Friday, 25 July 2014

The Toy Aisles - Thesis about Stereotypical Toy Design & Branding

Again designing for children isn't something I am particularly interested in but the issue of gender specific and stereotypical designs for toys is very relevant to the subject that I am interested in, and the affects on children will ultimately affect them as they develop into adults so this does bare relevance to designing for adults. 

This is actually a Masters degree thesis so I am unsure if I can quote from it within my own dissertation but it makes some really interesting points and has given me some other areas I want to look into. 

sdsu-dspace.calstate.edu

I have been quite selective as this was 159 pages long, so I tried to only include here what I felt relevant and interesting to me. 

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Children's toys are marketed to our youngest and most vulnerable consumers, yet few parents are aware of the powerful messages toys project about personal identity and gender. My project addresses concerns about the increasingly gender-polarized design and marketing of children's toys--a trend that is currently saturating mainstream toy stores with an overabundance of hyper-masculine toys on one side of the store and hyper-feminine ones on the other. Toy branding uses two distinct visual languages to clearly distinguish boy and girl toys as contrasting objects that are not meant to be intermixed. 

Not only are design elements such as color and typography used in polarizing ways to indicate the intended gender, but children are presented with two extremely opposing play narratives--adventure and violence for boys versus fashion and caretaking for girls. It has been argued that these are "natural" play preferences between boys and girls, but there is equal evidence that children's understanding of gender roles is highly influenced by the ways these behaviors are encouraged or discouraged. Today's toy market primarily offers play options that reinforce stereotypical and gender-segregated themes and fails to represent modern advances in gender equality

As a graphic designer, I am concerned with the role my profession plays in developing gender-polarized branding that supports this current trend and committed to using graphic design instead as a tool to raise awareness and incite change. Graphic design is a powerful instrument for presenting complex social issues to audiences in accessible ways. This project transforms data collected from toy stores, advertisements, websites, and toy packaging, into narrative panels that both reveal the toy industry's overtly sexist messages and proposes opportunities to resist them. 




numerous options in the toy stores for gender-neutral play—building blocks, farm and city playsets, board games, plush animals, and science kits. These toys were usually branded in primary colors and their commercials featured boys and girls playing together. Many years later, when I entered a Toys“R”Us store in the early 2000s after an approximately 10-year toy-buying hiatus, I was shocked at the shift in the types of toys on the shelves. Building blocks are now separated into ninja fortress and pink bakery sets and science kits now have “girl” versions that make perfume and lip balm in Bunsen burners.

It is expected that all little girls will be attracted to toys that have themes of grooming and caretaking and that boys want themes of aggression and conquering. The toy companies’ research in gender play preference confirms their claims—many children do follow expected gender norms, but simply designing for the majority and forcing the minority to squeeze into the mold is not ethical.

how in an era of constantly progressing gender equality, we continue to produce commodities that enforce the gender norms of the 1950s.

Above commanding line, color, and form, Glaser sees the model designer as one who expends creative effort on causes that aid society economically, socially, or politically. This does not mean that Glaser believes every designer must work as an activist, but simply keep in mind who is benefiting from their talent and effort.


Due to the dichotomous way in which we classify gender, even a seemingly positive stereotype such as men being brave implies that women embody the opposite characteristic, timidity.

Accurate or not, stereotypes give us initial information that can later be confirmed or disproved. The difficulty with gender stereotypes, especially inaccurate ones, arises when they support beliefs that are detrimental to or restrict an individual’s rights. Dangerous gender stereotypes about beauty have urged women to alter their bodies to fit unattainable ideals.Male stereotypes of courage and toughness push boys and men to engage in violence during confrontations to “prove” their manhood.


Many women apply make-up in the morning (a highly feminine role) before going to work in their office as a manager (a masculine role). How flexible it is to perform roles deemed as appropriate for the other gender depends on the levels of openness and gender equality within a culture.

The characteristics we consider highly masculine or highly feminine also depend on the surrounding culture. For example, in many Muslim cultures, women are expected to keep their skin covered from view. In contrast, in many Western cultures, an expression of femininity is to reveal skin with high hemlines and low-cut tops. Besides fashion, other gender-specific characteristics such as personal grooming, household duties, and hobbies may vary from one region to the next. This fact alone discredits essentialists’ views of universal, inborn, “natural” maleness and femaleness.

Within a culture, gender roles can also change over time, though not quickly or easily. A common essentialist view held in the United States as recently as 100 years ago claimed that women were mentally incapable of handling the right to vote.


Although women had proven to be highly valuable workers, society insisted that men were the ones who should be performing these jobs and women should be home raising children. Even today, women are working in the exact same jobs as men, but continue to earn only 82% of the wages and earnings of men (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012).


In Semiotics: The Basics, Daniel Chandler (2007) explains that our reality is governed by creating meaning from signs, “studying semiotics can assist us to become more aware of the mediating role of signs and the roles played by ourselves and others in constructing social realities” (p. 10). The toy industry has employed semiotic devices to construct two very different social realities for boys and girls.


By changing the color of a football from black to pink, the meaning has changed from being a boy’s toy to a girl’s toy. From dividing store aisles, to adding hearts and flowers to girls’ products, to pitching boys’ toys as “rugged,” marketers have developed an elaborate gender coding system of signs and symbols so consumers understand which product is the “right” one to buy.  



The new branding slashed away all but trace references to Zhu Zhu Pets’ original blue and butterscotch yellow logo with a happy, winking hamster (Figure 5, p. 91). A menacing ninja hamster in a black mask looms over the bold, capital “KUNG ZHU.” Behind what may be a reference to a steely shield, are two swords that drive home the point that these hamsters are dangerous. The toys themselves, with names like “Buzzsaw Tank,” “Night Raid,” and “Thunder Strike,” are equally threatening. Fighter hamsters range in color from camouflage green to black with red battle scars. A grey hamster, “Thorn,” whose profile says “he’s rough, tough and isn’t afraid to cheat,” has a black eyebrow marking that forms an angry scowl (Cepia LLC, 2012, para. 1).


Zhu Zhu Babies with carriages, diapers, and bottles gave girls even more ways to nurture. The Magical Zhu Zhu Princess line also emerged with a line of royal rodents, a princess carriage, castle, and ballroom (Figure 6, p. 91). As the packaging notes, Princess Snowcup, who is “delicate and beautiful with her silky pink fur . . . rules her kingdom with grace and style.” And if your girl is into style, there is also a Grooming Salon, Fashion Runway, Disco Room, and an entire Giant Pink City Playset.


In the Zhu Zhu Babies and Magical Zhu Zhu Princess lines, the color pink is the brand’s distinguishing factor. Pink is a sign that indicates a toy is meant for a girl, but it also references softness, flowers, friendliness, and depending on the shade of pink, sexuality. While girls enjoy many colors, pink is taboo for boys, so anything that pink touches automatically becomes a girl product. 


Graphic designers, in particular, understand the power of visual language. They are paid to generate emotion using the elements of color, line, shape, and size. Pink is not just a Pantone swatch—it comes with history, connotations and an intended audience.

Considering the incredible progress women have made toward gender equality in the past century, it is shocking that a girly-girl culture that is all about clothes, jewelry, makeup, and shopping, has become so popular. Of course, dressing up is fun, but research is showing that girls are not living a fairytale fantasy; they are struggling to fulfill expectations to be perfect. 



Based on Milton Glaser’s 12-step “Road to Hell,” the design indiscretions committed in the toy industry range from agreeing to use limited color palettes of pink and purple for girls, and black and red for boys in toy packaging, to designing interactive games that ask girls to change a character’s outfits or boys to brutally attack enemies. Graphic designers are not the source of the concepts behind the gender-biased toys, but the executors through the color, shape, image, typeface, and pattern employed to reinforce the toys’ message.

Together, marketers and designers have developed a sophisticated process of branding gender with very specific visual rules that will be difficult to shift away from quickly. However, designers employed by toy makers who recognize the importance of offering better options for our children do have an influence in the conference rooms and design studios. Rather than remaining complacent with producing gender-stereotypical branding that divides children’s toys, graphic designers with the will to see change can offer alternative design solutions to begin the process of change.







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Some of the points made here have made me think of other areas to look into that will hopefully help me develop a more structured argument around gendered design. 

The points made about semiotics and signs is definitely an area to look into as I would like to know about the associations with the different genders. To what extent can a designer deviate away from these accepted representations whilst still being identifiable?

Ethics is a big part of this thesis and I do feel this is an important aspect to consider when considering gender and stereotypes. Milton Glaser and the First Things First Manifesto were discussed in this text but only quite briefly, I would like to look into this in more detail.

There is a chapter of this thesis called the social responsibility of design and this is again an ethical issue to look into, however this could become an argument in itself. This also made me think of the practical aspect of this module and how social responsibility will definitely need to be considered if I build a brand from scratch, I will consider how this product and it's design will affect or benefit others.

Although this is all about designing for children I think this is still a really important aspect to consider about gendered branding and design as the affects of this on children will ultimately affect adult life.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I'm a marketing student and I'm really interested in your work! Is there any way I could view the whole thing?? (I'm looking at going into the toy market industry)

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