Contemporary Masculinity and Design for Accessible Discourse

Aaron Panesar
May 7, 2019 · 5 min read

The subject of my BA(Hons) Design studio project is contemporary masculinity, a pretty big one at that. The contextual research began by mapping the current climate through critically analysing the origins of the common stereotype of masculinity, in tandem with deconstructing contemporary media artefacts such as the Gillette: ‘The Best A Man Can Be’ advertisement.

It’s no easy feat to admit, as a designer, that the problem you are choosing to address is not something you can solve. Rather, you must position yourself in a way in which you can utilise your design process to highlight the problem in a fresh way, subsequently designing a way to facilitate discourse that is accessible for all to engage with.

This is what I aimed to achieve with ‘Masculine Trajectories://’. I started off by exploring the idea of ‘Anomalies’ that exist within society. This led me to Ray Bulloch, an openly gay tradesman, owner of what he claims is the first true LGBT Construction company in London, Ray & Gay Ltd. His story is unfathomably rich and I shall share this at a future date however, the key point in relation to this piece is that Ray exists in the grey space of the ‘spectrum’ of masculinity and femininity. It was Ray’s anomalous nature, along with others that I found, which I felt needed to be shared and used to further the conversation surrounding what it means to be masculine.

(Ray Bulloch, photographed outside his home in Newham, East London)

Alongside this search for anomalies, I began to investigate the field of language in relation to masculinity. Through a process of interviewing both males and females, I have curated a log of words that were spoken the most frequently when asked to describe their ideal partner. No gender was specified in the interview process. Interestingly, the analysis showed that females used more physical descriptors than males to describe their ideal partner, whereas males used more character attributes than females. However, this was a limited data set of young adults aged 19–25, therefore will need to be compared to alternate age brackets in the future of the project.

Originally beginning with a low-res workshop model, debuted at our Work In Progress show back in February, I combined the ‘Artefacts’, collected through documenting the anomalies, and the ‘Language’ collected through the interviews into a participatory ‘engagement’. This would allow people to place the artefacts and language cards against a measuring tape that had masculine on one end and feminine on the other, sparking conversations of interest.

The dialogue that emerged was so rich in detail and nuance that I felt that it needed to be furthered. The specific points of interest that I honed into were the fact that with only 10 artefact cards the layouts produced by each participant were different, I did not come across two people who formed the same arrangement, the same can almost be said for the word cards. However, there were people who placed all the cards in the middle of the tape. This is what I refer to the ‘intellectual’ answer, I also call this a cop out, after being coerced to reconsider their position and engage with the material on gut instinct this allowed people to trace back their underlying opinions on things such as the gendered connotations of the word ‘banter’ or a pink builder’s van. Through this conscious choice of engaging with the material, the most interesting discoveries were made.

Fast forward to the public launch of Masculine Trajectories this past weekend, the project has developed into a multifaceted body of work. Comprised of a set of developed measuring ‘tools’, three engagement activities (the newest addition being ‘Empty Your Pockets’) and a distinct visual language and identity. The workshops were met with a steady stream of people, and the resultant dialogues were an extrapolation of what was achieved at the w.i.p.

‘Empty Your Pockets’, was a new format of engagement that allows for participants to measure their own masculinity through placing their personal possessions against the masculinity ruler. The nuances highlighted and the discourse were my personal favourites, due in part to the range of diversity represented within the crowd that attended. Everything was up for discussion, for example, I heard conversations surrounding the French language in relation to gendered objects, tampons and screws being phallic through design and the size of mobile phones in relation to masculinity and femininity. Another interaction that stood out to me was that with Patrick Dabra, he relayed to me about how, by placing the Artefact cards with initial gut reaction, he surprised himself and subsequently traced back in his mind the origins of where his own understanding of masculinity in relation to specific objects was formed in earlier life. This was one conversation of many.

(One of the Artefacts engagements)

The workshops were run by a team of men (Arun Rose, Will Ottosen & Rajan Panesar) to whom I owe a great deal. It was their personalities as well as their willingness to trust in the workshops, and to fully embody them, that teased out the best interactions and conversation.

(One of the Empty Your Pockets engagements)

Designing for accessible discourse is something I will continue to explore within my design practice. Through developing these tools and engagements, I feel that the conversation surrounding masculinity can be furthered in an exciting and healthy way. I plan future engagements across the country, hopefully within schools, prisons and wherever else I can.

instagram: @masculinetrajectories

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