari has a visceral reaction when asked about why she thinks the design industry has neglected the menstrual cycle in this way. “I don’t want to sound too melodramatic, but it makes my body cold, to be very honest,” she says. “We say design is a male-dominated industry, but the whole world is a male-dominated industry! In my humble opinion, it is rooted in the lack of medical research. There’s nothing there to really anchor it to. The only thing it’s been anchored to is campaigns about frustration, anger, stigma, anger to the patriarchy. I don’t really want to use my energy and intellectual thinking on that kind of angle.”
Instead, Anvari is determined to shed positive light on menstruation. “Phasal Font Design THREE” does that by thoughtfully depicting the Menstruation Phase, Follicular Phase, Ovulation Phase, and Luteal Phase that compose the menstrual cycle. “I decided that to design letters is just redundant,” she shares of her thought process. “I would just write down “follicular phase” in a particular type, and it didn’t really mean much. The days, the numbers, were far more important in terms of what I eventually wanted to say.”
“My thinking was to reflect my own personal sensations during those days,” Anvari explains, “using how I feel, and recent online medical sources about the four phases, as if I was going to brand them somehow. I brought in references, a mood board, considered the shape, feel, color tones, everything. It was many, many rounds of getting the sensation right, and then designing and designing.”
Anvari embraced the irregularity of organic shapes within these fonts, letting go of the uniformity that’s typical in typography. “I accepted that it’s not supposed to be perfect. Normally I do like myself a very perfect, balanced design, but, for instance, in the menstruation phase, there are maybe elements of feeling a bit overweight, and how we feel in our tummy. There are also some references to blood stain and temperature.”
Unsurprisingly, some of Anvari’s colleagues failed to grasp the purpose of the project. “I bounced some ideas off of one of the male senior typography lecturers. He basically said to me, ‘Why didn’t you have one of the phases italic, the other one bold…’ and so on. And I was like, ‘No! You can’t do that! It’s not as structured or regimented or confined or strict as that. It’s exactly the opposite.’”
The menstrual cycle numerical design finished product is unique to Anvari’s experience of her own cycle, and is far from an attempt to reflect some sort of mythic universal period. “Of course, these phases are very personal, and that’s the beauty of it,” she says. “If this task had been given to another person, of course they would design it in a different way.” Her dream is to have other designers create their own versions of the menstrual cycle numerical design that portray their individualized menstrual experience.
“It would be brilliant to have a number of people use these fonts and then make their own design. I want to have people pay attention to their own cycle. That would be an amazing activity; encourage them to listen and take ownership of what’s happening in your body, and design something based on that,” says Anvari. “The only restriction I would have for anyone who participates is I’m not interested in talking about stigma or anger. I want to reflect on the other side, because it’s not that I want to be disillusioned, it’s just that there’s no point, I don’t want to focus on that.”