Our Responsibility to Color, Gender, and Society

by Brian James Rawson, Emily Dowd, Elana Gaines
January 27, 2022

In this episode of Conversations on Marketing and Design; Brian, Emily, and Elana talk about the responsibility designer’s hold in shaping social norms. Specifically, they talk about how a designer’s use of color can either help promote or dismantle gender stereotypes. They also discuss the real world push and pull between their personal values, our culture, and their design work.

Emily Dowd and Elana Gaines are the founders of Afternoon Creative. To learn more about Afternoon Creative, visit their website here: Afternoon Creative

Watch this episode above. Read transcript below.

Episode Transcript
Should Designers Really Use Blue for Boys and Pink for Girls?

Brian: I have a question unless you had one about colors.

Emily: No, go for it.

Brian: Speaking of blue, it reminds me, like, you know, I've got all these personal memories and my personal feelings for colors. But I'm always curious about the culture we all live in. And so the cultural connotations about certain colors especially blue, you know, with all of the design work I do I'm always thinking about different slices of society and especially gender; and so certain colors have been so coded to mean certain things, so like blue and pink - boys and girls. And, I don’t know, sometimes those…Do you guys have any certain cultural annoyances when it comes to color like: do you think it's a good idea that blue is for boys? Or is it just dumb? Or is it, you know…should we throw that out the window or what?

Elana: I mean I think that we should throw it out the window. So I mean, I think pink looks super cute on all genders. And we think blue looks super cute on all gender, so I'm happy to have anyone wear anything. I don't know.

Emily: Yeah, I…it took me 20 plus years to realize that it's okay to like the color pink. I think I was very like, “Oh, I'm not girly, and I like the color blue,” which sucks because the color pink is very cute.

Brian: Yeah.

Emily: For a long time, it was just Barbie pink in my head and anything near that was no good. But both pink and blue are awesome colors, and everybody should wear them, and every brand should consider them. You know without gender stereotypes attached.

When Should Designers Lean into the Norm and When Should We Break the Norm?

Brian: You think…I agree. So personally, I mean, I've got try to work in enough pink and brighter colors into my personal wardrobe; and I’m very conscious of how I pick out my kids clothes, so, you know, I've got a boy and girl, and something I've always thought about is trying to help make things…take away some of those connotations of just, you know, stereotypes.

But, I’ve found with design work that when you're trying to reach a certain audience sometimes I've had to use certain colors because they're just, I might have my personal feelings but, they’re so coded in the Big Society I can't get out of it. Something I've noticed is that there's very few, I feel there's very few colors that are…masculine, if that makes sense? That as soon…like if I'm going to do a male brand, like it's a male target audience (if this makes any sense) there's only certain, like a very narrow range of colors I could work within.

Do you guys feel the same way or is it different from your perspective?

Elana: I mean, I feel, I understand what you're saying; and I feel, I feel like it can be challenging to find colors that feel more masculine rather than like, you know, swinging to be more feminine. And it's yeah, it's a hard balance to find. Because, you know, on the one hand (we're getting into, we're getting into stuff a lot bigger than what we were originally talking about but) you know, on the one hand that you, you have your beliefs and you don't want to perpetuate the stereotype that you know, people now innately think pink is girl, you know, on one hand as a designer, you don't want to perpetuate that if you don't necessarily believe in it. And you know, it starts by people like us just starting to design and use color in different ways.

But on the other hand, you know, the goal of designing for the most part is usually to sell or to share or, you know, to gain exposure and brand awareness and all these things and you have a target audience in mind and you have your paying client who wants to hit their goals and, you know, you have to find a balance between what you like think you should do for the greater good and society versus what is immediately, you know, what will work in the short run, and which is probably to play towards those stereotypes.  

Brian: Yeah. How about you, Emily? Do you feel that same bind or have different thoughts?

Emily: Yeah, I was just gonna say, I totally agree that, you know, sometimes it's not easy to execute in practice, whether we believe boundaries should be expanded or not, but I think there's a lot of really cool examples of companies that are pushing boundaries, like for example Chubbies. I think they have a really broad color palette and a lot of their clothing is pink and bright yellow and the color palette is definitely a lot of the times way more, you know, traditionally effeminate than it is masculine; but I think their marketing is so top notch I mean, they have some of the funniest emails out there that they've they've been able to sell to the traditionally most masculine group. I mean, they sell to frat guys for the most part. So I think there's room for expansion even when it’s a challenge.

How to Design to Social Norms in order Break Social Norms

Brian: Yeah, for sure. And sorry, I don’t mean to open up a can of worms or anything. And I know for me like it really, it seems like not a big deal, thinking about who cares about blues versus pinks; but I know it, it really does come back to have very big real world effects.

So I know like for us, we did a big project for a domestic abuse advocacy agency and helping them do a rebrand to help broaden their reach to totally different types and sections of society. So for them, everything were originally a lot of purples and pinks and all that. And here, their work and the advocacy of the nonprofit was for people of all genders and all expressions and orientations. But unfortunately just because of the way it looked, there was already a barrier up. So we had a…it took a lot of time to think through how to use certain blues and and mix it with purple so we can speak to both groups. And something that I never…you never think you’d find yourself in that situation where you're mulling over like the deeper meaning of a blue versus a pink. So sometimes these colors have…when it mixes with culture has real world impacts so…sorry, I didn't mean to get on a hobbyhorse, but yeah.

Emily: No, that’s really interesting.


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