Katie Menzies and Abel Reverter – founders of character design and animation studio Cabeza Patata – joined us from Barcelona last month to discuss how they approach issues of diversity and representation in their endearing and energetic work.
After clearing up any confusion about the studio’s name – “it doesn’t really mean anything; we just like how it sounds” – the pair dove straight into their recent work for Spotify. But rather than talking through the logistics of creating a global campaign or the challenges of taking on their biggest project to date, the duo spoke about one deceptively difficult part of the brief: creating a gender-neutral character.
Focussing on what they “didn’t get quite right,” and the inherent problems of making a character that represents everyone, Katie and Abel started by asking us to consider the complexity of the gendered icons we see every day. Reflecting on the role of a traffic light’s green man, Katie reasoned: “this is a clear representation of a gender-neutral sign; it means that everyone can cross the road.” But when we put that same figure in a different context – like a bathroom sign alongside a female icon – “suddenly it is only talking to males,” Abel said. For the two designers, the perceived universality of the lone male figure tells us something significant about our interpretation of gender: male traits are easily taken as neutral whereas female ones are not.
Taking this into considering, the duo’s thought process when creating their gender-neutral character followed suit. “We’ll have short hair because in stylised representations of humans, if you put long hair, you normally assume it’s a woman,” they remembered from their conversations. “In the same way, we thought we’d have a skinny frame so we wouldn’t have any obvious hips or breasts and we wouldn’t have any dresses or skirts because that would mean it’s clearly a woman.” To communicate anything effectively, designers need to utilise established visual tropes, but the overwhelmingly masculine traits of Kate and Abel’s gender-neutral character made them question how these communication techniques can reinforce restrictive norms. The duo asked themselves: “Have we solved the problem or are we just furthering the stereotype?”
Ultimately, the pair don’t feel they have succeeded in doing what they set out to. But the realisation they had in the process was an important one: “The answer to representing the huge variety of people we see everywhere is to create a huge variety of characters.” As their talk came to a close, Katie and Abel took some time to speak about their approach going forward. “What we’re trying to do is put a big variety of people in our work and create characters that aren’t constrained by their gender, their race, their ethnicity,” they said. “We’re trying in every piece that we make, and every conversation we have with clients, to push this and we’re going to continue to try.”