Noticing the differences: what men and women produce - Different ways of seeing

Why Men Like Straight Lines and Women Like Polka Dots: Gender and Visual Psychology - Gloria Moss 2014

Noticing the differences: what men and women produce
Different ways of seeing

The artist does not see things as they are but as he is.

Alfred Tonnellé

There is very little difference between one man and another; but what little there is, is very important.

William James

The burning question

The journey into men and women’s visual tastes began one hot summer’s Sunday, after a heavy morning of classical landscapes at the Royal Academy gallery in London. The lure of seeing paintings that were brighter and lighter in mood took me to the Annual Exhibition of the Institute of Painters in Water Colours in the Mall, just down the road from Buckingham Palace. This time, all the paintings were available for sale and, with yet another expensive catalogue on offer, it seemed prudent to jot down the numbers of the paintings that struck a chord and then sneak a look at the price in the catalogue at the desk. The person at the desk did not seem to mind; and after entering the names of the artist, it became clear that eighty per cent of the names on the list were women’s. Meanwhile, a quick flick through the catalogue revealed that most of the paintings in the exhibition were by men. You don’t have to have a degree in statistics to realise that selecting an almost entirely all-female list when most of the paintings in the exhibition are by men is pretty freakish.

It immediately raises two questions one of which relates to whether men and women actually produce different kinds of paintings and whether they prefer different kinds of visual artefacts. In fact, a quick glance around the exhibition area revealed something that had not crossed my mind before, namely that men and women’s paintings differ in terms of their use of detail, colour, perspective and theme. There were books galore on gender differences with Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus setting the tone by focusing on men and women’s emotional differences and it was fair to assume that there would also be column inches exploring gender differences in visual tastes. However, when I first began to look into this in the 1990s, lengthy searches in libraries and online brought up virtually no research comparing men and women’s visual sensibilities.

This gap seemed extraordinary. If other women reacted as I did and if men were to prefer men’s visual work, then the implications for the visual world would be nothing short of revolutionary. Think of it. The world’s wealthiest living artist, Damien Hirst — famous for his sheep in formaldehyde and live maggots and cow’s head — may owe his fame to the fact that the scions of the art establishment are men, a sex apparently drawn to violence and death, even in art. The implications would be immense also for the design and marketing industries which are staffed heavily by men and yet targeting a market consisting largely of women. If men and women produced and liked very different kinds of visuals, how easily could it possibly be for men to second guess women’s preferences? The experience at the exhibition of watercolours planted a seed and a few days later, the Evening Standard newspaper in London carried an article that helped keep these questions firmly in mind.

The article focused on a female-only script called NuShu discovered in a fertile valley in Southern Hunan, in China. This script was created and used by young women in rural communities who, like other women in traditional Chinese culture and unlike men, were not allowed access to formal education and not taught to read and write Chinese. A system of bound feet and social strictures confined women to their husband’s homes after marriage, but somehow the women in the south-western corner of Hunan province created their own script and way of communicating and liberating themselves from illiteracy.

NuShu literally means ’woman’s writing’ and while some of the characters are original, some are based on those used in Hanzi, the standard Mandarin Chinese language. This is the language that the men of the community could read and write, and one theory is that women created NuShu in the course of memorising the Hanzi script that they saw, simplifying and changing the characters to suit their own style. Intriguingly, whereas Hanzi has square shapes and straight lines, NuShu only used curvy lines. “Is it conceivable,” I wondered, “that the differences in these scripts are further examples of differences in the visual creations of men and women?” The drive to find an answer demanded some urgent action.

The first step was to organise interviews with people in the visual world. The first of these was with a London design consultancy where I was able to talk to two designers. Both were asked whether men and women designed differently and the former teacher, after a pause, recalled how “boys liked drawing lines even on brochures and other things when they were not needed.” The second designer who had spent their career in commercial design described the tendency for “the male designer to use more straight lines than the female one.” A trend seemed to be emerging which provided the impetus to forty interviews in total.

A particularly memorable one was with a lecturer in Product Design at a university not far from London. She was a jeweller herself who had gravitated to the visual arts after discovering that she was dyslexic, and she spoke with animation about a project for pre-degree students to construct a hat from natural objects: “The boys’ hats were all highly constructed, all made with twigs and therefore more angular than those of the girls. These, on the other hand, were made with leaves, flower, moss and berries and therefore more organic in shape.” The parallel tramlines were there again and the mounting evidence kept my motivation levels high as I reached out to speak to more people.


One chat with a designer at a top US design agency took things in a new direction. “Women are more likely to be interested in detail than men,” he said and this remark came at around the same time that I had a conversation with Professor Penny Sparke, well-known design historian and now Pro Vice-Chancellor at Kingston University. Not shy of controversy, she remarked that the modernist tradition that underpins today’s design teaching “rejects everything identifiable with the feminine such as decoration and display.”

At about this time, I attended an annual food exhibition in the Midlands, and walking around noticed a brightly painted gas cooker that was light years away from the ’white goods’ available then. It turned out that this cooker had been painted to match the winning entry of a children’s colouring competition organised by New World Cookers, the largest supplier of freestanding gas cookers in the world. The competition was open to primary school-age children (i.e. children under the age of eleven) and run in eleven local newspapers so there were large numbers of entries. It would be a researcher’s dream to get their hands on this sample!

Fortunately, New World Cookers were happy to allow access to samples from the regions with the greatest gender balance, producing 204 entries, 90 from boys and 114 from girls. This was a researcher’s dream. The sample was large and the children had freedom to express themselves in the way they applied colour to the shape provided. It became apparent that there were six ways in which colour could be applied:

• The square shape at the bottom of the oven could be coloured in with a single colour or coloured in using more than one colour.

• The handle of the cooker could be coloured in with the same colour as the surround or coloured in with a different colour.

• The switches could be coloured in with a single colour or coloured in using more than one colour.

• The “New World” logo could be coloured in with a single colour or coloured in using more than one colour.

• The switches at the bottom of the cooker could be coloured in with the same colour as the surround or coloured in with a different colour from the surround.

Analysing the way colour had been used was an entirely objective process (running through the exercise twice helped guarantee accuracy); and after a couple of hours, some unexpected differences emerged. The girls, for example, were much more likely to use separate colours for the knobs, the handle and the surround of the oven door with the chances of the results occurring by chance being no more than 10%.

Of course, willingness to accept this conclusion rests on believing that the differences reveal the intuitive responses of boys and girls and I was later to find that people are not universally minded to do this. However, it is worth noting that a study of 1451 children’s drawings by academic Elizabeth Hurlock in the 1940s found that 20% of the girls’ but only 1% of the boys’ drawings showed the use of patterns. These studies are good preliminary evidence of a taste for pattern and detail, elements that are difficult to explain through social factors alone.


A few weeks later, a visit to two museums, first the Crafts Council Gallery and then the Design Museum in London, was to enter two exciting but separate worlds. In the Crafts Council Gallery, most of the exhibits were by women while the bulk of what was on display in the Design Museum were machined objects by men. To put it baldly, it appeared that the term ’design’ was reserved for objects that men liked creating — largely machined objects — while the term ’craft’ was bestowed on handcrafted work, much of it as far as the Gallery was concerned textile crafts, an area dominated by women.

Interestingly in an interview with design historian Professor Penny Sparke, she agreed that the current boundaries of design reflected masculine interests. In her opinion, modern design is underpinned by modernism which is masculine “insofar as it based on an appreciation of the machine aesthetic.” Not long after this conversation, I had coffee with a professional designer who described men as interested in subjects with a “mechanical basis”, a view on which I received interesting insights a few weeks later during a visit to Hasbro, one of the largest toy makers in the world, headquartered in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

My visit was to the UK Headquarters and after a challenging time finding the firm (its proximity to Heathrow airport presents the driver with a maze of overpasses to be read at great speed!), I was happy to sink into a chair and sip coffee with the designer responsible for the one-time rival to Barbie, Sindy doll, now produced by Pedigree Toys. Much of our conversation focused on the research that the company had conducted into boys’ and girls’ patterns of play, but she also discussed design issues. My ears pricked up when she mentioned the initiatives of a male designer who had taken over from a female colleague. “He decided to add a special dial on the doll’s motorbike.” She was not surprised since, in her view, “male designers are techno-oriented” and “gadget-oriented”. In subsequent research, I discovered that a technical edge to design is much more evident in male than female-produced design. So, if the designation ’design’ is given to work that is technical in appearance, and ’craft’ to work that is non-technical in appearance, it is not surprising that design is linked more to men, and craft to women. In a male-dominated discipline like design, men will set the parameters according to what they are good at and so this was an important discovery. More were to come with my own attempts at craftwork when I saw a class advertised for a papier mâché class at the local arts centre.


It was the summer, and applying wet paper to objects for a week and then applying paint seemed like a fun thing to do. Like all the other women on the course, I had decided to make a bowl and was delighted with the dainty blue object I produced, decorated with a circular frieze of bright yellow fish. One of the men in the group had produced a slate grey vase with no decoration and a lot of angularity and when he saw my bowl, his only comment was “But what’s it for?” Strangely, I had not given any thought to its function, only to its aesthetic appeal.

Was this quirkiness on my part? It seemed not. One university teacher of product design said that: “Males are interested in the way something functions. Women, by contrast, react to the experience of the object. They seem to be aware of the experience of the object, not the implications of it. For them, it’s their reactions that count.” She went on to describe a project carried out by novice students asked to create a hat from natural objects. “The boys were concerned largely with the functionality of the hat, ensuring that it stayed on the head and did not fall down, while the girls were more concerned with the look of the hat — whether it was pretty and decorative.”

Another female designer thought that the emphasis on functionality rather than styling had influenced design education in the 1990s when she had studied: “Styling is seen as the poor end of product design and if you started to play with shape, you were made to feel guilty about it — at Art College, styling is a bad word.” She thought that women were losing out since they were more interested in styling than men — “were a course to concentrate on styling,” she said, “a greater number of women would be drawn to product design courses.”

This was all very reassuring as far as my papier mâché bowl was concerned. A large American study of 31,000 drawings by McCarty in 1937 provided the ultimate certainty that my attitude to bowl-making was not off the wall. For McCarty concluded that the girls’ drawings “tended toward the aesthetic” while the boys’ “tended toward the mechanical or scientific aspects of life” (more on this study below). Meanwhile, it was back to more interviews.


One of the most memorable interviews was with an established designer in London’s Covent Garden, an artistic area that is home to Britain’s Royal Opera House. After climbing the winding stairs to her office, the designer showed me her designs with the hallmark motif of tiny red hearts. Over a cup of tea, she volunteered that she always drew in 2-D and added shadows “after the event to provide an illusion of three-dimensionality.” She added that many men were more at ease with drawing three dimensions than women and that she considered herself to be one of these.

Her thoughts were in fact in line with the results of two studies separated by both geography and by time. The first, by Kerschensteiner in Germany in 1905, compared boys’ and girls’ drawings and produced the interesting finding that boys’ drawings were more realistic than the girls’. Then, the Japanese study headed by Iijima in 2001 found that the boys were more likely than the girls to draw motifs arranged in piles, three-dimensionally or from a bird’s eye view (more on these studies below). So, while the boys favoured the realistic portrayals of objects, the girls preferred less realism, and favoured organising subjects in rows. Later, we will see (Chapter 4) the evidence for strong spatial rotation skills in men and this may be an important factor in these differences.

The interviews with designers and fine artists were now complete and, with forty behind me, it was time to take stock. Did they think that there were differences between the designs produced by men and women? Only one considered that there were no differences, and a further ten (equivalent to 25%) either had no views or were undecided. Of the 29 people remaining — a massive 73% of those interviewed — all thought that there were differences between the visual creations of men and women. Interestingly, many of the differences discussed echoed differences identified in the studies comparing children’s and young people’s drawings. So common themes related to the male and female use of straight vs. round lines; their relative emphasis on three-dimensionality and functionality and in terms of underpinning themes, the depiction of males vs. females and reference to inanimate or animate subject matter.

All of this suggested that something important was at work here but there had been no systematic attempt to examine the differences and seek out underlying factors. Nor had there been any attempt to examine preferences, and so no way of finding out if my experience at the Gallery was typical or not. So, there was only one consequence and that was to continue with the work in a systematic and scientific way. Design would be my main focus with a first phase looking at creations and a second phase looking at preferences.

Having an idea is all well and good, but how do you actually compare male and female-produced designs? An obvious way is tracking down samples of student work in art colleges and being based in a capital city was a big advantage since it brings many colleges into the frame. It was not long before I was told of a student project to design a box of luxury chocolates. The students were all doing a foundation year degree — this is excellent since they have not been exposed to three years of art school yet — and by some quirk of fate, there were equal numbers of men and women in the group. What would a comparison of their designs reveal?


Although the men and the women were working to exactly the same brief, a detailed analysis of the designs revealed strong divergences in the designs of the men and women. For example, the men’s boxes tended to be square or rectangular while the women’s were all round or oval-shaped. Again, the men’s chocolate boxes had a three-dimensional look to them while the women’s all had a flat, two-dimensional appearance. Amazingly, a statistical analysis was completed comparing them; the differences between the genders were off the scale statistically speaking. The chances of the results occurring by chance were one in a thousand, so this was as robust a finding as you could expect from an experiment.

So decisive were the results (in fact, you can find more details later on in the chapter) that I asked the students to design a second box but this time, after detailed briefing on the attributes of male and female-typical design, to design as if they were the other gender. So the students were told of the tendency for men and women to use quite distinct design features: straight vs. rounded lines; 3-D vs. 2-D images; regular vs. irregular typeface; little vs. extensive detailing. The students seemed to acknowledge the differences and the week dragged by slowly in expectation of seeing what the students would produce.

D-day for seeing the new designs arrived and each student unveiled their new design. One of the men whose first box had been octagonal in shape now revealed a new design with exactly the same shape — clearly the allure of a straight-sided shape was irresistible! Then one of the women unveiled a drawing of a triangular-shaped box with the 3-dimensional aspect completely out of kilter. True, she had shed her original round shape but her design was anything but convincing. This was intriguing. Although this was an informal experiment with a small sample size, it suggested that young men and women are drawn to certain shapes and resist moving away from them. Of course, only carefully constructed experiments could prove this but this was a decisive moment which made me decide to study the topic in earnest.

Later, through my own research, I was to discover men’s love affair with straight lines and women with curvy ones, but meanwhile it was time to see more student work. Various features stood out and these are signposted in italics before the heading to each section.


Doing the rounds of student end of year graduation shows was another good way of entering the world of the male and female imagination. One year, Nathalie, a design graduate, stood proudly by the lampshade she had created with real leaves etched into the cotton shade. It had a feminine feel to it although the metal stand looked curiously out of place and unusually long. It turned out that Nathalie hadn’t made this herself, but had asked a fellow male student who was skilled at metal work to fashion it for her. Nathalie was not very happy with it — “The base is taller than I would have liked,” she said but a wry smile crossed her face as she spoke of her shade. “But I am really happy with the textured shade,” she said.

Now, if you think about the mass-produced lampshades you find in most shops, they all tend to have hard rather than soft surfaces. In fact, a designer, Julie, once confided in me that: “women like to work with soft materials and for this reason are drawn to certain crafts such as sewing, knitting, quilting and weaving.” What about men? According to Julie, their work is “more precise and hard-edged” informed by the view that “noble steel is OK.” So, little reason to be surprised by the use of metal in the base, and the extreme elongation is not surprising either. Why say this? In 1937, the psychologist Erik Erikson invited 150 children to arrange blocks on a table and he found that the boys tended to build upwardly pointing towers while the girls built low, circular structures.

An isolated case? In 1948 some researchers, Franck and Rosen, asked 250 university students to complete the small, abstract shapes that they were given and the men, unlike the women, tended to build shapes up and to elaborate outwards rather than inwards (more on this study later in Chapter 7). So you can see the tendency to elongation coming up here as well. It was time to move on to another graduation show.


The next graduation show on the calendar was an enormous one bringing together new design graduates from universities and colleges right across Britain, all displaying their work and hopeful of landing interest from industry. I started to take business cards from students in order to follow-up on their work and then realised that here, in the exhibition hall, was an opportunity to take a large number of cards with a view to comparing the male and female ones at a later stage. I scooped up a remarkable 227 cards and, after seeing everything I wanted, took my spoils back to my office. In total, there were 83 cards by men and 144 by women and the task of comparing them could begin immediately.

The first set of findings was checked and rechecked before going off to get a cup of coffee to mull over the results. The results related to the size of cards and there was no doubt that there were striking statistical differences on both. Where size was concerned, the men, it seemed, were significantly more likely than the women to adapt the standard size of business card (90 × 55 cm) and the women much more likely to vary the size in one of three ways:

• producing cards with overall smaller or larger dimensions

• increasing the width relative to the height, thus creating a card which was squarer in appearance

• using circles, or other unconventional shapes (for example, a lemon shape)

These were interesting findings and it was time to return to the office for more calculations.


This time, the area tested was colour and comparing the colour card used by the men and the women. Like the assessment of shape, the assessment of colour is pretty straightforward and another result soon emerged: there were statistically significant differences in colour card used by the men and women with the men much more likely than the women to use white card, and the women to use coloured card. These findings on the cards were later written up with Andrew Colman, well-known Professor of Psychology at Leicester University and writer of many academic as well as popular books on psychology.

Meanwhile, my decision to work full-time on research took me to the University of South Wales (formerly the University of Glamorgan) where there were some dedicated researchers. I used to share an office with Dr Gabor Horvath, Senior Lecturer in Marketing and International Business and during one of our discussions his wife Esther Vass arrived and decided to base her thesis on an element of gender and design. Eventually, she focused on a comparison of men and women’s sellers’ sites on eBay.

In many ways, the choice of eBay was an excellent one given the breadth of product range and the size of its advertising population. In terms of reach, this is the only shopping facility that will sell you a watch as well as a private business jet — one was sold for $4.9 million — and it carries a huge volume of adverts. This is what you would expect from one of the world’s largest online marketplaces, a presence in 37 countries and 233 million registered users, the same number as the population of America. In the end, after a lot of thought, Esther decided to compare the adverts individuals had created for boys’ clothes (where 90% of advertisers are female) with those for fishing rods and king size beds (where 15% and 30% respectively of advertisers are male) and see whether their adverts differed on dimensions such as colour.

In all, she compared 150 sellers’ sites, a respectable sample size, and found that 80% of the men’s ads used only black or blue; whole more than 50% of the women’s ads used more colours and 10% contained at least eight colours! Another difference, but not relating to colour, concerned the greater conventionality in the text layout and typefaces of the male sellers. So it seems that the women were much more drawn to using colours than men.

These findings were no flash in the pan. In 2001, that Japanese study conducted by researchers, including the lead researcher, Iijima, at a medical school, compared the drawings of 168 boys and 160 girls. One of the findings was that the boys used fewer than six colours while the girls used more than ten. Merely idiosyncrasies with children and students? One female designer I interviewed in a central London design consultancy said that male colleagues often borrowed her sense of colour: “They often get this wrong and I step in to help.” We will see more in Chapter 4 some of the exciting new findings in science that may underpin this.

Incidentally, Gabor decided to conduct research in parallel on web design software, examining 3682 free templates and analysing the look of the website pro formas. He found that 99.6% of the templates used only 2—3 colours for the background and only 6% of the websites offered up to four typeface colours. As far as shapes were concerned (you will remember that straight and curvy lines were associated with men and women’s designs respectively), he found that 84% of the software offered the option of straight lines with only 15% offering a mixture of straight and non-straight lines. These were striking findings and Gabor presented these at an IT conference in Florida in July 2007 that we attended. This was one of several fascinating papers I was chairing in a session on computer-based marketing and we escaped to Disney World on our two free days. It was hard work in over 100 degrees of heat and high humidity but definitely worth it!

So far, the comparisons of men and women’s work had revealed differences in the ’look’ of the design, whether in their shape, colour, size, functionality or three-dimensionality. An opportunity to sit in on the final session of a university class on model making was an exciting one since there was the opportunity to observe how men and women treated a single theme, namely that of space travel.


The model-making students were sitting expectantly as they waited for the tutor to arrive and get proceedings underway. The brief had been to design a model spacecraft; and in this final session, the students presented the finished models that they had been working on in groups all term. Three of them were all-male groups and the fourth consisted of women, the last one to present their model to the class.

The first three groups had all designed rockets, technological marvels hurtling through space in order to vanquish enemy aliens. If you had to sum up the common themes of these all-male groups it would be speed, technical panache and military prowess, and there were indeed a very impressive set of rockets. Then, finally, it was the turn of the all-female group and just when you might have been expecting something similar, they unveiled their patchwork-covered rocket, manned by a team of mice, with a mission of collecting cheese from the moon. Whereas the men’s machines had all been hurtling through space at breathtaking speeds, this one was still on the ground, resolutely stationary.

We should not be surprised that the women’s rocket was not moving. We looked briefly earlier at the 2001 Japanese study that compared boys’ and girls’ drawings and this came up with the fascinating discovery that 92.4% of the boys’ drawings, but only 4.6% of the girls’ included moving objects such as vehicles, trains, aircraft and rockets. From a statistical point of view, this difference in creative output is highly significant and unlikely to be the result of chance alone.

Speaking of creative outputs, you might like to pause for a few moments while you produce a drawing yourself! All you need is a piece of unlined paper and pencil with which to draw a matchstick figure — we’re not looking for great works of art — and take care to ensure that the person has hair, clothes and a name. Once you have completed your sketch, put it to one side and read on.

In the 1970s, Maria Majewski wrote a PhD thesis comparing boys’ and girls’ drawings and one of her findings was that each sex tended to draw people of their own gender (more on her study below!). She is by no means the first person to have discovered this since the exercise of drawing a person has produced this result many times. For example, in a test administered to 5,500 adults in the 1950s, a massive 89% drew a figure of someone of their own sex first. This it seems is the norm. In my book Gender, Design and Marketing, I list ten other studies in which own-sex figures were produced, one of these by a researcher Jolles in 1952 involving 2,560 subjects. This is a large sample, and 85% of the males and 80% of the females depicted someone of their own gender in the first instance.

So now take a look at your drawing and see if you can infer the gender of the figure you have drawn. In all likelihood, it will be the same sex as yourself since own-sex figures are produced about 70—80% of the time in the ’Draw a Person Test’. By the way, don’t worry if your figure shows the opposite gender — there are straightforward explanations for this as you will see if you look at Hammer’s book on projective drawings. As with much else about visual creations and preferences, trends in gender productions tend to relate to around 75% of men or women leaving room for different responses from the remaining twenty-five per cent. It is essential that we allow for individual responses and this presumption underlies all the generalisations made in this book. There will always be exceptions and it is vital to acknowledge that.

Despite that, the substantial evidence on the ’Draw a Person’ test shows that the majority of people draw someone of their own gender. In fact, this tendency explains much about the way that visual creations, for example a design or a doodle, bear the imprint of those who have created them. Spontaneous visual creations of this kind are akin to X-ray images of their creators, reflecting personality, self-image and unique visuospatial skills. Not surprising then that Alfred Tonnellé described the process of drawing and designing as one of projection in which the artist sees things not as they are but as he or she is. How would this manifest? Well, the person depicted by a confident person might take up a lot of space on the page, while a smaller figure might be depicted by someone with less confidence. In a similar way, the figure depicted by someone with a poor body image may only show part of the body.

The first time that you see this happening is very exciting. I remember asking a friend’s mother to do the ’Draw a Person’ test and was particularly intrigued to see what her drawing would be like. The mother was a kind and sincere person, and on the many occasions in which I visited her house she was always wearing a rather drab kitchen overall. It made no difference whether you visited at the weekend, weekday or evening, this overall would conceal the clothes underneath. One day, I handed her a blank piece of paper and pencil and asked her if she would like to draw a person. What happened next was astonishing for she simply drew the head and shoulders of a woman, with the usual presence of the rest of the body excluded. This suggested in a powerful way that as far as this woman was concerned, the rest of her physical self was unimportant.

You can see from this why some people hold the view that drawings are projections of their creators, leading to the view that you can learn something about other people by taking the simple step of asking them to draw a person. Drawing is a form of self-mirroring and if you trust in the evidence from psychology of gender differences in emotions and aggression, you can understand one of the elements that underpin some of the differences in men and women’s visual creations. Of course, commercial designers and architects may be more constrained than fine artists to ’cover up’ their natural impulse in an effort to follow the brief, but personal factors are still likely to shine through.

“But,” you say, “surely the ’Draw a Person Test’ results are misleading? It is not true that men have a greater tendency to draw men than women; think of fine arts and the legions of male painters who have used women as their subject.” Well, back in the 1990s when I started research on this topic, I visited the National Gallery with a scientist friend, Dr Rupert Lee, now Head of the Science, Technology and Medicine Search department of the British Library. He was intrigued by much of the research, including the question of whether men really depict more men than women. Did this not fly in the face of the common perception that men’s paintings are full of beautiful women!

So, while at the British Library, Rupert conducted a quick experiment in the seventeenth century galleries to ascertain the balance of male and female figures in the 195 male-produced paintings. If you read about the period, the art is described as having “energy”, “drama” and “movement” and some of these elements are visible in some of the larger-than-life paintings featuring naked women. Velásquez’s famous Rokeby Venus depicts the exquisitely curved and undulating back of a supine figure while Guido Reni’s Perseus and Andromeda features Andromeda, chained to a rock and arms raised in dismay, with only the flimsiest piece of cloth concealing her nether regions. This degree of female immodesty characterises also the painting of Diana surprised by a satyr, attributed to a follower of Rembrandt, and this delight in displaying the female form might be thought to buck the trend where depicting own-sex figures are concerned.

What did Rupert find in this piece of quick and dirty research? Excluding paintings with more than ten figures, he found that 55% of the paintings were those in which male figures outnumbered females; just 23% were those in which female figures outnumbered male ones, and 21% had equal proportions of male and female figures. When Rupert calculated the total number of male figures, there were a massive 433 male figures compared to just 216 female figures. These figures came as a big surprise and appeared to confirm the tendency to own-sex depiction. Of course, this was only a quick survey in a small part of the collection but the results yielded ran counter to what many people might assume.

Meanwhile, there was the interesting question as to what people liked and the role of gender in this.

$64,000 question: what of preferences?

So far, our focus has been on visual creations and the evidence for divergence in those produced by men and women. The $64,000 question of course relates to preferences and how men and women react to the visual forms that are typically male or female. Are men and women’s reactions likely to be similar or different? This was the question prompted by my experience at the Mall Galleries (remember how most of the paintings on my shortlist were by women?) and a vital one since women make around 83% of buying decisions. Currently, in many parts of the developed world, a very high proportion of designs and advertising are produced by men, and if women generally preferred designs by men, then the status quo situation would be optimal. If, however, women preferred designs produced by women, then the current demographics are likely to be suboptimal in terms of maximising preferences.

Moreover, the implications would not stop at purchasing but would extend to all those situations in which visual experts sit in judgement on other people’s visual creations. Whether it was prestigious art and advertising competitions, art and design exams, hanging committees or even recruitment and promotion panels for designers, all could be affected by bias in people’s preferences. Of course, we would not be speaking here of conscious biases but of unconscious impulses, way beyond most people’s awareness. We will follow up on the all-important question of preferences in the next chapter, and will present groundbreaking research that provides us with answers for the first time ever.

Meanwhile, before moving on to that, you might be might be asking yourself what we mean by ’design’ and whether what we say about graphic design might also apply equally to other visual forms such as drawings and paintings, buildings and interiors. This is such an important question that we will look at the relationship of these visual forms next. Then, as promised, we will move on to the fascinating question of preferences.

Design and Painting: sister arts?

If you look at the website of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in New York, a museum with the mission of being “the foremost museum of modern art in the world” (, you will see that their vast collection includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, architectural models and design objects. This means that salt and pepper cellars are under the same roof as paintings by Monet and Van Gogh. Does this imply that they are sister arts?

In fact, many respected authorities see no real grounds for keeping the two disciplines separate. Sir Herbert Read, for example, former Professor of Fine Art at Edinburgh University, in his book Art and Industry, claims that the distinction between “fine art” and “applied art” is largely the creation of the machine age and did not exist earlier on. He points out that in pre-Renaissance times no distinctions were made between architecture, sculpture, painting, music and poetry, and in classical Greece only one word “techne” was used for many kinds of art. His conclusion is that the utilitarian arts (objects designed primarily for use) appeal as much to our aesthetic sensibilities as fine art.

His book Art and Industry was written in 1934 and you might imagine that thinking on this topic had changed since then. However, an American academic, Richard Buchanan, until 2008 Professor of Design and Head of the department of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, pitched in on the debate. His argument is that there is no contradiction between design as something practical and something that appeals to our sense of aesthetic beauty. By way of example, he cites Leonardo da Vinci’s speculations on mechanical devices as just another expression of his broad poetic and visual imagination. He also reminds us that marketing departments will tell their designers that style and the appearance of products is as critical to success as how well they perform.

Buchanan’s views may not appeal to those who like to make a sharp distinction between emotional and instinctive thinking (which they may think inspires Fine Art) and rational and conscious thought (which they may think inspires Design). However, while most designers will be more constrained than fine artists, a detailed design brief does not stop designers from producing a highly individual, instinctual response. Consider, for example, the work of the celebrity designer Philippe Starck who recently redesigned the computer mouse. He separated the left from the right side with a red line and in so doing put his own stamp and artistry on the product.

The fact that design is a creative act should not surprise us. Think about the process of learning to write for example. Do you remember the letters that you had to trace and copy? If you were brought up in America, these would have been quite loopy, while in Britain it would have been the chunky Marion Richardson copybook and in France distinctive r’s and s’s. Despite this heavy programming, chances are that your writing is completely different from what you were taught at school, and something that is individual to yourself. In fact, if you still have any doubts as to the individuality of your handwriting, just think of your signature. So unmistakable a proof of your individuality is it, it is often all that is required to authenticate a legal document or transaction.

So you can see how the design process can involve just as much self-expression as painting. “But isn’t design a team process?” you might ask. Some of the time, yes, it is, but this is no different from artistic practices from Medieval times through to the Renaissance when it was common for objets d’art to be produced by teams of people. Of course, the master painter put his name to the work but he was often just the lead person in the workshop. Ghiberti, Botticelli, Raphael, Giovanni Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, and the Carracci brothers are all painters who presided over busy workshops in which other artists helped complete the work. Knowing this may shatter illusions about the creativity of the lone genius but you have only to think of modern sculpture and installation art to see this practice continuing into the present day.

The interconnectedness of visual forms meant that if you wanted to get to the bottom of whether men and women’s visual aesthetics differed you could draw on studies conducted in a range of graphic fields including painting, drawing and design. This was helpful since I had come across a cache of studies comparing the drawings of boys and girls and other young people, some of which have been briefly alluded to earlier. The results reported across a range of countries had never been brought together before, and the weight of this body of studies encouraged me to conduct experiments of my own. So important is this evidence that more details follow but if you feel that you have read enough to convince you, you can skip to the next chapter where we consider the $64,000 question of what men and women like in the way of design. Meanwhile, those hungry for more information on the evidence comparing drawings and designs by males and females should read on!

Studies on form, colour and themes

Much of the early work comparing male and female drawings focused on the shapes and colours that they used. One of the first studies, in the early years of the nineteenth century, was by Albert Kerschensteiner who compared the drawings of boys and girls in Germany, interested in finding out the extent to which the boys and girls captured the quality of realism in their pictures and what he found was quite interesting. On a measure of “true to appearance”, he found that the boys insisted on far greater realism than the girls. Albert also noticed that the girls were more likely to avoid perspective than the boys and produced more “primitive” looking pictures. So you can understand now why you might have fought tooth and nail with your partner as to which picture to choose!

The first of these studies was by Paul Ballard and dates back to pre-First World War days, in 1912. He examined no fewer than 20,000 drawings by London children aged three to fifteen and found important differences in the subject matter that the boys and girls chose. Thus, twice as many boys as girls aged six to ten drew ships, and girls aged seven to fifteen were much more likely to draw plants than boys; a large 36% of girls’ drawings were of plants compared with only 16% of the boys’.

Could the male love affair with ships explain a former colleague’s obsession with models of ships? This was the manager in charge of a massive chemical plant who spent much of his spare time constructing intricate models of ships. All food for thought.

The next major study, in 1924, was by Susan McCarty in the US and analysed an even larger sample of drawings. This study, mentioned earlier, had an enormous sample with 31,000 drawings from children aged four to eight, and big differences emerged between the themes selected by the two genders. The boys, predictably, were more interested in vehicles than the girls, while the girls were more interested in flowers, furniture, household objects and design. McCarty summed it up: “The girls tended toward the aesthetic,” she said, whereas “the boys tended toward the mechanical or scientific aspects of life.”

Just over ten years later is the fascinating experiment conducted by the famous psychologist Erik Erikson at Yale University in 1937. He set up a play table with blocks and a random selection of toys and invited the boys and girls to imagine that the table was a film studio and the toys actors and sets. He asked about 150 pre-adolescent children to construct an exciting scene on the table. In all, about 450 scenes were constructed. Erikson found (although he did not quantify his results) that there were distinctive differences in the way that the boys and girls arranged the blocks. He described these as follows:

Males: built towers and structures pointing upwards. They emphasised the exterior elaboration of buildings and rarely focused on enclosing space or representing people inside houses.

Females: built low, circular structures and emphasised the openness and peacefulness of house interiors.

Next in the pile was a 1943 study, again from America, by Elizabeth Hurlock of the Department of Psychology, Columbia University. She had examined the drawings of children and adolescents aged 15—20 and had used an interesting methodology, taking the drawings produced spontaneously, and not under the direction of a teacher.

From the sample of 462 drawings, she found big differences in the use of human figures and caricatures with 365 of the girls’ drawings featuring the human figure and only 18% of the boys’; much more popular with the boys was using caricature which appeared in 33% of their drawings and just 2% of the girls’. Predictably, the majority of the boys’ caricatures showed male figures with only 7% of the boys’ drawings showing the female figure.

Three other big differences emerged from Elizabeth Hurlock’s study. The first of these concerned the use of the printed word and the fact that 30% of the boys’ drawings used the printed word as compared with just 19% of the girls’. Where they did use the printed word, the girls tended to ornament their lettering more than the boys, while the boys “attempted to print letters with a precision and accuracy that suggested duplicating the work of a professional.” The final difference, referred to earlier, concerns the girls’ tendency to create geometric figures and stereotyped patterns, something appearing in 23% of the girls’ drawings but only 1% of the boys. These are all fascinating differences many of which I have observed in comparisons of male and female-designed websites!

Surprisingly, interest in comparing male and female work waned until the late 1970s when a PhD thesis appeared which we referred to briefly earlier. The author, Maria Majewski, examined the relationship between the drawing characteristics of children and their sex. She chose 121 children from the first, fourth and seventh grades, and arranged for their drawings to be rated against 31 characteristics. Of these 31 characteristics, statistically significant differences emerged on nine, and although this may seem a small number, the differences occur again and again in previous and subsequent studies. For example, Majewski found that the environment was a more central concern in the girls’ drawings than in the boys’. She also found that girls tended to depict other females while the boys depicted other males.

A final but important difference related to the shape of the lines in the children’s work, and whether they were rectilinear (based on straight lines and angles) or curvy. Importantly, Majewski found a statistically significant tendency for divergence at all three grades with the girls preferring circular shapes and the boys rectilinear ones. So, next time you and your partner disagree on whether to get a round loo seat (amazingly some clever designer has produced a rectangular one), or whether to blow your lottery winnings on a Bauhaus building or chateau with turrets, think back to Majewski’s work and see if the shapes found in your preferred object fit into her findings.

Statistical significance is a test used by scientists all over the world to check whether the results of an experiment could have simply arisen just by chance. If an experiment is said to show statistically significant differences this means that the results are highly unlikely to be accidental, and important conclusions can be drawn. Scientists also distinguish between high and low levels of statistical significance, giving different levels of certainty about the results.

Incidentally, in case you were thinking that studies of drawings and paintings are limited to the Western world, you may remember that a study was carried out in Japan in 2001. This was led by Megumi Iijima of the Department of Paediatrics at the Juntendo University School of Medicine in Tokyo and she was joined by three academic colleagues. Their studies offer fascinating parallels to the Western studies of children’s drawings we have looked at.

One of their studies examined the free drawings of 168 boys and 160 girls (also aged five to six) and compared the organising features of the drawing compositions. The results showed that the most common compositional device used by 74.4% of the girls’ was to arrange motifs in a row on the same plane, a device used by only 20.4% of the boys. They were much more likely to draw motifs arranged either in piles, three-dimensionally or from a bird’s eye view. Using pile or bird’s eye view arrangements was found to be an “exceptional” occurrence in the girls’ drawings.

In another study, a comparison was made of the extent to which different colour crayons were used up over a period of six months! The colour crayons used by 146 girls and 143 boys aged 5—6 were compared and the results showed that the only colours the boys used up more frequently than girls were grey and blue. Girls, on the other hand, used up warm colours like red and pink to a noticeably greater extent than the boys. For example, the girls used up 10 millimetres of pink as compared with the boys’ 3.5, while the girls used up 15 millimetres of red as against the boys’ 10 millimetres.

These findings back up an earlier study by one of the authors (Minimato, 1985) showing the extent to which girls use warmer colours (pink and red) and boys cooler colours (blue and green). Megumi Iijima and her co-authors also noted differences in the way that the boys and girls applied colour with the girls using more colours in a diffuse area in the drawing compared to the boys who concentrated one or more specific colour(s) in one specific area.

In a final study, the team compared the subject matter used in drawings by 124 boys and 128 girls drawn from six separate kindergartens. The researchers found that the girls were significantly more likely to feature certain themes (flowers, butterflies, the sun, people especially girls and/or women) than the boys, with the boys significantly more likely to draw mobile objects (vehicles, trains, aircrafts and rockets) and mountains. The objects favoured by boys rarely appeared in the girls’ drawings and there are striking and obvious similarities between these conclusions and those of many of the Western studies.

Striking congruence in findings

So, here was a cache of fascinating studies with evidence of consistent differences between the visual creations of young people. The studies had not been brought together in one place before but as soon as you did this, you could see remarkable congruence between the results of studies conducted over a vast geographical area spanning the US, Europe and Asia and over a period spanning more than eighty years. These similarities are all the more striking in that many of the subjects focus on the behaviours of young, elementary school children, who, by virtue of their youth, will have had less exposure to societal influences than older children or adults.

Experiments on design

I became interested in this topic in the mid-1990s and at that time, although there was this treasure trove of studies comparing male and female drawings and paintings, no studies existed comparing designs created by men and those created by women. Curiosity got the better of me and over a period of many years, I conducted experiments comparing graphic, product and web designs by men and women. We have already looked briefly at the chocolate box designs produced by pre-degree art and design students and I went on to compare product and web designs with the exciting findings on websites to be found in Chapter 8. Meanwhile, a word about the methods used in the experiments comparing male and female graphic and product designs.

In each of these two experiments, there were 12 designs, six created by men and six by women. In both cases, the students, all foundation, pre-degree level, were working to a common design specification so their output was controlled to that extent. The graphics project, as we have seen, involved the design of a luxury chocolate box and the product project focused on the design of a tomb. The designs were all photographed and a comparison of the designs then involved rating them against different criteria. How should these criteria be determined? In order to eliminate any risk of experimenter bias, third parties were involved in the identification of the criteria using a method based on the “repertory grid exercise” of Dr George Kelly. This involves comparing designs and determining the features that distinguish them, with the most frequently occurring characteristics then being shortlisted for the final rating of the designs, again by third parties. It was important to use people who were outside the world of design for both exercises, thereby removing another source of bias, and the selection of 14 psychology students fitted the bill perfectly. Of course, none of them were told about the true purpose of the experiment, simply that it was an experiment about design.

The students rated both samples of designs against the criteria and the results showed highly significant differences, statistically, between the ratings applied to the male and female-produced designs showing that the differences are extremely unlikely to have occurred by chance. The differences? The male designs were judged to be less colourful, more linear and more technical than those of the women, and not by a small amount but by an amount that in statistical terms stood a tiny 0.1% chance of occurring by chance alone. These were findings to make you sit up and take notice.

As well as looking at formal elements such as shape, colour and technicality, I conducted another experiment which also compared the subject matter used by men and women. In this experiment, foundation-level students could select to create a logo based on one of three notional companies: a theatrical agency named “Top Banana”; a restaurant known as the “Huntsman Restaurant” or finally one a sole trader design company. A total of 28 designs (both completed and partially completed) were available for analysis, 17 designed by male students and 11 by females and the distribution of themes amongst the male and female students showed some fascinating variations.

For, in total, 41 per cent of the men’s and 27 per cent of the women’s used illustrated a notional company of one’s own. A low 18 per cent of men’s but massive 64 per cent of women’s designs were based on the “Top Banana” theme while a high 41 per cent and low 9 per cent of women’s designs illustrated the “Huntsman Restaurant” theme. Looking at this gender distribution of themes, the greater use of the “Top Banana” theme by women stands out, as also the greater use of the “Huntsman Restaurant” theme by men. In fact, conducting a statistical test (the chi-square test for two independent samples) confirmed that the selection of themes by males and females differed at a level that was statistically significant. These results suggested that a person’s sex was an extremely powerful factor in people’s choices. In this case, the chances of the results occurring by chance were a mere 5%.

The fact that women are more drawn to depicting plant life and men to using violence as a theme may be seen as corroborating some of the earlier findings on boys’ and girls’ drawings. In particular, they parallel the findings of an earlier study by Ballard showing that females had a greater preference than males for using themes related to plant life in their drawings.

Meanwhile, over in Holland at the University of Twente, Margot Stilma, a teacher of product design, decided to put my findings to the test in 2008. She asked 64 first year industrial design students (44 male and 20 female) to search for a product designed by a man and by a woman, and to then rate these products using questions drawn from the rating scales I had developed in the experiments just described, as well as in later experiments on web design (see Chapter 8). Stilma included questions relating to the number of colours used; the shapes — whether mainly round or straight lines or both; the use of detail and pattern; and finally the subject matter and the incidence of male/female figures, plant life or vehicles.

She concluded, “A similar trend as in the research of Gloria Moss could be found,” with statistically significant differences emerging on all the elements tested, with the single exception of colour. So, she found significant differences in the preponderant male use of horizontal lines (p<0.01); predominant female use of patterns (p<0.05); different types of typeface (p<0.05); male focus on men; and a strong female focus on depicting women (p<0.001). Even if you are not a statistical whizz these numbers make exciting reading since a significance level of p<0.05 indicates that there is a 5% chance that the observation occurred by chance; by analogy, a level of p<0.01 indicates a 1% chance of error, and a figure of p<0.001, an 0.1% chance of error. These figures make a mockery of those who insist that men and women are identical.

What about preferences?

Having now put the spotlight on men and women’s creations, we can now move on to look at the $64,000 question concerning men and women’s design preferences. Would rigorous experimental methods reveal them to be similar or different?