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Feminism as a design tool

How can feminist thinking help us represent and include not just women, but marginalised groups across the gender and social spectrum, in design?



By Rufus Writer

Back in January I wrote an article exploring the rise of feminism as a marketing tool. I questioned whether businesses were simply jumping on the ‘brand wagon’ (so to speak) in order to appear relevant and ‘right on’, without actually impacting or influencing the cause of equality for women.

First, let’s look at who’s in the room when it comes to kicking off the design process. Figures from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport released in July 2017 revealed that although the number of people in our industry has nearly doubled in six years (from 100,000 to 160,000), it’s still 90% white and 58% male. That means only 10% of our creative output is from people of ethnic minority backgrounds, and only 42% of them are women. And due to the lack of a complete list of gender identities on employment censuses we’ll struggle to even quantify the number of different gender representations we’re missing from our industry. 

The impact of having such a limited set of voices in the room when design decisions are made has far reaching implications. For example, did you know seat belts are less safe for women? Yep. When safety regulations were originally imposed in the 1960s, male crash test dummies were used to test seat belts – they were taller, heavier and of course, with flatter chests. This resulted in female drivers being 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash, because the seat belts were never designed to protect their body type. Only recently (in 2011) was the first female crash test dummy required in safety testing.

And it also means underrepresented groups are surprised – even thankful – when they see themselves represented.  A great article by Slack product designer Diogenes Brito hit the nail on the head when he noted the conscious choice to use a brown skin tone on a graphic in their latest launch campaign.

So, how do we change it? How do we make sure the design industry is creating a true and inclusive reflection of society? The real answer is to open the doors and remove the barriers stopping LBGTQ+ individuals, people of colour and differently-abled people from entering our industry. But sadly, that won’t happen overnight, so it could take a long time to see the impact of their inclusion in design. But what if we as the privileged few used feminist thinking to influence our design processes?

Redefine normal

Homogeneity (the idea of all being the same, or of the same kind) isn’t normal. But we’ve been conditioned towards it by the media for decades. That means we’re all biased. You can even check how using the Harvard bias test, and I recommend that you do. Because the first step to overcoming your biases is to accept them. Only then can we create experiences that show what’s real and normal. Men with men, women becoming men, black women, Asian men, single parents, disabled families. Let’s put aside the heterosexual white family with two kids and use our position to showcase the true diversity in our world.

Readdress masculinity, femininity – and everything in between

It’s time to design for beyond the binary. After all, gender identity has never been black or white, woman or man. We’re all a unique balance of what are traditionally thought of as masculine or feminine traits, and it’s a fluid mix that can change over the course of our lives. Thankfully the tide is changing. Those stale stereotypes of are collapsing, and it’s important we don’t revert to this binary approach when designing. It’s lazy and sticks out like a black woman on a board of directors.


Question your resources

What we create is usually informed by research, and it often takes the form of personas. Although personas can be extremely useful in creating a personalised and intuitive experience, proceed with caution. Ask yourself: Does this persona need an age or gender? Or is it just reinforcing a stereotype? Like the busy mum who’s bad with technology. When the truth is 90% of new parents are millennials, and 71% of them said they were confident in using technology, often turning to it for parenting support.

So instead of relying on only the research in front of you, do your own. Bring together people from different backgrounds and disciplines to create a team that can call out any stereotypes and offer a fresh insight that personas can’t.

Broaden your understanding of ‘accessibility’

We design and build products for the majority of users in mind, for example users who don’t struggle with web applications, colour combinations, or the written word. And although brands today often include an accessibility page in their guidelines it’s rarely comprehensive enough to provide a truly inclusive experience. As those designing the experience it’s up to us to make accessibility the end game not the after-thought. We need to go beyond AAA accessible colour palettes and really question our ideas. Does it work for someone with learning disabilities? What about someone with reduced mobility in their hands? Or a user with hearing or visual impairments? 

Swap shame for curiosity

 The question of shame is interesting in design, as creatively we’ve all been told there are ‘no bad ideas’. It’s important that when we start to develop concepts we don’t hold back. But cultural shame and embarrassment are something we all carry, and it can get in the way of approaching design challenges from a genuinely objective place. For example, historically, there’s been a lot of shame and taboo around non-masculine bodies and experiences, and it holds back design – as well as being a social barrier. I’m imagining the reason crash test dummies didn’t have breasts is partly because the engineers were embarrassed about it. Similarly, we know the bad design that’s gone into women’s sanitary products over the years and the acclaimed breakthrough of Kotex using red on their packaging.


How to encourage feminist thinking in your creative team?

It all starts with who we employ. At Rufus, we’re proud to have an almost equal spilt between male and female. But of course, we can do more. Our ethnicity mix isn’t yet matched, and we need to be more inclusive of trans and non-binary identities as well as different types of ability and people from marginalised backgrounds. So we seek out creatives across the design and build process that are diverse, in everything from skills to background, education to experience. And where we lack knowledge or insight we use research and empathy to learn more. We put ourselves in the shoes of others to understand what an equal and inclusive design would mean to them.

This is of course itself a question of design – designing workplace cultures and hiring processes to be genuinely accessible in a world that’s not a level playing field. While we all work on this, and as part of working on this, we can all use the tools that feminism makes available, to break down barriers and bring the margins into the centre.


  • Redefine normal

  • Readdress masculinity, femininity – and everything in between

  • Question your resources

  • Broaden your understanding of ‘accessibility’

  • Swap shame for curiosity

About the author

Our Rufus Writers are members of our amazing team with years of industry experience delivering considered solutions to all kinds of creative challenges.

Rufus Writer

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