Tuesday 9 August 2005

Girls Prefer Circles: Gender Bias and Web Design Esthetics

IN A FASCINATING BUT UNSURPRISING STUDY of gender bias and Web design esthetics, the University of Glamorgan has demonstrated that male and female Web designers create decidedly different designs.

I say unsurprising because the findings are in step with some fairly well-accepted ideas about how men and women relate to design, at least in general.

A point made by Gloria Moss, Research Fellow and co-author of the study describes how men and women differ in their approach to shape:

“ . . . males favour the use of straight lines (as opposed to rounded forms) . . .”

That women like circles and men prefer straight lines is no accident. If we look to known archetypes, the circle signifies the feminine and attributes considered to be feminine: curves, community and cooperative communication. The straight line signifies the male not only physically, but in terms of representing focus and linear thought and communication.

These archetypes historically appear in product design, which is where Moss and her colleague, statistician Rod Gunn, make some compelling points about how gender bias among Web designers could have significant impact on the way visitors to Web sites interact with Web sites.

Gunn points out that:

“. . . there is no doubt about the strength of men and women’s preference for sites produced by people of their own sex.”

One of my favorite examples of shape in product design has to do with the design of automobiles.

ford gt

Cars that are meant to appeal to men tend to have more straight lines and as a result, angles, in their design.

Consider the Ford GT. This car is most decidedly geared to be sold to males, and its design is so full of straight lines and angles the car almost appears to be a flat, straight line.

vw bug

Those vehicles meant to appeal to women have more curves. The VW Bug is predominantly bought by women, and it is all about round.

There are many other visual examples of this across design and the fine arts, and the Glamorgan study raises a significant issue about matching gender styles to audiences in order to achieve more effective communication on Web sites.

According to Moss:

“If website flow is to be maximised, greater attention needs to be given to the production aesthetic used and the consequent appeal websites will have to their target markets. Given the strong tendency for each sex to prefer the output of its own sex, it does not make sense to attempt to appeal to women using an aesthetic which is largely male.”

Moss and Gunn studied groups in Wales, France and Poland and their findings have crossed national boundaries. This suggests that at least to the Western eye and ear, the esthetics influencing how male and female Web designers use shape, type, space as well as language is consistent.

Awareness of this esthetic difference can allow both female and male designers to incorporate that knowledge into how they approach a given design. If the site is selling to women versus men, taking into account the linearization of esthetics will very likely improve how site visitors interact with that site.

Filed under:   general
Posted by:   Molly | 21:45 | Comments (75)

Comments (75)

  1. ” . . . males favour the use of straight lines (as opposed to rounded forms) . . .”

    I guess that explains why we never see any blogs owned by men that use rounded corners and soft drop-shadows and smooth, gentle gradients.

    Oh, hang on…

  2. I still think the new VW looks like a marshmallow on steroids!

  3. I always thought it’d be common sense that men and women like different things and thus would design differently, but I think I must have been born into the wrong body — although I would pick the curvy VW over the GT, 90% of my site designs tend to involve sharp lines and typically ‘male’ colours.

  4. Gee whiz, there’s a difference between men and women?! πŸ˜‰

    I’m sorry, it just struck me as redundant info, that study. But maybe it’s just because I’ve done research into this some 4-5 years ago…

  5. I’m always wary of these sort of sweeping generalisations. I think the appeal of a design depends on what the object being designed actually is. I like my lounge full of soft curvy things because it’s relaxing, but I like my office space neat and organised in linear fashion – they’re different environments so I look for different easthetics.

    Design is about context as well as audience, and it’s important to remember that.

    As an aside – it’s interesting to read that article and then look at – featuring a hell of a lot of straight lines, and hicksdesign – featuring soft drop shadows and rounded corners.

  6. Wasn’t designed by Dave Shea? Last time I met him, he was male. πŸ™‚

    But I totally agree design is about context. And is a really clever design IMO.

  7. Well it’s not entirely about strait vs. round. It’s a translation between strong and soft. Different cultures interpret this differently and mainly European based cultures view angular constructs to be strong, hard and thus masculine and organic design more round, soft and feminine. But it doesn’t end there, colour plays a part too and this is where cultural perception is far more fragmented. Hard colours on organic design can give ambiguous results. When you add photographs or illustrations in to the mix you can still get a good balance and still cater to both sexes.

    Note: Comics are male orientated. Hard colours, abstracted visuals and storylines based on status, power and aggression. Still wondering why women on the whole don’t read comics?

  8. These things cited in the post are things every designer should already know like the back of his/her hand. It’s fundamental psychology and fundamental artistry – understanding mandatory for basic design success.

    And by the way, I don’t believe that Molly or those in the studies she cites were suggesting that females are incapable of cozying up to straight lines, nor males incapbable of getting their goove on with rounded forms. These are just gender tendencies and useful insights, not shackles and chains. Great stuff, Molly.

  9. I think it makes a lot of sense. The angle/round thing comes down to a very basic concept. When we want to be comfortable and cozy we look for those rounded elements. In many ways this reminds us of peace with our friends, the comfy couch, and mom consoling us when things went bad.

    When we want power, professionalism, authority, we look to the clear cut sharp line. It defines things. Tells us when we are correct or incorrect. It connotes a certain paternal authority.

    However, the blend happens, and each of us has differing opinions. I love curvy, modern-styled wood furniture (e.g. Scandinavian) where it brings definition and harmony together. My wife hates the Beetle, but love the Mini Cooper.

    I think this is an important element, and agree that it should be considered, but not first and foremost unless you have a clear target that is definitely pushing power/authority image or feminine community.

  10. so maybe this explains some of the relative lack of women in the CSS community (real or perceived). after all, CSS makes boxy designs with lots of straight lines and corners straightforward, but to round anything you’ve got to bring in images and learn some fancier techniques. πŸ™‚

  11. Anders, I don’t believe that for a second. You can do far more with CSS and creativity than with table-based designs. I believe there are a lot of boxy CSS-based designs simply because CSS tends to be a code thing and designers have been slower to take up the “challenge”. Code and designers aren’t always a happy mix. πŸ™‚ And let’s face it, CSS can get complex. Many designers just want to create, not code.

    But I’d be surprised if *anyone* came up with a design suitable for an internet audience that couldn’t be made to work with CSS.

    But that’s beside the point. A trained designer will design for the audience not for their own gender.

    Molly was just making the point that we should take the design preferences of the target audience into account… she did not say that we are more likely to design for our own personal preferences because of our own gender!

  12. This reminds me a lot of that one chapter in “The Zen of CSS” where you discussed all the effects that colors had on different cultures. This is really interesting stuff.

  13. Isn’t the VW just an update of the original – designed not specifically for women but as a low cost “peoples’ car” (volks wagen) to help unemployment figures in Nazi Germany?

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  15. Anders – you must be moving in the wrong circles! A good 90% of women designers/developers that I know use CSS based designs. πŸ˜‰

  16. Love the fast looking car!! But from tis study and being a guy you already knew that.

  17. More women prefer the curvy cars than men?

    Women are just as likely as men to choose the GT40 (You forgot the ’40’) over the plump beetle (it’s the Golf in drag btw – using the same chassis and engine!)

    Why would more women prefer the curvy lines of the (new) VW Beetle than men? Aside from the looks, there’s the practical side of things too: you can seat 4-5 people comfortably in the Beetle – where 2 people (including the driver) are cramped in the GT40. You can park the (new) beetle in to parking bays without too much trouble…while the GT40 has the turning circle of a bus! The (new) Beetle isn’t exactly inexpensive…but it can be bought with affordable financing – while the GT40 is nearly four times more expensive. The new Beetle returns 40mpg (miles to the gallon) in fuel economy…while the GT40 will bleed a gas-station dry every 15 miles! The design of the car is part of the appeal of a car at one level….but all these other factors have a SERIOUSLY big hand in deciding things too! πŸ˜‰

    The phallic, long hood (we’d say bonnet in the UK) of the GT40 is a bit of male penis-envy thing going on…”Ooh – look at my car – look how long it’s front bit is!” And guys who usually drive such cars are have small dicks (apparently).
    I’m not ashamed to say that I think the car looks gorgeous, and that the (new) VW Beetle looks like a lump of lard – I wouldn’t buy either!

    To relate this to gender-bias web design is maybe stretching a concept a bit too far…c’mon – it’s more about the colours (sorry, here’s the U.S. spelling: ‘colors’) than the curves!

    When my last girlfriend and I went to a car dealership and I bought my car…she didn’t give a damn how the car looked…but the ‘colour’ seemed to be very, very important! Whereas – by comparison, I had a few colours I considered…and wasn’t that bothered which I went for, but was more concerned about the wheels looking good! Eventually chose a tasteful metallic deep navy blue…which we both agreed was a great colour (but if it had been her choice – I think the soft rose-petal pink would have been chosen instead!)

    So – I think the use of colours is of greater relevance IMO.

  18. I bet Faruk drives one of those (new) VW Beetles! πŸ˜‰

  19. What’s a girl to do?

    I really like the rounded tabs technique of Eric Meyer’s at

    So what are the hacks to make it work in IE6? Eric mentioned “With the use of CSS-hiding techniques, however, we could create a situation where the tabs are rounded in browsers that can handle the styles involved, and squared off in those that can’t.”

    This is what I will settle for. Would someone please point me to an example of the CSS code to hide the rounded corners from IE6? I’m getting a weird floating corner gif effect in IE – yet looks perfect in Firefox.

    Would be much appreciated. Thanks, Jill

  20. I think straight lines reflect that males are more primarily practical. I know that I’m always focusing more on function before form. Where as females seem to constantly balance form and function at the same time.

  21. This reminded me of when Homer designed his perfect car in the Simpsons? That was very curvaceous!

  22. Many indigenous races also use landmarks for navigation. That said we are talking about abilities developed prior to the introduction of maps.

  23. See, here’s what I don’t understand. If this is true, why don’t women prefer more curvy and rounded guys? ::sniff::

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  25. I welcome the idea of personalised templates: but it should always be a choice.

    The choice of template should always be left to the individual user and not set through draconian means such as gender information in the user profile.

  26. When I get around to making my New Zealand web-development community I’ll be adding user style sheets where they can edit the style sheet and thus create their own template that they see.

  27. @Jasper

    i do understand your ideal view on this world but:
    a) that will not happen, people will get thrown templates at them by gender, age, ethnic descent or whatever demographic issue can be thrown in.
    b) picking a personalized template will be used for market-research and added to the demographic database.

    @matt: I wouldn’t buy either also, but that merely has to do with a lack of funds to get the GT40, so I will have to settle for the Lotus Elise (which incidentally is rather curvy)

  28. Perhaps that’s why CSS and web design in general, like positioning with tables, is based on boxes and angles. it’s always been harder to get a rounded effect inside of all these boxes we use to potion.

  29. So what about androgynous design that blends or balances the yin and yang of straight lines and curves?

  30. Interesting study. I coulda sworn I saw some study say that men prefer circles cause they were like… well, you know.

    Maybe not.

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  32. Matt Robin: As far as I know, this new car is the GT, perhaps they’ve given it a different name in America to Europe?

    Keri Henare: Is curviness impractical? I would have said that straightness when curviness is required is inherently impractical. However, I wouldn’t agree that men have a tendency to be more practical, but I guess it depends how you define it. Or maybe I know a lot of unusual people!

    On the subject of cars: I have an overwhelming preference for curvy cars, but OTOH I would call the GT, GT40, Ferrari Dino 246 curvy. As an example, my (male) partner loves the Delorean, Bugatti EB110 etc which are very pointy and I hate them.

  33. Mary-Ann: The current car is called GT, the original version of LeMans fame was called the GT40. So the name sort of stuck.

  34. Mary-Ann and Ron: There is indeed a difference in naming/branding of the Ford Supercar on the two continents (I wasn’t aware it’s only called the ‘GT’ in the U.S. and yes – it’s called the GT40 in Europe, well, Britain at least! Even badged with ‘GT40’ incorporated into the stripe down each side of the car.)

    Mary-Ann: I agree though, the GT/GT40, and the old Ferrari Dino 246 have curves…in contrast to the (new) VW Beetle though their profile is more angular and less rounded (bloated?) The Delorean and the Bugatti EB110 (fantastic engine!) are hideous IMO and much better examples of ‘straight’ lines in (car) design….no, I don’t like either of them…prefer the curves… (wait: What does that say about me though?!!)

  35. While the research is interesting, I would hate to draw any conclusions from such a small study.

    First it looked at 60 student personal web sites. 30 male and 30 female, were they all studying the same course? Or were some students from the BA in Packaging Design or Product Design and others from BSc in Multimedia Studies or E-Business Computing. A simple bias of 20 female students from the BA courses to 20 male students from BSc courses with different environmental influences, lecturers and courses could easily influence results. Or something as simple as one person helping five friends of the same sex build personal websites would also bias the results.

    Next the 60 web sites were rated on 23 factors. As these were personal websites the person who was rating knew if the creator was male or female and without intending to, may have biased the result, just by their personal opinion.

    Now with 12 factors established as difference between the genders, more personal web sites were rated, again bias may of crept in.

    I am not saying the results are wrong, you just need to treat them with caution, until a double blind follow up, with a good size sample is done.

    And yes I would love a GT40 if I had the roads to drive it on and money to burn. But instead being praticable I will stick to my bicycle.

  36. Nick: It is apparently a laymens view that large samples are needed to produce adequate results. It was once explained to me by a professor at Umass, who did brain research on rats, that large samples are not needed. I did not study statistics, but there is a mathematical explanation why this would work.
    Larger samples do fine-tune the deviation but have no impact on the results.

    Matt: the UK seems to be the only country I can find where it is badged the GT40. The original GT40 got it’s name because it stood at an overall 40 inches curb height. The current version build so that big guys like Jeremy Clarkson would fit in there measures a whopping 44.3 inches.

    I do like curvy cars also, with the exception of the Guigiaro designed Lotus Esprit S1. There is not a single curve to be discovered on it, and it is gorgeous. (James Bond thought so at one time also)

  37. I’m sure it was Clarkson that called it the GT in the first place πŸ™‚ And it’s a myth about the height of the original, but damned if I can find a source.

    Enough car geekery from me. I’d definitely want to see a breakdown of the students sites as Nick says. I have a feeling that both genders like curves but predominantly men like straight lines, instead of it being a binary distinction.

  38. fascinating thoughts, everyone.

    One important point to remember: there obviously are no hard and fast rules about gender bias. These are generalities, and it’s very important we keep that in mind, too.

    Another issue is with color – the study looks at far more than just shape, color is as important or even more important. I just honed in on the shape portion as it appeals to me.

    Insofar as the VW being bought by more women, that is specifically since the redesign and reissue of the car, not the original designs which were, in fact, built in part with money from the Nazis and forced labor. VW has made some reparations to Jews and other marginalized groups at that time that were used in slave-labor to build the vehicles. One auto company also fueled by Nazi finances, has never done so, at least at my last opportunity to research the issue, and that company is BMW.

    Interestingly, there is no more powerful example of the use of color and shape than how the Nazis identified camp prisoners. It’s an absolutely fascinating topic and I am going to post about it separately.

  39. Ron, I do have a background in statistics for scientific experiments and such but I rather not admit it.

    My main concern is the sample size of 60 student web sites is too small given the number of different factors which could influenced the design of the web sites. Particularly as the finding for the whole report where drawn from the differences found in these 60 web sites.

    If all the 60 web sites where created by final year students in one course as part of an assignment, then it would of suitable sample in my opinion. However, in my opinion 60 personal web sites from students of a university, with differing levels of design atheistic, design, HTML and graphic skills and experience is not a good sample.

    Statisticians get good results from small samples by controling all the variables

  40. Err…sorry, utter tripe. I’m a bloke, I prefer organic rounded curves in my web design and the sports car looks as it does because of aerodynamics. Men like sports cars because they are powerful, fast etc. Web sites are straight lines because the technology of the web is based on computing which is based on square pixels. What a naff bit of research. Besides, trust me, 100% of men are thinking about the beauty of natural curves most of the time.

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  42. Nick: you convinced me, I stand corrected.

    Mary-Ann: you are in part right: the GT40 was a little higher in overall height. Most sites claim that the 40 inches were measured at the top of the windscreen. Making the overall height a little higher. An original 1966 press-release by Ford claims the overall height to be 40.5 inches and the top of the wind-screen standing at 39.2.
    These figures are definitely lower than the 44.3 inches for the current model.

  43. Huh, this made me laugh. One of the worst PIA clients I ever had, trashed one of my designs because it didn’t have curves and he helpfully pointed out: “men like curves, because men like boobs…”

    Since he was a walking booband a macho-jerk, he only mildly irritated me and paid extra for the subtle fem-curves added to his web site.

    Yes, I actually added Fem-curve add-on to his invoice and he liked it!

  44. While I do not disagree, I think the cars choosen were weak examples.

    The GT40 was designed with aerodynamics as a primary objective.

    The Bug was not.

    I think you are comparing apples and oranges. One is supposed to be an uncompromising sports car that costs over $150k the other comes with a flower case and sells for less that $20k

    I think a more apporpriate comparison would be between the two cars of the same class, and price range both designed for smiliar purposes.

    For example I believe that the Mitsubishi Eclipse owners are mostly women (Google > Forbes “The Best-Selling Cars By Gender”) and I suspect that a car with similar price and fucntionalty would be a Ford Mustang… I would guess that that ones skews mostly to men (no proof… just a hunch).

    As an aside I am guy driving a Miata so in the end what to I know.

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  46. This post made me think about a problem I had as a web designer. How do you create CSS designs based on circle/ellipse model as opposed to box model? Imagine the day, we can create DIVs that aren’t square and boxy. This could allow for text to flow around the ellipse/circle. Think of the possibilities!

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  48. “Note: Comics are male orientated. Hard colours, abstracted visuals and storylines based on status, power and aggression. Still wondering why women on the whole don’t read comics?”

    I read comics, and I’m female. I’m not just talking about anime either, though I like those, too. I’ve always done a lot of things that are thought of as traditionally male territories. But they aren’t really masculine; they’re just… fun!

    I play Dungeons and Dragons. I play RPG video games particularly MMORPGs. I like PK (killing virtual people!). I code stuff. I love strategy games, in particular turn-based games.

    Look, men and women aren’t that different. We can all look at a good looking thing and agree that it’s good looking.

  49. “I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it.” (Lewis Carroll)

    ^_^ πŸ™

  50. I had this discussion last year with a student and they didnt believe me, but i used the two cars as an example from your site and now he understands what i was trying to say. Great site Molly.

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