Genderless, neutral design… what do you call design without gender?
17 Jun 2021 /

Genderless, neutral design… what do you call design without gender?

Genderless is the English adjective for neutral, universal things, for neither men nor women, for everybody, regardless of their gender.

When I began to think about how to tackle this topic, I thought all the time about an automatic translation into Spanish, “diseño neutro” (“neutral design”). However, this is one of those times when the term in its original language does not have a translation in Spanish that reflects, precisely, its intentions.

We can talk about neutral design, but if we accept that this term is the solution (rather than “genderless”) it gives the sensation that we are looking at something that has decided not to take a position and, in issues of gender, not to take a position is to position oneself. Therefore, from now on, I shall refer to genderless as an adjective to refer to design without gender.

Before continuing to dissect this issue, it is important to ask ourselves, what does gender refer to? In the western context, it is the social and cultural construction of roles that has historically attributed specific capacities and assigned spaces giving different priorities to each sex. Therefore, if what we want is to eliminate these roles that limit us with certain tasks and expectations, to talk about genderless design would mean talking about a design that, rather than reinforcing these roles, tries to eliminate them.

Now that we have a starting point, we ask ourselves: Is design genderless? Is our daily life genderless to any small extent? The truth is that this would be the least we could ask from the future they promised us, and yet, here we are, in 2021, with a somewhat different reality. And the thing is that everything that constitutes our daily routine is between not very neutral and not at all genderless.

But how could it not be so if we lack data? This is what Caroline Criado explains in her book “Invisible Women” when she says that there has been a historic tendency to consider the male as the sole reference of the human race, generating an absence of data regarding the female gender that affects fields such as medicine, service design or the economy, that not only discriminates against women but even endangers their lives.

Ignoring the existence of this difference in needs between men and women is what has given rise to the gender data gap, that governs (nearly) all the decisions that affect society as a whole. And which responds to a way of thinking that has existed for millennia and which is rather a way of not thinking, taking the masculine reality as the only one and thus giving rise to male gender designs.

Design should not be content to reflect the progress of society, rather it should be in the avant-garde. The other day I heard an interview in which Debbie Millman asked Alice Rawsthorn what design meant for her, to which she responded that, without a doubt, an agent of change that can help us to change and reinterpret aspects of our social life such as economic, technological, political, ecological, scientific, and to ensure that they affect us positively rather than negatively. If design is the agent of change, what have we been doing all these years?

I would like to see more spaces for breast-feeding in public buildings, new systems without gender for baths and toys for children that do not preserve these roles. Well-lit streets, houses and offices without hierarchies, public transport systems that do not only take into account productive destinations, virtual reality robots that are just as efficient with deep or soft voices and new mammography techniques that hurt a little less.

As Rawsthorn says, “Design has to find new ways of enabling individuals to express an increasingly fluid and nuanced multiplicity of gender identities, not just in easily customisable fields like fashion and graphics, but in objects, spaces, software, and so on.” Some projects rise to the challenge: Toca Boca’s learning apps are deliberately gender neutral, as are the Twine video games designed by Porpentine and Anna Anthropy.

So, is it possible to design without gender? Of course it is, if we take the problem into account. If, on the contrary, we try to continue designing with teams that share the same demographic and social-cultural context we will probably not get very far in the race to achieve a more egalitarian society. As the architect Zaida Muxi says, from the different realities we live, we obtain different experiences, and therefore different baseline data to tackle the technical resolution of any project.

Taking again the example of Caroline Criado’s book, it would not have occurred to any of us that pregnant women could need a parking space closer to the office door if we had not been pregnant ourselves (although to use this word for men is a bit much) because our experiences make up our reality and contemplate its solutions.

The challenge faced by design is to be genderless because, nowadays, there are many barriers to be overturned, such as gender roles, and many new realities, such as transsexuality. Genderless design means building cities and spaces without gender or hierarchies, inclusive languages, and products that take into account physical differences and the needs of as many realities as possible.

It is not an easy road, but it is without doubt the road towards a fairer society. Designers need to be curious and daring to increase their baggage of experiences, to read everything and everybody, to work on empathy with other people and to insist from their schooldays on an inclusive and collaborative education. Whilst we travel this road, there is no harm in continuing to enhance the value of female role models in all fields, and of course in design, as an innovative methodology to resolve our realities, always with the premise of considering the needs of all genders to the detriment of none.

Let us hope that one day the adjective “genderless” will no longer be used because it will be unnecessary, owing to its being obvious and superfluous.


– Sara Antolín.