The Bumpy Typeface project challenges us to rethink our assumptions about gender through type design
Italian designer Beatrice Caciotti’s research shows us how gendered connotations have made their way into the genealogy of type design.
- Alif Ibrahim
- 18 August 2021
When gender is embedded into technical objects and processes, it not only reflects the gender norms of its society but also further reinforces these stereotypes. From hiring practices to the gendered naming of electrical sockets, certain ideologies are being actively reproduced through seemingly innocent everyday things and typefaces are no different. Italian visual designer Beatrice Caciotti’s research into this topic began when she noticed that logos of toys typically marketed for girls predominantly contained handwritten and twirly fonts, while on the other side had bold and sans serif lettering. “Currently, the relationship between typography and gender stereotypes is still scarcely addressed, and when it is it’s regarding marketing and thus audience targeting,” Beatrice tells It’s Nice That. With her Bumpy Typeface project, she decided to directly address this topic. “It is obvious that the use of gender attributes in the context of typography is not based on the lines drawn by the letters, but rather on cultural aspects.”
Having written a master’s degree thesis on this topic, Beatrice’s research found that gender-specific attributes were already being used in typography since the early stages of design theory. “William Morris, precursor of design and design theorist, could not tolerate the modern aesthetics that came with the machine-made books of that time. In an effort to describe what he thought was wrong with the modern shapes and at the same time endorse pre-industrial typography, he stated that the modern lines were excessively ornamented, light, and feminine,” Beatrice describes. Morris advocated for a return to heavier, robust and darker shapes to reestablish the vigour of the printed page, thus linking a “feminine” typeface to weakness and listlessness. Another instance came from 19th century American printer Theodore Low De Vinne, who called for a return to “masculine printing.”
Beatrice found that more contemporary examples typically related to marketing products to a target audience where designers are prompted to understand these gendered differences in order to be able to sell to a certain gender. “The use of these fonts not only relies on outdated negative stereotypes about gender, but also reinforces the concept of a strict gender binary,” Beatrice says. For Beatrice, these stereotypes often become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Common to these examples is the idea that the letter is a metaphor for individuals in the society that they live in. Beatrice found that many existing projects that try to deal with the topic of typefaces and gender often take these stereotypes as a starting point and merely flip them around. “The view is just to mix and overturn attributes associated with gender,” she says of these projects. “Designing a font that simply and only flips the typical associations means adopting the corrupted perspective of the stereotype itself: if you’re not pink, then you are blue or vice versa, but what if I feel purple?”
Thus for Bumpy Typeface, Beatrice begins with the guideline that femininity and masculinity are culturally-restricted attributes, producing a typeface that reflects how difficult it is to be unaffected by the persistence of stereotypes in society. She decided on a variable font to contrast the “discriminatory limitations of the gender binary,” as well as a condensed typeface to express the external pressure of existing norms. “I created two masters that represent these two opposite ways of engaging with the surrounding context: one that adapts and conforms, adhering to the cage in its totality, and shaped with an edgy, axial and geometric shape. This was given a nominal value of 700 and the name Rigid. Whereas at the extreme opposite I designed a character with unexpected shapes, non conventional, fluid, giving it a nominal value of 300 and the name Fluid,” she says. “From the interpolation of these two extremes are born a series of variables, so that Bumpy in its variant 301 will be a bit more rigid than Bumpy 300. And Bumpy 500 is a variant that is halfway between these two extremes, adhering to the external grid and at the same time presenting non conventional elements. The decision to design a font family is a conscious decision in opposition to the limiting logics and discriminants of gender binary.”
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Beatrice Caciotti: Bumpy Typeface (Copyright © Beatrice Caciotti, 2021)
About the Author
Alif joined It's Nice That as an editorial assistant from September to December 2019 after completing an MA in Digital Media at Goldsmiths, University of London. His writing often looks at the impact of art and technology on society.