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Practical design guide to gender inclusion. Part 1: Understanding the context

Content written by @manviaggarwal_

Angela Rossi

Inclusion & design

Design catalyses change and, when we, as designers, ensure the inclusion of one, we make space for all. When we discuss inclusive design, we need to keep in mind that it is essentially an ongoing and evolving design process.
It is a methodology for creating a design that a diverse group of people can use. It is a philosophy that encourages the consideration of how size, shape, age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, education levels, income, spoken languages, culture & customs, and even diets shape the way we interact with the world.

We consider that inclusion should be regarded as a fundamental design principle, just like any other design principles a company decides to follow. When inclusion is not part of a brand’s or designer’s core values, there is a chance it will be forgotten, deprioritised, and become a distant concept as humans are growing, changing, and adapting to the world around them every day.

Design catalyses change and, when we, as designers, ensure the inclusion of one, we make space for all.

Understanding gender

Reflecting on these dimensions of human diversity, we explore how gender is an inherent part of our identity and the design decisions relating to it concerns all of us — whether we are actively conscious of it or not. Gender is a social construct that was created as a way to distinguish between groups of people. It is one of the most vital aspects of a person’s identity and profoundly influences every part of one’s life.

Gender is widely perceived through a binary ideology where the two groups are men and women. A person’s gender is the complex interrelationship between three dimensions: body, identity, and expression. (Gender Spectrum, n.d.)

  • Body
    A person’s physical body, the experience with their own body, how society genders bodies, and how others interact with a person based on their body.
  • Identity
    It’s the name a person uses to convey their gender based on their deep internal sense of self. Identities typically fall into binary — e.g. man, woman, non-binary — e.g., gender-queer, gender-fluid, etc. or ungendered -e.g., agender, genderless categories. The meaning associated with a particular identity can vary among individuals using the same term. A person’s gender identity can correspond to or differ from the sex they were assigned at birth.
  • Expression
    It’s how a person publicly expresses or presents their gender. This can include behaviour and outward appearances such as dress, hair, make-up, body language and voice.

These dimensions can vary significantly across various possibilities and are distinct but interrelated with others. A person’s being and comfort in their gender relates to how these three dimensions feel in harmony. Gender’s dimensions make it clear that it’s not strictly biological, it’s an outcome of active efforts to produce and maintain a difference: a sea of people working together every day to make men masculine and women feminine and signify the relative importance of masculinity and femininity in every domain. It’s also widely cultural and not a binary system.

Gender is a social construct that was created as a way to distinguish between groups of people. It is one of the most vital aspects of a person’s identity and profoundly influences every part of one’s life.

As a crucial aspect of self, gender is narrowly interpreted and rigidly enforced; individuals who exist outside of its standards face countless challenges. Even those who vary only slightly from standards can become targets of criticism, discrimination, and even violence.
Many recent studies — from Trans Equality — have revealed that transgender individuals face discrimination within their family systems and schools, in employment and housing, within government settings, through hate crimes, and under the justice and legal systems.

Angela Rossi

Biases and designer’s responsibility

It’s not uncommon for the biases that are rooted in the functioning of society to find their way into design and technology. Sometimes when designers generate and evaluate ideas to solve user needs based on their own experiences, they are likely to create products that are easy to use for only a fraction of users while excluding others. It’s only fair to say that discrimination and misrepresentation around gender have seeped into digital spaces. Women, trans people, non-binary folks, and agender individuals exist. They move through this world right next to the people who design the websites, applications, and services they need — and yet those websites, applications, and services have not been designed for them. Their identities have often been ignored, mistreated, or even mocked.

Digital environments that embrace inclusivity, understanding, and acceptance empower LGBTQ users, and ultimately, all users. Furthermore, as designers, it’s our responsibility to educate- our brands by leading the way. We need to educate our clients by having honest discussions, and we need to make our users aware by setting an example. There are some companies that are leading this change within their product/service verticals as they adopt gender-inclusive if not entirely genderless methods and steps in production and marketing phases.

Sometimes when designers generate and evaluate ideas to solve user needs based on their own experiences, they are likely to create products that are easy to use for only a fraction of users while excluding others. It’s only fair to say that discrimination and misrepresentation around gender have seeped into digital spaces.

One of the leading examples of this is Gucci. In Fall 2020, they became one of the first notable luxury brands to cater to gender-fluid and non-binary customers. It launched Gucci Mx, a shopping section on its website that features genderless and genderneutral clothing and accessories. Referencing the gender-neutral honorific that extends the scope of Mr. and Ms., Mx allows customers to browse the brand’s collections, beginning with Pre-Fall 2020 and Fall/Winter 2020, presented on non-binary models. The Gucci Mx web page reads, “The House’s collections emphasise the dissolving lines of the gender divide in the name of self-expression.” (Rapp, 2020)

Aesop can be regarded as a gender-neutral beauty pioneer with its excellent skincare products in dark bottles with black and white labels focusing only on its functionality and uses. This neutral packaging exhibits how a brand can lead with enduring and universal relevance based on shared attitudes and values instead of gender ideals. Similarly there is Sex Essentials, by Maude, which is a gender neutral range of sex products with a minimalist design that broke free from gendered pink and blue tones — alternatively using hues ranging from off-white to brown.

There are product examples like the Nordic-inspired Toro Play Kitchen by Danish brand Ferm Living which point towards a foundational learning about gender neutrality amongst children. This play set comes with a wooden gender-neutral colour palette to encourage both boys and girls to exercise their cooking skills and make up new, playful recipes. Features of the kitchen include a cooking stove, a sink and space to store utensils.

Present-day bot voices like Alexa, Siri or Google Home allow users to choose whether they want to interact with a male or female speaker. Virtue, the creative agency born from VICE, partnered with Copenhagen Pride to develop Q, the world’s first genderless voice, to eradicate technology bias. Q symbolises not the voice of one but the voice of many fighting for a future inclusive of everyone.

These cases fairly sum up the advent of gender-inclusive products in the 21st-century, led by conscious design practices.

Angela Rossi

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