How Graphic Design for Women’s Brands Has Changed — and Why it Needs to KEEP Changing

November 5, 2016

In its early history, graphic design — and indeed marketing in general — was a male-dominated profession. The ethos for branding a female-centric product generally ended at “use a pink color palette and soft lines, then call it a day.”

Thankfully, we’re long past those days — or are we? There is still plenty of room for improvement…

Good graphic design — particularly within the sphere of branding — should speak to your target demographic. One thing to bear in mind is that “female” isn’t a demographic, much less a character trait: it’s simply one physiological aspect of an individual.

Here are some ideas on how to keep your graphic design work progressive, positive, and pertinent when working on elements for women’s brands.

Gender Isn’t a Personality Trait

Gender may be a driving force behind the sale of certain individual products and services (such as leg razors and moisturizer, but even then not necessarily). However, the graphic design and branding behind such products needs to reflect the actual nature and benefit of said product (i.e.: a super-close shave or a superior skin care routine for instance) and not just that it’s a “girl’s product.”

It’s an age-old tenet of good marketing, but for some reason it frequently gets lost here: focus on why product X will make their life better. Don’t try to assume what their life is.

A superb example of this can be seen in the branding behind the Feminist Times magazine (soon to relauch). As noted in this in-depth dissection, the design choices were carefully made to clearly express what kind of content readers could expect, while at the same time not pigeon-holing who their readers were: “While primarily aimed at women, [art director Lucy Newman] says the site aims to appeal to ‘nonconformists of all ages, genders and backgrounds’ and bring feminism to a wider audience. It’s a sparse design: strong deep colours are coupled with greys and black, sans type and a grid layout. Embellishment is kept to a minimum, presumably to let the controversial editorial do the talking.”

Newman goes on to elaborate that: “The overall concepts that needed to be embodied in the design and imagery were: daring, radical empathy, warmth, inclusive (not aspirational), home made (around the kitchen table), iconoclastic, irreverent fun, punk, political. A movement that you can join and join in. It meant designing a look and feel which is anti-lifestyle and in some way anti-taste, if that is the right word, which is an interesting challenge in itself.”

And, as noted previously, it was a conscious design choice to forego the stereotypical curved lines and pink/purple hues that are often deemed the “feminine” hallmarks of graphic design.

The Rise of Femvertising

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a big push towards “female-empowerment” advertising, and you’re no doubt already thinking of Dove even before this sentence ends.

At the height of parent company Unilever’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” the company was estimated to be earning $30 for every $1 it spent on the drive, which is an unprecedented feat in marketing and one that was hailed as a game-changer when it came to marketing towards women.

Eventually, however, the campaign drew criticism from those who began to suspect that the Dove campaign was becoming both manipulative and patronizing.

For consumers, the sense that a company is genuine is key, and when it comes to graphic design this extends to how much photoshopping and airbrushing is done. No matter how skilled the designer, manipulations will be scrutinized … and doubly so if you’re working on a campaign called “Real Beauty” and then extensively photoshopping the “real women” featured (the reason that is in quotes is that there is some debate as to whether Dove may have used undeclared actresses).

What does this mean for the rest of us? It highlights that consumers can spot disingenuous pandering from a mile away, and both graphic designers and the wider marketing industry need to be more conscious of this going forward. This is especially true now that the idea of “femvertising” is now approached with slight apprehension on the consumer’s side.

Hope for the Future

As the medium of graphic design continues to evolve, we have no doubt that the diversification issue will improve too, simply by proxy; the number of women getting into graphic design as a career choice is growing. At the prestigious CSM university in London, 70 percent of the graphic design students are now female (compared to 50 percent during the ‘90s), and we’re seeing a similar pattern in our own graphic design program.

And long may it continue.

Because if corporations want graphic designers who can intuitively and genuinely speak to consumers who happen to be women, they’d do well to hire more graphic designers who happen to be women.