The online playground of Andrea Schwandt-Arbogast:web design, university web development, animals, books, and other slices of life.

Male vs. Female Design: Shades of Grey?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about women and web design, as I’ve had the good fortune to be working with some incredible women on a project I can’t really talk about yet (I’ve been so wanting to say that— seems like you haven’t hit the big time until you can’t tell people about what you’re doing…).

As I mentioned here, most designs on the web today scream “male” to me— they seem to have been designed for men by men. There has been some discussion over the last year or so about where the women of web design are hiding. This is not the point of this post. There are women web designers everywhere, but for some reason the male aesthetic is taking over.

For the record, I have nothing against men, I don’t think there is a vast male conspiracy against female designers, and I don’t feel like I’m being held back by “the man”. I just think there is another point of view out there that doesn’t make it into the design discussion as often as it should.

Being the recovering scientist that I am, I decided to take a semi-scientific look at the designs of some sites that I visit often, to try to determine just what it is about them that make them seem male or female to me. I grabbed a bunch of sites from my feed reader, and I will be looking at specific design aspects of these sites in a series of posts here, to see if I can discover patterns.

For the first “analysis”, I decided to focus on what my eye sees while I am reading the site’s content. I thought it would be interesting to look at the aspects of the design I usually don’t consciously focus on, but am always seeing. To do this, I grabbed a screenshot of a portion of each site that contained header type, usually corresponding to a post title, and included the whole horizontal aspect of the design. I cropped the header type roughly in half, because I didn’t want to be distracted by reading the same stuff over and over. This essentially gave me an indication of how horizontal sections are separated from each other, and a sense of the colors used for typography and backgrounds in the content area.

The screenshots are available here, as well as the list of sites that they correspond to. The first 17 are sites belonging to men, and the next 12 are sites belonging to women.


On first glance, it doesn’t seem like there is much difference between sites owned by men and women in these screenshots. There is certainly not enough difference to determine gender if I were to mix the screenshots up randomly. However, once I grouped the screenshots by gender, a bit of a pattern emerged.

In this sample, males are more likely to use grey or black to delineate sections that were females. Looking at the top group of screenshots, there is an overall grey feel to many of them. Keep in mind that this is the content area only— there may be more colorful defining graphics on the site. But when I’m reading text on many of these sites, I am seeing grey or black. There are notable exceptions to this— numbers 14-17 are boys who don’t use grey, and number 20 is a girl who does.

By this same token, I am not suggesting that Zeldman’s lack of grey makes him a girl, or that Dori Smith’s nice use of grey makes her a boy (both of these folks should be included in my screenshots, but I ran out of gas before I got to them…). I am looking for patterns, and there is a bit of a pattern here, but I don’t think it’s enough to explain the male and female feelings I get from these designs.

So, next time I will explore other aspects of these same designs to see if I can find a stronger pattern. What do you see in these screenshots? What aspects of design would you look at to explore the gender question?



Chris writes

Jun 3 at 12:47 PM #

How do you know that what you are testing for is related to gender and not.. say.. colour blindness or shoe size…?



Andrea writes

Jun 3 at 08:27 PM #

Chris:  Ahh, the old correlation vs. causation argument…  The short answer is “I don’t?.  And truth be told, I’m sure it’s more related to the aesthetics of the person in question than any physical trait.  And that brings up questions of culture, background, etc.

What I’m doing here is more of a personal exploration than a scientific study. I am already convinced in my mind about certain things, and I’m trying to determine why.  Is there something really there that’s triggering those thoughts, or should I just get over myself and shut the fuck up? (Don’t answer that).



goodwitch writes

Jun 4 at 01:51 AM #

when looking at gender and design, i’d like to explore content.  what are men posting about.  what are women posting about. 

1) personal vs. professional posts

2) soap box or educational

3) invites/encourages comments

4) risk taker or safe (taking a controversial stand)

since i’m not in any way a graphic artist, i don’t feel qualified to comment on your current tact.  it is fascinating to consider, but not my strength.



Andrea writes

Jun 4 at 03:08 AM #

Goodwitch: Yes, content is a big part of it.  Maybe someday I’ll look into that as well, but right now I’m interested in exploring the sense I get just by looking at visual design and layout. 

I’m only a graphic artist by necessity and osmosis (I have the good fortune to be part of a Graphics department).  I’m learning about design and about myself with this exercise.  Luckily, not being qualified has never stopped me from doing whatever the hell I want… ;)



Dori writes

Jun 15 at 12:51 AM #

I am not suggesting that… Dori Smith’s nice use of grey makes her a boy

You have to keep in mind that BB is only 1/2 mine—if it were all mine, it would probably have considerably less (as in zero) gray. So BB is probably more of a data point that backs up your theory, not one in opposition to it. My personal site can be found here.



Andrea writes

Jun 22 at 11:36 PM #

Dori: Thanks!  I will use your personal page in my next round of analyses.



Rose writes

Sep 7 at 07:44 AM #

I think there are 3 primary differences between the way men and women do web publishing:

1) Men prefer technical interfaces.  Women prefer organic interfaces.  Even when men go for organic, it’s more of a grunge or a retro look rather than a natural look.


2) Men use stricter lines that have more severe edges, and women use softer lines that have curved or softened edges.  This has started to change a bit, but most websites designed by women have more curves, conscious or unconsciously.


3) Men prefer “professional” looking typography such as traditional serifs or sans-serifs, and women prefer “pretty” typography like scripts, handwritten fonts, and oddball fonts.  That is, for personal sites.  For client sites both will use a more traditional type.


Obviously there are exceptions to these observations, but I think they apply in many situations.


Jerry Bennett writes

Jul 31 at 04:26 PM #

Do both male and female skunks spay odor from this scent glands?


FP Images writes

Feb 11 at 05:49 AM #

Women and men have different aesthetics. If you know you are designing for women/men – what graphics would you use? 



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