feminine design, continued
July 8, 2004 10:06 AM

What is feminine [web] design?

Others' thoughts on this question (following on my earlier gender post) have made me wonder whether I was looking in the wrong place for this definition.

That is, maybe there aren't specific elements that make a design "feminine", but there's a difference in expressiveness (see Absent Student for some thoughts on that). To put everything in Weimar-era German terms (because we can):

Masculine design is Bauhaus, emphasizing form and function. Except, if you believe your personal economist, the function is the website itself, not its content.

Feminine design is Dada, emphasizing expression and the destruction of form. Eh, maybe not. Maybe it's flat-out expressionism. Or worse yet, romanticism. Ugh. I don't really want to be Schiller or Goethe.

Or we could skip the thin-stretched comparisons to any form of modern art at all and talk about the thing itself instead of things that are like it. If you insist.

Put in web terms, a well-chosen feminine site design will be built around the site's content - possibly even the site's author or persona - and a similarly well-chosen masculine design would focus on the functionality of the site (and possibly the technical emphasis of the author).

Your gender does not necessarily play a role in which design style suits you best. I like to think that my preference for expressive but functional visuals has more to do with my identity as an artist than my identity as a woman.


Our beliefs about what is "feminine" versus "masculine" affect our personal expressions of gender. Both women and men are socialized (or, if you'd like to erroneously wink wink believe, born with an innate preference for) to different types of expression. There is both a tendency to encourage certain types of emotion and to enforce certain types of expression. Put simply, boys aren't supposed to cry, and girls aren't supposed to be mad or ugly.

Kids, this is why we still need feminism. Well, this among other reasons that ought to be glaringly obvious.

Not only are boys not supposed to cry, but our culture leans towards men expressing energy and ideas and women expressing emotion or themselves. That's not to say "all boys" or "all girls" express only certain feelings only certain ways. No person of my acquaintance has ever diligently followed these gendered behavior rules; anyone who did would be somewhat freakish and hard to talk to.

Gender roles, though, do unconsciously limit our behavior and understanding of others. They also color our preference for expression and its medium, to an extent. That's why, as Absent Student says, women and girls frequently seem to dominate journalling communities while men seem to dominate in the techblogger communities. We're just expressing the things we're "supposed to".

Still. There's no rule that you can't take a functional, technical approach to describing your life on a journal, or get really emotional and passionate about issues or objects on your blog. Actually, a number of the LJ feminists I read have largely built their online personas on the latter; I do quite a bit of the same.

If there is a subset of the blogging community that disdains journalling sites and the design style associated with them, there is an at least equally large community of journallers who aren't interested in the Who's Who of blogging - if they're even aware of it enough to be actively uninterested. Right? And if the Who's Who are mostly men, and the journallers are mostly women, what difference does it make?

Well, there is the issue that diversity in any community can help it thrive, shake it up a little intellectually. And a group that lacks representation from women or any other subgroup limits itself in this way.

To me, though, the big difference is that the Official Media Representation of the Blogging World is drawn mostly from that Who's Who. The depiction of the internet is therefore focused on this alternate source of news, the blog, and forgets the feminine (not necessarily female) side: the gorgeous, self-involved poetry of journallers. It seems a devaluing of yet another "women's" medium - not so important in and of itself, but damned depressing in a long historical line of dismissals of women's media.

Besides. In forgetting/marginalizing the online journalling medium, we also negate the beauty of design that emphasizes equally poetic (even florid sometimes) visuals. Spare and functional isn't the only visual elegance on the web, and news and technology aren't the only topics being discussed.

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your wicked thoughts

Hmm, this is weird:

"Put in web terms, a well-chosen feminine site design will be built around the site's content - possibly even the site's author or persona - and a similarly well-chosen masculine design would focus on the functionality of the site (and possibly the technical emphasis of the author)."

I don't agree with these distinctions. If a site is not built around the content, I'd consider it a bad design. Period. Be it a boy or a girl who made the design decisions, he/she would have done a bad job. The same is valid the other way around: if a site neglects functionality, it would be a bad design, no matter gender issues.

I've read your previous post about this issue, and the others (Doug Bowman, Eris Free, Whitespace, Metafilter) as well. It appears this issue has a lot to do with the webdesign profession growing up. The web is a really young design branch compared to architecture, graphic design, fashion or product design. I think it is a cool thing that this issue is taken up so quickly.

these are the thoughts of Jeroen Visser on July 20, 2004 06:17 PM

Guess you were still in Weimar mode, that particular sentence, so probably my comment should carry the label 'me too'. :-]

these are the thoughts of Jeroen Visser on July 20, 2004 06:21 PM

Yes, I was - partly - stretching the Weimar premise very very thinly. Though I was also floating an idea of what made design "feminine" vs. "masculine" without emphasizing color or choice of graphic, which seems to be a narrow definition.

But remember that I'm not talking about boys and girls here; I'm talking about the idea of feminine v. masculine. Most people are not exclusively one or the other, nor are most websites. My site design, for instance, is more persona-driven or "feminine", but that influences function as well as form.

these are the thoughts of april on July 21, 2004 09:29 AM

You're right that it's quite interesting to investigate what physical attributes convey abstract terms like 'masculine', 'feminine', or 'young', etcetera. In my college years I followed a course that was just about this: given a specific adjective, can you then design to convey that adjective? Can you design a walkman that conveys 'classical', or a can that conveys 'healthy'? Is this meaning intrinsically linked to a design, or is it projected later on using marketing? Or is it both, and in which balance then?

On the men-women vs masculine-feminine thing: I immediately have to think of design classics as the Citroen DS or the first-generation iMac, both of which I would classify as more feminine than masculine. However: both are drawn by (or under supervision of) men.

And finally: could it be that the subject is more of an issue in the US than it is in Europe? (I'm asking because seemingly 95% of the entries and comments are American.)

A lot of thoughts for one comment, I know. :-)

these are the thoughts of Jeroen Visser on July 23, 2004 06:05 PM

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