Stories & Projects

Gender & Design - Challenging the Status Quo


The self-labelled 'Gender Photographer', Tomas Gunnarsson, visited UID to challenge students' norms and perceptions about gender in design. 

Text: Jens Persson, August 2017

At the start of his journalistic career, Tomas Gunnarsson, also known as the 'Gender Photographer', found himself in a work environment that could best be described as stereotypically macho. The entertainment and tech magazines that he worked for promoted a clichéd objectification of women. They still do in most cases. His journey since has been one of actively promoting change by creating awareness. On August 30th, he spoke to students at UID about how images, media and design contain certain messages about gender. What do they tell us and what does our perception of them say about ourselves?

With various eye-opening examples of images and products that cement sexist values, Tomas Gunnarsson showed UID students, old and new, that few of us are immune to reproducing traditional norms. Some demonstrations were overt, like the male nail polish that was promoted as something akin to military armor. Others less so, demanding that students challenged hidden, inherent prejudices that we all carry.

Tomas Gunnarsson presented a simple technique to help reveal such shortcomings. By using the gender-swapping method, meaning that you simply switch the gender of the person in the image, it often becomes blatantly obvious how differently men and women are portrayed. A man swapped into a position traditionally held by a woman, for example leaning onto the woman's chest with a tilted head and a slightly submissive smile, would be deemed if not humiliating, surely surprising and unprecedented.

So how does this apply to design one might ask? Well, besides from the commercial and promotional material tied to the products, which almost always contain images of men and/or women, the designs themselves may carry aesthetics that say something about how its maker views gender.

"Gender-swapping is an effective tool to keep in mind, not just when it comes to images but also design. Does a certain product, like say a power drill, carry so-called manly features? Or does a kitchen appliance have traditionally female characteristics when it comes to shapes and colors? It would be exciting if designers become aware of these matters and reflect upon them throughout the design process" says Tomas Gunnarsson.

The seminar concluded with a workshop where students, through a number of exercises, got to confront stereotypical images in a design context. The broad international student base made for lively and engaging discussions. Some were more familiar with the terminology surrounding discussions about gender, others wondered if this was a typically Swedish topic. Either way, most students seemed to enjoy the opportunity to challenge their own preconceptions about gender without much prestige.

So, what is the take home message for UID students here? I asked the 'Gender Photographer', Tomas Gunnarsson.

"I hope they stop going with their gut feeling. For example, when thinking 'this product image would look good with a man in it' they could ask themselves why they think like that. Is it because they've seen this picture a hundred times before? Wouldn't a woman be just as suitable? Our gut feeling causes us to reproduce the norms we have been fed. This means that to be aware of gender you often have to be counter-intuitive. I hope that is a notion that they take with them, quite simply to not be so comfortable when thinking about these matters. Challenge yourself!"