The rise of genderless design: How brands are finally moving away from masculine and feminine stereotypes

Transgender and pan-sexuality have gone mainstream. Part liberation and part revolt against the restrictive design codes that have long defined what it means to ‘be’ male or female, the genderless design aesthetic is rising in prominence to celebrate individuality over sex, writes Ed Silk.

It’s official. A new ‘agender’ has been set. From Storm – the Canadian child famously being reared by its parents as ‘genderless’ to Caitlyn Jenner’s well-documented transition from man to woman – the issue of transgender and, with it, pansexuality, have gone mainstream.

Its manifestation in contemporary design has been an interesting one. ‘Classic’ design in brands has long been maligned as part of the problem in perpetuating gender-based stereotypes, roles and aesthetic tastes, but we’re now seeing a different design trend emerge. Perhaps it's a backlash against the feminised ‘pink’ and masculinised ‘blue’ codes that have dictated gender-based brand design for eons; an aesthetic celebration of freedom and choice, if you will, from a world limited by deep-rooted cultural norms. Today, we are seeing a return to androgynous simplicity – embracing design that celebrates individuality.

The concept of gender has strutted and sashayed an interesting socio-cultural path in recent years to reach its current, non-binary state.

In 2012, Dutch retailer Hema unveiled Andreja Pejic, a transgender male model, as the face of its push-up bras. And more recently, 17-year-old male Jaden Smith has been featured in Louis Vuitton’s new womenswear campaign because he represents a generation that has, “assimilated the codes of true freedom … now free of questions about gender,” claims creative director Nicolas Ghesquière.

With this shifting landscape, marketing is venturing beyond traditional demographics - in particular, gender stereotypes.

Target – the second-largest discount retailer in the US – agrees, and from 2015 has stopped labelling bedding and toys specifically for boys or girls.

It’s high time marketing and design moved beyond gender stereotypes in the adult sectors of consumer packaged goods, alcohol, beauty and fashion too. “No one wants to drink a pink beer, including ladies,” states Nick Fell, marketing director at SABMiller. And the same can be said of other product categories. Why are extra large tissues always called ‘man-size’? And when it comes to shaving, does anyone really believe men are from Mars and only women use Venus? The same is true of the language we have been using. Why are men’s products called ‘endurance and ‘blast’, while the female counterparts are ‘candy’ and ‘temptation’?

In a post-binary gender world, the opportunities for branding and design are limitless. Brands must capture the hearts and minds of consumers through psychographics: clear opinions, contemporary attitudes and being genuinely interesting, irrespective of the boy/girl divide.

Most notably for Gen Z, design is becoming either outlandishly hyper-creative or discerningly simple. At one end, design so customised it speaks to individual personalities: at the other, a blank canvas for consumers to overlay their own identities.

Take Diet Coke in Israel, which released two million personalised bottle patterns and Carlsberg Copenhagen’s minimalist beer aesthetic respectively. Brands must increase their individuality and demonstrate their soul power to attract a population of gender-liberated individuals whose decisions are no longer influenced by gender.

There are simple ways in which brands may achieve this. Firstly, they must allow the aesthetic to articulate the concept, colour, texture, shape and form so that the overall design is relatable to all. Health drinks brand Body & Eden does this effectively with their bottle design and brand identity, which focuses simply on the quality of ingredients and the benefits yielded from consuming its concoctions. It is streamlined, simple and sexless, almost utilitarian in feel but, despite this, incredibly human. Through harnessing its brand messages to identify the different senses of wellbeing, the overall approach is inclusive, empathic and transcends gender.

Secondly, brands must ‘offset to reset’ – in other words, bring together both masculine and feminine cues to create unisex harmony. Kiyu Taro food, with its colourful illustrations and block font, blends in these design contradictions perfectly.

Another way in which to override gender-led design codes is to deliver a brand character and identity that is so endearing and compelling in nature, that it transcends gender altogether. In fashion, Calvin Klein has executed this well with its new CK Two offering – a powerfully minimalist bottle design that echoes the founding aesthetic principles of its original CK line, but stripped further back to almost abstract effect. For perfumery, a sector long entrenched by gender-led concepts, products and design codes, we are now seeing these deep-rooted cultural norms being disrupted by brand characters with big personalities.

Artist and photographer Austin Young’s collaboration with The Institute for Art and Olfaction and perfumer Brent Leonesio is a case in point. Their creation, ‘Accident’ seems to draw a finger up at the pomposity of perfume marketing. Heart notes, head notes and base notes of jasmine, sandalwood and ylang ylang are subverted by the industrialised scent of ‘gasoline vapour, safety glass, smoking tyres, face powder and a mechanic’. The effect is to create a collision of ‘otherworldly aroma chemicals’ – a ‘harmonic discord’ of ideas. The bottle design resonates the concept – its mottled exterior almost akin to the design of tarmac; the label, haphazardly askew; the bottle top, decorated by a cross hatch of acid-colour string – the only source of colour and chaos added to the overall look.

Elsewhere in culture, we’re seeing challenger artists like Le1F coming to the fore and diversifying historically male-dominated rap music with a new representation of masculinity. And actor Eddie Redmayne’s interpretation of Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of sex change surgery, in the film The Danish Girl has rightly propelled the issue of transgender to even greater heights of everyday thinking – challenging our perceptions and imploring us to question exactly what it means to be a man or woman.

Change is occurring and its manifestation in art, culture and design is palpable. The time is right for brands to start questioning their own visual identity through a genderless lens, in order to adopt a much more modern approach to design; one which fosters parity, inclusivity and acceptance and celebrates individuality and integrity of character.

Ed Silk is strategy director at brand and packaging design agency Bulletproof

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