How lettering became gendered and why it is wrong
Is your new font accidentally sexist? Kris Sowersby, founder of revered type foundry Klim, examines the arbitrary gender signifiers assigned by 1940s American retailers and how it’s permeated design thinking and conversation. In this comprehensive survey of gendered type design to date, Kris explores why describing lettering as “masculine” or “feminine” is historically and culturally loaded, and how lettering can avoid these tropes.
- Kris Sowersby
- 26 October 2021
In Susan Sontag’s groundbreaking essay Notes on “Camp”, she identifies the Baroque as a high period of camp. She suggests camp can’t be explicitly defined, but characteristics can be identified. Her essay is a list, and for Nº14 she writes:
“Still, the soundest starting point seems to be the late 17th and early 18th century, because of that period’s extraordinary feeling for artifice, for surface, for symmetry; its taste for the picturesque and the thrilling, its elegant conventions for representing instant feeling and the total presence of character — the epigram and the rhymed couplet (in words), the flourish (in gesture and in music). The late 17th and early 18th century is the great period of Camp…”
Ever since Sontag elucidated a vocabulary for camp, drag has slowly but surely become mainstream. Camp is an essential element of drag. In true baroque fashion, drag queens typically exaggerate and dramatise female gender signifiers. What is superficially a playful gesture is fundamentally a critique of socially-constructed ideas of sexual identity and gender norms.
During 2021 I regularly drove past a massive billboard for RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under. I wondered if this would have been possible in Aotearoa New Zealand 10 or 30 years ago? Would such a staunch, camp display of sexuality and gender be acceptable? I grew up in a culture underpinned by binary gender roles enforced by toxic masculinity. Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s not hard to see. And I see it in design and typography.
Theodore low De Vinne was and remains a respected figure in the type canon. In 1892 he gave a talk at a printers convention, eventually published as Masculine Printing. He kicks it off with: “I call printing ‘masculine’ that is noticeable for its readability, for its strength and absence of useless ornament. I call ‘feminine’ all printing that is noticeable for its delicacy, and for the weakness that always accompanies delicacy, as well as for its profusion of ornamentation.”
20 years later, during the ascendency of modernism, Adolf Loos delivered his famous lecture: Ornament and Crime. It was subsequently published and taken seriously as a manifesto for the new style. Loos wrote his polemic during the height of Art Nouveau in Austria. Like earlier criticisms of the Baroque being “morally corrupt”, Loos claimed ornament “immoral” and “degenerate”. An insidious picture starts to emerge: ornament is feminine, weak, useless, corrupt, degenerate.
These primitive attitudes still permeate design thinking and conversation. Despite the good work done by many institutions and organisations to achieve gender parity and let the air out of stereotypes, they still linger on. Most recently in my orbit, Josie Young wrote about it in her post Gendered language in design. A creative director invoking how a logo is “too masculine” isn’t new, but that’s the point. “Most of us have been raised in a binary world of blues and pinks” writes Young, “so when it comes to describing the work we’re doing, of course we fall into those familiar patterns.” These familiar patterns are not benign. The masculine/feminine binary is corrosive for everyone because, “in a patriarchy, masculinity is considered superior to femininity.”
“An insidious picture starts to emerge: ornament is feminine, weak, useless, corrupt, degenerate.”Kris Sowersby
Around the time Loos declared ornament criminal, colour started to be gendered for children. Before it settled into the girl-pink/boy-blue binary noted by Young, the opposite was suggested. “The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” It wasn’t until the 1940s that American retailers settled on the current arrangement. The baby boomers were the first generation raised in “gender-specific” clothing. In turn, the marketing industry figured out that arbitrary colour gendering and personalisation shifted more units.
It’s mildly amusing to read pink-strong-boy/blue-dainty-girl, because we’re so embedded in the opposite. Marketing switched the colours but kept the gendered language and stereotypes. As a kid I remember the burning shame of wearing my favourite pink sweatshirt, only to be chastised that “pink is a girl’s colour”. It was repeated like a fact, but it’s simply an arbitrary decision made in the 40s parroted by boys in the 90s desperate to be “real men”.
Have you wondered what gendered icons look like, or if your website is accidentally sexist? The tragedy with these well-meaning articles intending to “smash the patriarchy” is they’re founded on the very stereotypes they’re trying to dispel. Saying “masculine” icons have “straight, sharp edges” and “feminine” icons have “smooth, curved lines” plays right into the original binary. Describing fonts with the same qualities is no better. As Suw Charman-Anderson writes in her 2017 take on the matter:
“Studies show that we make consistent judgements about whether a typeface is masculine or feminine: Masculine typography has a square or geometric form with hard corners and edges, and is emphatically either blunt or spiky. Serif fonts are also considered masculine, as is bold type and capitals. Feminine typography favours slim lines, curling or flowing shapes with a lot of ornamentation and embellishment, and slanted letters. Sans-serif, cursive and script fonts are seen as feminine, as are lower case letters.”
“The marketing industry figured out that arbitrary colour gendering and personalisation shifted more units.”Kris Sowersby
Perhaps they’re referencing such studies as Communicating brand gender through type fonts or All Dressed up with Something to Say: Effects of Typeface Semantic Associations on Brand Perceptions and Consumer Memory. These studies reassure marketing departments that “font categories are easily identifiable and distinguishable, and consist of numerous individual type fonts that managers can use to communicate brand gender.” But they’re flawed with arbitrary choices, like: “The control serif font was chosen because serif fonts are perceived as ‘all purpose’… and thus not associated with femininity or masculinity.”
This directly contradicts the previous statement that “serif fonts are also considered masculine.” So what’s it gonna be? Please tell me, studies! Are serifs masculine or feminine? Perhaps, like colours, the gendering is utterly arbitrary. Perhaps showing a bunch of people stereotypes, noting their response and re-promoting the stereotypes simply reinforces the stereotypes into a self-sustaining feedback loop of bullshit?
If it’s not studies, then we can rely on our Freudian subconscious. We’re reminded of immutable font genders in mid-90s mainstream typography marketing books, like Branding with Type: “The subconscious knows if a typeface is masculine, and which script faces signal individuality, wildness, or tenderness. It knows that type with fanciful loops means luxury and that finely made letters reflect the delicate form of a woman.”
“Perhaps showing a bunch of people stereotypes, noting their response and re-promoting the stereotypes simply reinforces the stereotypes into a self-sustaining feedback loop of bullshit?”Kris Sowersby
Since then we’ve moved online to buy and sell fonts. Like the department stores of the 1940s, the biggest retailers are more than happy to leverage lazy gendering to move units. Here is what Myfonts tags “masculine” and “feminine”.³³ For bonus cringe, here’s “girly”. Creative Market isn’t much better: masculine, feminine, girly. Linotype’s delightful blurbs dig further, Impakt is “an ideal choice when a commanding, masculine effect is required”, and Etica “successfully combines masculine force with female delicacy”. They’ve even gendered temperature. Veto “tends to be considered a cool and slightly masculine font that is more closely related to Frutiger® than to the warm and more feminine appearing Univers®.”
And on it goes. These tags and blurbs are a digital link to De Vinne’s corrosive analogue stereotypes. Thankfully this is a different era, people are actively discussing and pushing back against gendered language in typography. The first clear, public statement I read was Victoria Rushton’s article on Alphabettes. She starts strong: “Here’s the deal with describing type or lettering as feminine or masculine: Don’t.” When Paul Soulellis recently examined the question, “What is queer typography?”, he states: “Female, male, intersex, trans, personal, non-conforming, and eunich. I don’t think it’s useful to categorize typography this way, to examine or classify type according to gender, or the other way around – this isn’t valuable in today’s discussion about queerness. Gender is not a metaphor.
Describing things as “masculine” or “feminine” in design and typography is historically and culturally loaded. Language is powerful, typography makes language concrete. Language has a shared meaning and heritage. The typographic ancestry of “masculine” and “feminine” traces a direct bloodline to people like De Vinne and Loos. When they write “delicate and light” is feminine, “strong and bold” is masculine, they’re really saying “women are weak, men are strong”. It’s that simple. This language is corrupt and bankrupt in today’s society. Gender shouldn’t be used as a metaphor when better, simpler language is available.
Recently Klim released a new typeface called Epicene. The project took about a decade. Despite trying to construct a linear narrative about the design and development, it was a messy process. Formal font design and drawing happened in fits and spurts, Baroque art and type history research was sporadic. Reading articles and essays about gender and sexuality in society bubbled alongside everything else, underpinned by my longstanding, but unarticulated sense that gendering fonts (and other things) is wrong.
Sontag’s Notes On “Camp” was the conceptual anchor. It wove together the disparate threads I was working with: baroque, gender, camp and style. Epicene takes its name from Sontag’s essay, specifically point Nº11: “Camp is the triumph of the epicene style.” To be epicene means to lack gender distinction, to have aspects of both or neither. In applying this notion to a typographic context, I am calling out the tendency that codes modern, functional or ‘neutral’ visual forms as ‘masculine’, while equating anything ornate or decorative with ‘feminine’ traits.
The gendering of ornamentation seems borne of cultural amnesia or myopia. Decorative fabrics and accessories are commonly worn by both men and women today, especially by non-Europeans; highly-decorated illuminated manuscripts were made when men dominated artistic production; and during the 18th century, lace, leggings, wigs and high heels were worn equally by men and women.
While attentive to history, Epicene is not a revival typeface. It is an experiment in modernising Baroque letterforms without muzzling their ornamental idiosyncrasy nor falling into the trap of gender codifications. It’s a firm statement that fonts have no gender. All fonts are indeed epicene.
“Gender shouldn’t be used as a metaphor when better, simpler language is available.”Kris Sowersby
GalleryKlim Type Foundry: Epicene (Copyright © Klim Type Foundry, 2021)
Klim Type Foundry: Epicene (Copyright © Klim Type Foundry, 2021)
About the Author
Founder and lead type designer of the celebrated Wellington-based type foundry Klim, Kris is a leading name in typography and lettering. Klim Type Foundry’s releases include Calibre, Domaine Display, Founders Grotesk, National, Maelstrom, Söhne, Tiempos and most recently, Epicene.