A practical approach to queering design

The future of design is queer. What does that mean in practice?

John Voss
John Voss
Dec 2, 2020 · 14 min read
An illustrated skeleton skipping over the words, “Be Gay Do Design”
Illustration mine

Recently, I was asked to speak to MICA students about what it means to queer design. As co-founder of Queer Design Club, I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about queer people in design; but not as much time thinking about queering design.

Honestly, I find the subject intimidating. I went to college for design, but not grad school, which I assume is where you learn to “look for alternate readings of texts,” “interrogate your personal narrative,” and get comfortable using “dialectic” in a sentence.

However, I’ve been out as a gay man for two decades and a working designer for half that time, so I hope that my perspective on queering design might be helpful in supplementing those who are actual experts on the subject — whose work you should absolutely read.

When I think about it, my relationship to design has always been pretty queer. Before I even knew design was a thing someone could do for money, I was making posters and websites for my local queer youth groups on bootlegged copies of Photoshop and Dreamweaver.

The first time I realized design was something you could do professionally was when I dated a RISD student. I can’t recommend that personally, but it did get me to leave my work as a makeup-artist — another story— to pursue design.

My first real design job was in-house at an LGBTQ+ health non-profit in Boston, where I was the first — and for a long time only — designer. I spent those formative years of my career working on just about any type of design you can imagine for diverse swaths of the queer community.

An infographic for safer sex practices that are ungendered
A cartoon buttplug saying, “No Ifs Ands or Butts”
Some of my decade-old work for Fenway Health. LEFT TO RIGHT: wrap-around covers for the “female” internal condoms targeting men who have sex with men, a safer sex infographic that doesn’t reference gender or sexuality, a shameless plug for butt health.

Some of the highlights of my time there were designing an un-gendered safer sex infographic, and a card game used to teach men who have sex with men in India about HIV risks as part of our research arm’s global HIV/AIDS reduction work.

I worked with queer people whose lived experiences were far different from my own. Unhoused trans+ youth, men of color who have sex with men but don’t identify as gay, sex workers, elderly LGBTQ+ people…

Working with the queer community is a gift, not because I see my own identity reflected in the work but because the diversity within the community has broadened my understanding of the world while deepening my sense that I belong here.

Having the common misconception that you as a designer are the sole arbiter of what good design is challenged so early in my career is one of the biggest kindnesses the queer community has ever done me.

Working with the queer community is a gift, not because I see my own identity reflected in the work but because the diversity within the community has broadened my understanding of the world while deepening my sense that I belong here.

I’ve stayed close to the community since then — working with queer clients whenever I can, keeping what I learned in those early days present with me in my current job, and selling designs to raise money for queer causes.

While it’s always been easy for me to find opportunities to bring my design skills to the queer community, it’s been harder to find queer community in design. I found myself wondering what does it mean to be a queer designer? What legacy have other queer designers left in design? Where do I fit in in the field?

Design is already pretty queer

That’s what led me to co-found Queer Design Club.

I’d been trying to connect with other queer people in design, to learn more about queer design history, and not getting very far. And so I had a Field of Dreams moment. I decided I was going to build something out in the world and bring the queer people to me.

I grabbed a Twitter handle and tweeted my intention. The next day, I had a DM from a designer in Buenos Aires named Rebecca Brooker who would become my cofounder. She had been developing a similar idea, so we decided to make this thing together. It was almost a year before we met in person.

Today, the Slack we started has over 1300 members, and the online directory has over 600 people across all disciplines — inspired by sibling directories like Blacks Who Design, Women Who Design, and Latinxs Who Design.

We use our social media to highlight designers from our community, we host events, and last year we ran the first ever field-wide study of queer people in design.

LEFT TO RIGHT: Queer Design Club co-founders Rebecca Brooker and John Hanawalt and members Kelly Small, Seth Katz, Alex Chen, Richard Wade Morgan, and Jordan Green.

We knew from AIGA’s design census that a disproportionate number of designers identify as LGBTQ+. We also saw that LGBTQ+ respondents earned less and didn’t stay in the field as long as their cisgender, heterosexual peers. But we didn’t have any real data on what the queer experience in design really was.

The Queer Design Count was a survey we ran at the end of 2019 that received over 1,000 responses from all over the world.

It turns out that it’s true that in a lot of ways design earns its reputation of being queer-friendlier than other fields, but it still has a long way to go. Although queer designers are half as likely as the American workforce as a whole to overhear anti-LGBTQ+ comments on the job, almost 90% of our respondents had experienced some kind of bias.

And that bias falls along familiar fault lines. Cis folks experience less bias than trans folks, white people are better represented than people of color. Men generally reported better experiences than… everyone else.

I think that’s one of the most important take-aways from the count. When we talk about queer community, we’re not talking about a monolith, and we can’t talk about queer identity in a vacuum.

I, for example, am a fairly basic factory model cis white guy. For me, “queer” is more of a political affiliation than a form of self-identification. The way some folks identify as culturally Jewish.

But in many ways, my identity doesn’t threaten the status quo. I have a partner and a dog. My gender fits in a neat binary. I work on consumer-friendly products. I can be open about who I am and still have a successful career in design without queering it at all.

How do we queer design further?

So to me, queering design means making a conscious and repeated choice to side with my queer colleagues who do challenge the status quo.

40% of the designers we heard from reported having to point out design decisions that excluded queer people to their colleagues. Many of them said it was exhausting to feel solely responsible for inclusive design but were also proud their perspectives as queer people allowed them to do it.

That’s one way designers are already queering the profession.

I very much see my work with Queer Design Club being in part about queering the design industry and design practice. I want to see queer designers’ contributions recognized, I want them to feel like they can thrive in the field.

But it can’t just be about representation.

If you have LGBTQ+ people doing work that doesn’t change the systems they are working in, that’s not queering anything, that’s assimilating. Assimilation will always to be contingent on playing by a set of established rules. And it’s always going to require leaving someone behind. There has to be an out group in this model of the world.

You have to challenge the cis- and heterosexist (and racist, and ableist, and classist) underpinnings of the systems designers work in to make meaningful change. And if you do, the output will change as well.

At the same time, I think the queer community deserves better than to be defined in opposition to our cisgender, heterosexual peers. Challenging -isms in design is important, but it’s also table stakes.

When I look at designs created by the queer community, there are qualities I think can help clarify what it means to “queer design” in practice. would put hope we can bring forward in our work.

LEFT: The Gilbert Baker pride flag, RIGHT: photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Queer design is expressive

At its heart, I think of being outwardly queer as a process of owning who you are. Growing more comfortable in that identity, or learning to enjoy the discomfort, and sharing it with the world.

That experience can be as joyful as it can be painful. It can be celebratory, it can be defiant, and very often, it can be all of those things at once.

When people submit their profiles to Queer Design Club, we ask what part of queer visual culture inspires them most, and drag tops the list. Drag is visually rich (even—or especially—when executed on a budget), but its expressive power goes deeper than that.

Drag uses hyperbole to challenge societal constructs. The best drag performances acknowledge their own artifice while conveying its message with confidence and authenticity.

So often, designers are trying to obfuscate the artifice in our work. Authenticity is the drag we put on as we build experiences predicated on community and self-expression when our true intention is conversion.

Drag performers, by comparison, are much more honest with their audience and with themselves. They’re embodying characters, sure; but at the same time, many performers also use drag to explore their own identities. To do that on a stage takes a remarkable amount of confidence and courage.

“If I wait for someone else to validate my existence, it will mean that I’m shortchanging myself.” — Zanele Muholi

Any time you express some part of yourself, you have to be a little bit vulnerable. I think a queered design field would make space for authenticity and vulnerability. To be honest about the intent of our designs as we build a show around it. To acknowledge the vulnerability of people who are looking to the products we design to improve their lives. To be responsible with how vulnerable they are when they are in experiences that are not of their design but ours.

Designers talk about empathy like an intellectual exercise. So much of designers’ emotional intelligence is used to profile and manipulate the behavior of the people with whom we allegedly empathize.

In a queerer field, we would encourage users to make decisions based on informed consent and not slick heuristics. We would let them define themselves instead of forcing them into binary choices that determine how we talk to them and what we allow them to do. Designers would feel responsible for what their empathy uncovers and would use that insight to create experiences that actually empower people to be themselves, freely.

LEFT: Sylvia Rivera Law Project graphic, RIGHT: ACT UP protest featuring Silence = Death poster, June 26, 1988, New York Historical Society/Getty Images

Queer design is collective

Although empathy has been packaged up as a neat little Design Thinking™ books, workshops, and proprietary consulting models, the queer designers I know have a lifetime of experience in empathy on even the most skilled sprint facilitator.

A lot of queer designers I’ve talked to feel they are able to more fully put themselves in others’ shoes because of how much time they’ve spent pretending to be someone else.

We’ve turned a survival mechanism of being able to move through spaces that aren’t for us into a professional adaptation. And we bring that outsider perspective with us when we enter the field.

In design today, people on the outside are considered edge cases and most large organizations don’t design for them. But as Eric Meyer says, “When you say ‘edge case’, you’re really just defining the limits of what you care about.”

A lot of queer designers I’ve talked to feel they are able to more fully put themselves in others’ shoes because of how much time they’ve spent pretending to be someone else.

So it’s not enough to bring outsider perspectives into the design process, we need to bring in people currently relegated to the edges of our practice and actually center them in our work.

One way to do that is having diverse teams. Studies have shown that diversity leads to increased productivity and innovation, although the queerer the design industry becomes, the less we should need to rely on business metrics to argue for what’s right.

We also have to expand our definition of a design to people who aren’t traditionally included in it and embracing a spirit of co-design.

We need to enroll our “edge cases” as our partners in the design process to create work that serves them as well as it does everyone else. We should do this not because products that accommodate users at the margins do a better job at meeting the needs of everyone in middle (although they do) but because we should be challenging the idea that the experiences we build should have margins at all—or that the business’s margins should define them.

We must also challenge the idea that we are the ones who should be building these designs. Communities can solve problems for themselves when they have the resources and designers from within those communities are empowered to do so.

Very often, what a problem calls for is not a designer to unlock the solution but the political will to enact what we know will work (usually money, usually controlled by people who’d rather not see the problem solved). Not every nail needs design thinking or an interface or a logo.

“I am not a beginning. I am not an end. I am a link in a chain.” ― Keith Haring

I think queering design means letting go of our egos as designers. There’s still such a cult of celebrity in the field. We’re taught to revere individual designers who make iconic work, like Milton Glaser and the I heart New York logo. We pay less attention to work created by teams or ephemeral work that eschews a sense of “timelessness” to improve people’s lives now. A lot of us are still chasing that FastCo Design spotlight, the retrospective of our work, or the seat of honor at an AIGA gala.

But some of the most memorable queer designs aren’t attributable to one person. The “Silence = Death” poster, which I think is one of the most striking designs in history was designed by a collective. Feminist activist artists the Guerrilla Girls work anonymously to keep focus on the issues their work addresses.

LEFT: Guerrilla Girls, Hot Flashes, 1993, Volume 1, Number 1, RIGHT: The Male Figure, Fall 1957

Queer design is subversive

Other queer designers’ work goes uncelebrated because it was created in a context where putting their name on it would have been a prison sentence or worse.

And that’s why I think one of the most important aspects of queer design is subversiveness. Although I don’t think queer people should be defined by the opposition they face from others, how we meet adversity head-on is one of the most inspiring aspects of the queer community.

So much of the queer visual culture that inspires me personally was created to evade or protest anti-queer laws.

“We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.” — Bayard Rustin

I collect Male Figure magazines. I love the black and white cover photography against neon spot colors. It’s simple and it’s camp, a balance I often try to strike in my own designs.

Beefcake magazines like Male Figure were printed at a time when obscenity laws forbade mailing any materials that promoted homosexuality. They are not gay magazines in positioning, but through their content and design, their true nature is clear to those for whom they were created.

Queer designers have worked in defiance of societal constraints both covertly, like Comstock-era publications, and overtly. Protest and activism are where queer people have made some of the richest contributions to design, bringing a signature boldness to messages that challenge not just the political but also the aesthetic norms of their time. Grainy, photocopied posters on garish neon stock have made a more lasting impact on history than the high budget deliverables created by top agencies at the same time.

I don’t think queer design inherently belongs to one aesthetic. Queer people have made contributions to high fashion, fine art, and commercial photography as well as low-brow camp, smutty zines, and pop art. I think the queerer design becomes, the more diverse our visual output will be as more people are recognized for their work without having to filter that work through a dominant idea of what “good design” looks like.

Design can “look queer” for sure, but like drag performances, the best of it will go deeper than a coat of paint. Nike can put the pink triangle on a pair of sneakers, but there remains a difference between commercializing queerness and queering design.

Nordstrom x Nike Epic React Flyknit BETRUE Running Shoe, not a good example of queering design

The future of design is queer

Is commercialization antithetical to queer design? Appealing to a mass market means catering your work to the majority, which seems to me at odds with the empowering, inclusive, and subversive ethos that is so strong in the queer creative community.

At the same time, it would also feel wrong to assert a binary here while forsaking them elsewhere. Marriage equality doesn’t challenge the gender and sexual constructs that hold queer people back elsewhere—we’re still putting people into a mold, it’s just a bigger mold—but it is a type of progress.

In the same way the queer rights movement continues to push past toothless platitudes of “Love is love,” I hope that design and the industries with which it partners go further than the realization that queer money is the same as straight money.

Perhaps by the time we have truly queered the field of design, we will be designing for something more than growth at all costs.

Queering design to me, isn’t about bringing queerness into the field as it exists today, it’s about moving that field forward, about being the next link in a chain toward something better.

A design industry that’s queer not just in demography but also spirit will work differently. Its output will be different. How it defines itself and who is a designer, will be different. It has to be.

To make space for the full breadth of the queer community. To give ourselves room to fully express ourselves selves in all the ways we’ve discussed means subverting and tearing down a lot of what we take for granted about our field.

I don’t know what that will look like, but I know who I trust to lead the way.

Being visible, and vocal, and supportive of each other is the first step toward that vision of design.

If you’d like to get additional perspectives from queer designers, which you obviously do, here are some resources I recommend.

Out!, which gathers 20+ interviews with LGBTQ+ people in design. Queer X Design, a 50+ year look through queer design history. Queer.Archive.Work. This AIGA interview with Nicole Killian about queering design education. And, of course, the Queer Design Club member directory.

Queer Design Club

A space for LGBTQ+ persons in design.