Hot Type

Can typography and sex live together? Since the 16th century, the human form has inspired graphic designers, however, should typefaces take on gender stereotypes and forms? asks Jim Davies

Do typefaces have sex? It’s something of a moot point. You can’t deny that they have very different characters and attributes. Some are formal. Others easy-going. There are the bold and there are the beautiful. Some fit in anywhere, others you really wouldn’t want to introduce to your parents. But can you assign a gender to them?

Clearly, Attik believes you can. In collaboration with type designer Jason Smith of Fontsmith, it came up with FS Sophie, a font ‘whose curvy linework is reminiscent of the female form’, and was ‘born out of an exploration into developing more interesting and effective ways of communicating to women.’ Attik isn’t at liberty to reveal specific details, but can say that the font was originally part of a project aimed at the female market, which, unfortunately, ended up on the shelf. Attik got so far down the line with Sophie, however, that it decided to finish her off and make her commercially available.

‘We’ve often considered designing a bespoke typeface,’ says Attik creative director Steve Wills, ‘but because of the time factor and the money involved, it’s often difficult to convince clients.’ Wills admits that the face’s femininity is difficult to define, but ‘there’s something about the curvature of the letterforms and the thin line width that makes it quite soft and emotionally centred. We didn’t want to push it too far, otherwise it gets a bit cheesy and dates quickly’.

Sophie is certainly elegant and contemporary, but is it all woman? If the underlying premise for the design is that women are by nature thin and curvy, it’s one that’s both dubious and inaccurate. Elegance isn’t an exclusively female trait either. Targeted so firmly at one half of the population, it also begs the politically charged question, should women be addressed differently to men? Isn’t there something a little patronising and assuming about this?

On the other hand, you could argue that as a subtle, highly constrained form of visual shorthand, typefaces must exploit instantly recognisable stereotypes in order to convey a given vibe. ‘Stereotypes do exist,’ says type designer Zuzana Licko of Emigré, the highly regarded California-based digital type foundry. ‘On average, women and men do respond differently to some visuals. While I believe that much of this response is culturally learned, rather than genetically predefined, nevertheless, it does affect visual communication.’ She goes on to insist that ‘it’s impossible to categorise typefaces according to gender roles, because fonts are not used in a vacuum. The layout, application of the typeface and the context dramatically affects the reader’s reaction’.

Freda Sack of London-based The Foundry agrees. ‘Just because [a typeface] has soft curves, doesn’t make it feminine,’ she argues. ‘It’s the way and context in which it’s used that e e gives it an emotional connection.’ What’s more, she maintains that she’d be likely to be put off by, say, an ad for a car aimed at women.

Such gender issues in design are nothing new. Back in the late-19th century, American academics were arguing over the relative merits of various editions of the poet Walt Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass. In particular, the typography. Theodore Low De Vinnie argued lustily that ‘darker, heavier, more robust letterforms’ would ‘restore vigour and virility’ to the printed page, which had become ‘feminised’ by ‘fussy, pale’ modern types. This clearly implies that typefaces do have connotations of gender, and attributes that relate to the human form.

Of course, letterforms originated from pictograms, and many of these were based on men and women involved in a variety of activities. As early as the mid-16th century, artists and etchers, like the German exponent of the Italian Renaissance Peter Flötner, depicted men and women in all manner of contorted positions making up anthropomorphic alphabets. If you’ve been to a 1970s disco when the DJ played YMCA by the Village People, you’ll know what I mean. The most basic shape is a man with outstretched arms making a ‘T’.

It wasn’t long before these rather innocent renderings developed a more explicit agenda. After all, some roman letterforms are easier to mimic with two bodies in the frame, particularly if they are conjoined in one way or another. Over the centuries, there have been a succession of typefaces based on imaginative sexual positions. Even as celebrated a name as Salvador Dalí has tried his hand at a few obscene letterforms. In the 1970s, the uncompromising Dutch designer Anton Beeke produced a photographic human alphabet made up of scores of naked women clinging on to each other. Just a few years ago, Fuse, FontWorks’ experimental typographic magazine, devoted a whole issue to sex and typography. One of the most ingenious contributions was a Multiple Master font called MoveMe by Lucas de Groot, featuring seemingly innocuous letterforms that morphed into an assortment of sexually rampant icons.

There’s no denying that these titillating examples demonstrate that you can represent gender, as well as gender coupling in a typographic form. And, moving the argument on, you could claim that, for example, even a very traditional face like a Baskerville has a certain suggestive voluptuousness about it.

‘Given shapes are used to suggest male or female,’ believes typographer/ designer Rian Hughes. ‘Square and bold equals masculine, round and curly equals feminine. But these conventions have far broader connotations than typography.’ Hughes confirms that he has consciously designed several typefaces with masculine attributes, notably Judgement, for a Judge Dredd comic strip.

Smith, who developed and rationalised the Sophie font, changes the perspective slightly to make a similar point. ‘Sophie wouldn’t be appropriate for the cover of a heavy metal CD, but I can quite easily see it on a CD for an all-girl pop band,’ he says. ‘It’s the oval shape and thin line width that makes it sexy.’ He was aware that the concept of a female-oriented typeface would ruffle a few feathers, and decided to play it up in trade press advertising, which reads: ‘Simple, sexy, modern and available now’. ‘I’ve been a bit cheeky,’ he says, ‘but I think there’s a danger of taking things too seriously. Besides, you can read it however you choose to.’

Which is probably true of typography in general. As Licko and Sack point out, context is important, but there is also an element of eye of the beholder. People perceive visual codes differently depending on their cultural background and outlook. We have undoubtedly been conditioned in the way we blithely categorise male and female characteristics, and typography is merely reflecting broader societal values. But if you see innuendo in a ff ligature, that’s just the product of a dirty mind.

Latest articles