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

There are as many opinions as there are people: each has his own correct way.


A diversity of views

In many organisations, the most senior people are still men with women experiencing vertical segregation and encountering a ’glass ceiling’ in private and public sector organisations in all developed countries. Statistics in the UK back this up with women holding only 32% of managerial positions and 6% of top directorships.

One explanation is that managers in organisations tend to recruit other people like themselves. According to John Rust, Professor of Psychometrics and the director of the Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge, “We all have our biases, which makes interviewing candidates very subjective … We need to get around the tendency to recruit people like ourselves. Doing this is vital, he says, since “if you want a good team you need a diversity of personalities.”


Thank you for your time, Mr Smith, but we’re not sure you have what we’re looking for.

The tendency to recruit other people like oneself is known in academic circles as the ’homogeneity principle’ or even the ’perceptual similarity effect’ and of course it is not just gender that is affected. Think about the people you are friendly with and see if you agree with psychologists that we tend to gravitate towards people who are similar rather than different from ourselves. This way of thinking leads psychologist, Ian Kelly, to argue that it is easiest to develop a relationship with someone whose way of seeing the world is similar to our own — something he calls the “sociality corollary” — and Griffitt and Veitch reached similar conclusions in 1974 in an interesting precursor to all those TV reality programmes. They paid thirteen men to spend ten days in a fallout shelter together and discovered that those with similar attitudes liked each other most by the end of the ten days, particularly when they agreed on important issues.

Returning to the workplace, Kirton, a UK-based researcher, identified in the 1970s different ways in which people processed information. At one extreme were those types that he labelled “adaptive” who prefer structure when solving problems, and at the other extreme “innovator” types who preferred less structure and were less concerned with acting in accordance with current standards and assumptions. What Kirton and others found is that human differences on these two measures can give rise to more stress across human interactions than amongst individuals who have more similar styles. In his estimate, the larger the gap and the longer individuals interact, the greater the effort (and stress) would be.

It follows also that the opposite scenario, one in which people of similar type work together, is one which makes for easier relationships. Kirton, for example, argued that in a bureaucratic organisation where the aims are precision, reliability and efficiency, the adaptor personality’s ability to find solutions within the structure leads them to be well regarded. They tend to fit in, a fact which would be less true of the innovator whose solutions seem to be more risky and less acceptable in this kind of environment. In fact, “cognitive fit” has been found to be the single most important factor in executives’ decisions to leave their jobs.

If you bring gender into the equation, then you introduce a further layer of complexity. For example, one study by Luthar in 1996 showed that men tend to rate the skills of other male managers as higher than those of women, while women did the exact reverse, rating female managers’ skills as higher than men’s. When you learn that research has highlighted men and women’s tendency to exercise leadership in different ways (he preferring to use Transactional leadership and she Transformational leadership), you can see that this tendency for men and women to ascribe higher ratings to leadership characteristics that mirror their own style preferences is an instance of being attracted to behaviours that mirror one’s own.

So important are the issues of leadership that I teamed up with an academic colleague Lyn Daunton to look further into this. What we found was that even where men were being asked to recruit candidates against transformational criteria, they unconsciously recruited against transactional ones. The single female involved in the recruitment process, the Human Resources Director, had included transformational characteristics in the Job Specification but the men doing the interviewing had ignored these. Not surprisingly, in a field of male and female candidates, the successful candidate was a man with all the features of a transactional leader — gravitas, a command and control style and a tendency to ignore people until things went wrong (a behaviour referred to in the literature as “Management by Exception”). The organisation had to wait for his replacement, a woman, to see elements of the Transformational style — lack of emphasis on hierarchy, emphasis on the team, the vision, and the people within the team.

Ultimately we can only profit by realising that diversity is a fact of life and that men and women, like other groups, can sometimes see things differently. So, in the case of the organisation quoted above in which the male recruiters unconsciously substituted transactional criteria for the transformational competences in the Job Specification, the organisation ended up recruiting a male leader with very transactional, command and control characteristics, arguably not what was needed at that moment in the organisation’s life cycle. A greater awareness of the relative tendency of men and women to prefer and display transformational or transactional criteria could have ensured the appointment of a leader who displayed the transformational characteristics needed then. So, far from consigning women to the backroom or the job ghetto as so many fear, the acknowledgement of different mental maps in men and women is key to ensuring that these differences are used to best advantage in organisations.

By analogy and moving back to the visual arena, it is vital that organisations understand whether men and women’s visual tastes are similar or different so that they can muster resources to ’mirror’ consumer needs, a vital principle in marketing. On a personal level, we all need to understand the nature of male and female preferences so that we can manage our relationships and friendships to best advantage. So, are men and women’s visual tastes similar or different?

In the previous chapter, we have seen that there are wide and consistent differences in the visuals that males and females produce. Do their preferences for other people’s visual outputs differ too? The great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, writing around the time of the French Revolution, is unlikely to have thought so since he held that “aesthetic judgements are universally held.” On the other hand, you might be asking yourself how wide a circle of people Kant could have met in his small hometown of Königsberg. It seems unlikely that he came across people from much further afield, and unlikely that great numbers of women crossed his path.

If you can remember times when you disagreed with the decision of an official jury (remember the last book or art prize?) then you are probably comfortable with the idea that tastes vary and that there is no single notion of what constitutes good taste. Tyler Brûlé founder and former editor of Wallpaper magazine agrees that there’s been a wholesale democratisation of design and that, as national borders have broadened, and markets globalised, there are now many more potential customers to please. According to him, “If the consumer thinks an object has no function but is a thing of beauty, then they have every right to declare that a piece of design. We used to call this stuff objets d’art, but design has subsumed the decorative arts. The definition of ’good’ design now includes shipping container graphics and the seats on Russian passenger planes.”

Design retailers tend to agree. “Design is anything and everything that surrounds us,” says Thorsten van Elten, who runs a design shop in central London. “The stuff in my shop is my taste, so my definition of design reflects my taste.” Van Elten stocks a selection of largely contemporary European homewares but also quirky handicrafts and traditional folk objects. Design schools are also reflecting the shift of emphasis towards the consumer experience. “There’s a simplistic view of design which is that it’s a procedure with clearly defined stages,” says Simon Bolton, product design course director at London’s University of the Arts (formerly Central St Martins). “But the drivers and influences have changed radically in the last ten years. Previously it was about form, function and manufacture but now it’s about a whole range of softer issues: emotion, culture, politics and so on. It’s all about connecting with consumers in new ways.”

I had a direct, immediate reminder of the way that tastes can vary when invited in for coffee by a male acquaintance. He took obvious delight in showing me around his house, pointing out the features as he went. In the sitting room, the colours of the ceiling were orange-yellow, the walls a dark cream and the curtains a sludge green and brown. Retro mirrors dressed the walls, supported by chunky chains, and bought at a hefty price at an auction. Thrown together by chance? On the contrary, he explained that he had hand-picked the colours, and used an interior-designer to put his wishes into practice. If aesthetic values are universal, then I needed my eyes testing.

An alternative view to Kant’s is neatly summed up in the popular phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” If we reckon with the idea that opinions about artistic matters are variable, then we have a way out of this. The view that people’s notion of beauty varies is one that found eloquent expression in the writings of British philosopher David Hume (1711—1776). In his essay “Of the standard of taste”, he famously claimed that: “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them and each mind perceives a different beauty.”

What he is stating here sets him on a collision course with Kant (1724—1804) since Hume is stating that beauty is in the eye of the beholder whereas Kant argued for universal laws of aesthetics. Hume’s position defines him as a relativist or ’interactionist’, emphasising the role of the interactive effect of the stimulus and the person contemplating it, and such different positions beg the question as to who was right. Hume or Kant?

Before conducting experiments in search of answers, it is useful to sample modern thinking on the topic. If you work in the world of IT, then chances are that you know the work of the Internet guru Jakob Nielsen. Dr Nielsen co-founded the Nielsen Norman Group with Dr Donald Norman, former VP of research at Apple Computer, and one of his ten principles presents “minimalist design” as a goal for all web designers regardless of target audience. These approaches to design are clearly universalistic in their assumptions and follow in the footsteps of Kant.

Hume’s more relativistic way of thinking also finds reflection in modern thinking. Carol Duncan, for example, Professor of Art History at Ramapo College in New Jersey believes that beauty is not actually inherent in objects but is the product of the viewer’s response. As she writes: “Art appeals to someone when it meets their needs — to be entertained, flattered, enlightened, charmed, awed and any of the other things people value in art.” She goes further: “We may value a work because we find its colours pleasing or because it reminds us of our childhood home.” Other factors may play a part: “We may value a work because it makes us feel tension or joy or surprise or because it will enhance our social standing or because it gives us back a piece of our experience in the world in a heightened form.”

What Carol Duncan is saying is that it is very easy for people to disagree on the value of a work of art since there are many factors that can draw people to like one work rather than another. From here to questioning the values that underpin the elite art world is a small step and she goes on to discuss how a small group of individuals, whether collectors and dealers or museum and fine art curators influence everything from public policy to art education. She recognises that the views of this special group of gatekeepers can be distinct from other people’s, and this is important since these gatekeepers have the power to influence opinions and determine what passes as excellent. Indeed, Carol Duncan’s realisation that opinions about art and design can vary from person to person shows that she is in the ’interactionist’ camp, in other words a believer in the view that concepts of beauty vary from person to person. So she rejects any notion that beauty exists as a universal attribute, preferring instead the popular notion of beauty as something in the eyes of the beholder.

Universalist or interactionist visual preferences?

To test which camp you are in, you might ask yourself whether you have ever heard someone offering praise — it could be for a painting, a building, an outfit or for a sofa — while you’re quietly thinking, “It’s just plain awful.” If you have, then you are an interactionist too. The question that had not previously been examined before I was kick-started into this by my experience at the Mall Galleries (see Chapter 2) related to where gender sits in all of this. Ultimately, rigorous experiments were the only way to really map the territory but observations and discussions with people were a good starting point.

Back in 2003, I visited a lecturer friend in her cosy university office. With the bit between my teeth, of course Teresa told me the story of her bathroom. “It’s en suite to our bedroom which is decorated in gentle, pastel shades, with Toile de Jouy fabric. To me it was obvious to continue the theme into the bathroom. Only my husband didn’t agree. He wanted black marble tiles — and wore me down until I agreed. I’m still not reconciled to it.”

Something interesting was going on here and further proof came when I had a medical check-up with a doctor in town. I had squeezed this in between appointments and the strain (and chill) of wearing relatively little in the presence of a complete stranger was broken by some casual chit-chat: “What work do you do?” came the question from the young doctor as he started to prod me in strange places. Saying that you are an academic and write books and articles does not always guarantee a flood of interest so a new tack was needed. “For many years, I’ve been fascinated with differences between people, and over many years have been comparing men and women’s designs and design preferences. The differences I have observed are not surprising since psychologists have confirmed superior 3-D vision on the part of men and superior colour vision among many women on account of an extra colour pigment.”

Scarcely had the words escaped than the doctor looked up from his notes and described the battles with his wife regarding home decoration schemes. “She likes patterns whereas I like things plain and she also likes soft round shapes whereas I prefer straight-sided objects. Unfortunately, all this came to a head when we were deciding on a new bathroom since she wanted decorated tiles and a round mirror, and I wanted plain tiles and a rectangular mirror.” His facial expression recalled the troubled times but he got his way in the end since he really could not have tolerated the patterned tiles. “It wasn’t easy and as for the sitting room …” The receptionist buzzed for the next patient and within seconds I had made my escape. However, the conversation remained with me and over the next few weeks other differences kept crossing my radar.


It was the season for getting a health makeover and this involved a visit to the dentist. My dentist is an Iranian woman, trained in Germany, and she and her husband acquired ’The garden dental practice’ a bus ride from where I live. He was happy to leave the decor of the practice to his wife, Dr Sanan Tehrani, and one day, while waiting for the injection to take effect, she told me how she had insisted that the green paint around the door exactly match the green on the dental chair. “The builders could not get exactly the right colour so in the end they had to apply a coat of silver followed by three coats of the green,” she said. “Only then was I happy.” I could not do more than make a few enthusiastic noises which I hoped expressed the excitement that I felt.

A short while after this, I started a house renovation project since my house was looking rather tired. The first stage involved work on the bathroom and, since I wanted to create a light look, I went in search of tiles and paint. Finding tile shops was no problem but every matt tile advertised as white that I brought home had a tinge of grey to it. It was just impossible to find a pure, matt, white tile. In the end, I had to settle for one with a tinge of grey since life is short and there are only so many shops you can visit.

Part of the project involved choosing picture frames and pictures that would complement the brilliant white on the walls, chosen to create a fresh look in a modestly-sized house. I had taupe and brown colours on the floor with some turquoise cushions for accenting a theme of turquoise running through the house and had bought some white picture frames for the walls. The immediate question concerned what colour pictures to put inside the frames and a very good friend of mine, Peter, suggested pictures in shades of orange and bright yellow. To my way of thinking, this would have created a cacophony of colours that would have fought each other and my preference was for accents of darker and lighter blues and greys so that the colours blended nicely together.

Then, when it came to finding patterned rugs for the hallway, hours of searching on the Internet did not throw up anything with pretty colours such as turquoise, light grey and pink, and little with a small repeating pattern as a border. There was plenty of dark grey, brown and black but these colours would not help create a pretty decor. I considered buying a length of carpet and having it edged with a binding tape but the only colours available — again — were black, brown and grey.

Then, one day, I found a profusion of beautiful things on a website with objects shown as handcrafted and one-off, unique productions. Suddenly, the objects that I had imagined in my mind’s eye were there in abundance — turquoise mats, an unusual patchwork table mat in wool worked with pink and blues, floor rugs with a craft-like look; a lamp shade with a ruched ribbon around its perimeter — and it was obvious that this hidden feast of products was coming from websites run by women, some in Alaska, some in Maine, one in Austria. I liked this craft look, denigrated by certain sections of the design community — and thought that maybe this illustrated a like attracts like direction to preferences. This was a hypothesis to hold in suspension until the experiments were over. Meanwhile, it was time to go back to deciding what should go in the white frames.


I happened to find a shabby chic rose fabric from that wonder of the modern world, IKEA. The design caught my eye since it had grey, impressionistic climbing roses that were very different from the strident, clear-cut blocks of colour in other fabrics in the store. The edging bore the name of the designer, Inga Leo, who has worked for IKEA for many years and lives near Älmhult, the Swedish town where IKEA had its roots. The fabric looks delightful in picture frames and the abundant and impressionistic detail has an evocative and whimsical effect.

Contrast this with the look of so many other curtain fabrics, not just in IKEA but in the zillions of fabric books held by reputable retailers. Bold, clear blocks of colour predominate with pattern set out in an organised, methodical way, rather than in the less rigid rose design of Inga Leo. I was involved in a house renovation project and looking for brightly coloured curtains to complete the project but the majority of fabric had a rigid quality, lacking the whimsical approach to detail in her fabric.

A single example — one of many — are the fabrics of Ian Mankin, an upmarket supplier with a strong online presence. Mankin himself retired from the business in 2007 and the business is now run by David Collinge, with most of the business’ range woven in a mill in Burnley, Lancashire in the north of England. Collinge sets out the company’s design philosophy on their website, writing that: “Our range is all about timeless classic simplicity and elegance,” and crediting Ian Mankin as “an inspiration” who “always kept things very simple.” The simplicity emerges in clean-cut designs, most clearly seen perhaps in the controlled blue leaf forms of the “Union Leaf Airforce” design which, despite the curvy shapes of the trailing branches, lack any of the whimsy of Inga Leo’s rose designs. It should be said that an organic theme of this kind is a rarity in the firm’s collection since most of the fabric collection consists of striped patterns. You name it, and you will find your stripe with everything from “Vintage stripe”, “Oxford stripe”, “Henley stripe”, “Denim stripe”, “Grain stripe”, “Blazer stripe” to the “Ascot stripe”!

So, Ian Mankin fabrics are light years away from those of Inga Leo and light years too from those of another female designer, Vanessa Arbuthnott. To see her website is to enter into a world of bright colours, whimsy and abundance of detail. If you look at the sneak view of a small bedroom on p. 40 of her online brochure, for example, you will see no fewer than six separate fabrics in close proximity and you will find something similar in the interiors on pp. 14 and 16. So the detail is there in the overall design and also in the fabric (see for example the light lines joining the birds in the “Dawn Chorus”) and also on the website with a border on either side of turquoise fabric with elaborated polka dots.

Inga Leo and Vanessa Arbuthnott’s designs can be contrasted not only with other fabric designers but also with big firms’ corporate strategies. Take the case of the Dutch electrical consumer firm, Philips, for example, a firm the majority of whose consumers are female. The Director of the Marketing team, a tall, fine-looking man with a clear vision for the company, had decided to take “Sense and Simplicity” as the company’s guiding principle, leaning heavily on The Laws of Simplicity of MIT Professor John Maeda (2006). To give you a flavour of his thinking, here are a couple of his laws:

• The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.

• In simplicity we trust.

So, leaning on the thinking of John Maeda, Philips used the image of a white, unadorned box as a symbol of its design ethic. In design terms, this is light years away from Inga Leo’s designs and it is also light years away from the polka dots that Kate Middleton loves so much. In fact, it is not just the Duchess of Cambridge that likes polka dots since, following the birth of Prince George in July 2013 and her appearance before the world’s cameras in a blue and white Jenny Packham polka dot dress, sales of polka dot items hit the roof. On the George of Asda website, ’Polka dot’ took the number one spot as the most searched-for term and just over 5,000 polka dot dresses were sold there, more than five dresses a minute. Other items with polka dots did a roaring trade too including pinafore dresses, high-waisted shorts, chiffon shirts, skirts, vest tops, ballet pumps, and the blue and white polka dot bikinis sold out completely!

Speaking of summer wear, my friend Roger popped round for tea one summer’s afternoon. Since everyone was in the garden, he went off to make some tea and then brought all the mugs and teapot out on a tray. A quick glance revealed that he’d selected those mugs that were stored at the back of the cupboard and kept only because they were presents from an uncle. They were bulky in shape with no decoration, and in selecting these, he had ignored the more compact mugs with polka dots. Only later, when discovering women’s interest in surface detail and men’s preference for a plain surface did Roger’s preferences start to fit into place. You may remember Elizabeth Hurlock’s study in which she compared boys’ and girls’ drawings, finding that the girls in her sample were much more likely to draw stereotyped patterns than the boys, and a comparison of Roger’s and my reactions to the patterned mugs matches these differences, with a match between creations and preferences.

In practical terms, these anecdotes and experiences were starting to build up a picture that would provide vital clues for those designing for male and female target markets, and for those of us buying presents for our male and female nearest and dearest. Including a pattern on a birthday card might be a winner for her but less likely so for him.

Straight lines

While he was in the house, Roger said that he needed a lamp for his spare bedroom and wondered if there was a lamp in the house that no one needed. At the back of a cupboard, hidden away, was a lamp with a small porcelain base and a nice compact velvet-trimmed shade. Unfortunately, you could see in the daylight that the shade had stains on it but Roger gamely took it and went out in the afternoon to find a replacement shade. He came back, all smiles, holding the small compact porcelain base but with a very tall, straight-sided shade sitting on it. To my way of seeing, the small base cried out for something neat and compact but Roger was obviously of a different mind and quite happy with this tubular-shaped shade.

The differences in our tastes were noticeable but not enough to shake the foundations of our friendship. Where these differences occur at work, you can have dynamite as the following story reveals.

Function versus style

It was 2004 and the curator of London’s Design Museum, Alice Rawsthorn, organised an exhibition of the shoes of Manolo Blahnik and the flower displays of Constance Spry. Constance was no ordinary florist. A 1950s design radical, she reached out to the masses, showing them how to bring affordable beauty into their homes. In her 1957 book Simple Flowers: A millionaire for a few pence, she taught how simple materials (berries, vegetable leaves, twigs, ferns, even weeds) could be displayed to good effect in ordinary containers (gravy boats, bird cages, and even tureen lids and baking trays). “I do feel strongly,” she said, “that flowers should be a means of self-expression for everyone.” The flowers and plants were organised in solid blocks of colour, and the fluid forms were customised to their surroundings.

For Dyson, this was a step too far. The museum had become a “style showcase” and had lost sight of its mission to explain the manufactured object. To be honest, you can understand his point of view. Here was a man who had spent five long years perfecting his renowned cyclone vacuum cleaner, producing 5,127 prototypes before he was satisfied and he was clear in his mind as to the winning elements: “It is our technology that has made the product attractive” and his website defines design as “how something works, not how it looks.” So, for Dyson, the Design Museum had abandoned its ideal of promoting function-led, problem-solving design and in doing this was “ruining its reputation” and “betraying its purpose.” The spat, widely reported in the media, was only resolved by Dyson resigning from his post at the museum in disgust.

Of course, men’s love affair with the utilitarian does not begin or end with Dyson. Socrates, for example, is credited with ascribing aesthetic value in accordance with the practical value of an object. According to Osborne, a leading authority on modern art history and editor of books on aesthetics and art, including the Oxford Companion to Art and the Oxford Companion to the Decorative Arts, a modern-day development of this argument is that: “if a thing is made to function well, if its construction is well suited to the job it has to do, then that thing will be beautiful.” This view is familiarly expressed in the words “form follows function”, a phrase famously expressed by Louis Sullivan (1856—1924), one of the most influential architects to come out of the Chicago School of architecture in the late 1800s and often called the “father of the skyscraper”. Perhaps its most famous exponent is the Swiss Le Corbusier, who conceived of the house as a machine for living in, and in a stroke revolutionised twentieth century housing.


In fact, the allure of the functional and the technical for men became apparent in other ways. I shared an office with a Polish man who was looking for a flat for himself and his wife who had joined him from Poland. When he described the flat to me, he waxed lyrical about the number of satellite TV sockets, the size of the TV stand but absolutely nothing about the décor. Later in the day, she came into the office and launched a series of excited questions about the flat: “What was the colour of the walls?” “What size the bed — single or double?” “What colour are the carpets?” “How much light is there in the room?” All to no avail. His principle preoccupation was the number of satellite TV sockets and the size of the TV stand. She was wasting her breath.

John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus had prepared us for men’s love affair with TV, but not for their ability to apparently screen out all but the mechanical. It was time to probe this matter more deeply: time to explore these themes with science and see if men and women’s tastes were polarised as anecdote suggested or whether anecdote was misleading and there were no real differences in taste by gender. These two possible outcomes — aesthetic agreement or disagreement — reflect the fault lines of thinking on aesthetics over the last three thousand years. Which is correct?

Objective or subjective evaluations

Adjudicating between the age-old dispute about aesthetic values and whether these are universal or relative can ultimately only be done through empirical work. It would take experiments to test people’s preferences for designs across a range of design disciplines (for example graphic, product and web design) and ensure that the people offering their preferences were not aware of the underlying purpose of the experiment. Also, the designs shown would need to be rated as extreme male or female examples on a ’gender production aesthetic’ scale and would need to be equal in terms of quality so that differences in response could not be deemed to be a reaction to differences in quality.

I conducted these experiments over more than a decade, testing people’s responses to a whole range of designs, from graphic, product and web designs to Christmas cards, IKEA products and even underground interiors. Those responding to the designs represented a wide demographic from university students in the UK and overseas to a random sample of adults and children at a civic library. In every case, there was a statistically significant tendency for the men and women, and boys and girls to prefer designs created by those of their own gender. One of the experiments on web design preferences was conducted with my colleague Dr Rod Gunn, a statistician who described the results as “completely watertight. The chances of them occurring by chance are less than one in a thousand.”

The results were spectacular but, as they say, the devil is in the detail. If you are not interested in finding out about the ins and outs of them, skip to the next section; but if you are someone who is interested in the minutiae of methodologies, you might want to look at my book Gender, Design and Marketing.

Experiments: Hume vs. Kant

The first experiments I conducted were groundbreaking in the sense that these were the first to compare men and women’s reactions to designs created by men and women. To have any credibility, they needed to be conducted with rigour and so the graphic and product designs used as stimuli in the first three experiments had all been rated for the extent to which those created by men and women manifested differences. This rating exercise revealed significant differences between the male and female-created designs and this knowledge would help in the interpretation of the preference results. Importantly, the designs had also been rated in regard to their quality and the finding that they were equal in this respect meant that any subsequent differences which emerged in respect of preferences must be due to factors other than quality.

Having got those issues out of the way, the experiments could now start! There were three sets of 12 designs from which to select — all produced by pre-degree, foundation-level students and so not too influenced by professional training. In terms of the selectors, there were 74 with the proportion of men and women roughly equal, with 39 men and 35 women involved. Remember that they were asked to select their three preferred designs from each of three samples of designs with one graphic design sample consisting of logos for a business; one product design sample consisting of tombs (amazing the topics that art schools set!) and one packaging sample consisting of the chocolate box designs referred to earlier.

The results were nothing short of astonishing. What they clearly revealed was a massive tendency for people to prefer those designs, across the three samples, created by those of their gender. The strength of the result was such that the likelihood of the results being attributable to chance was just 1 in 1000, in other words 0.1%. This put Hume’s arguments in favour of the variability of opinion in a strong light although it was too early to give him game, set and match until a few more experiments were carried out.

Christmas enlightenment

Christmas provided the opportunity for the next experiment. Taking advantage of the surfeit of cards in the shops, it was possible to select two cards by men and two by women on similar thematic material in order to control for subject matter. So three were selected showing a Christmas tree and the fourth an outdoor, snow-filled scene.

To give you a flavour of the sample, you might like to picture in your mind two of the images. One of the female-designed cards showed a light-hearted and childlike evergreen, sparkling with golden stars, set against a white background of Christmas messages (“Season’s Greetings”). Interestingly, the messages were written in curly lower-case writing which often cut across the boundaries of the tree. One of the male-produced cards showed a snow-filled scene which, unlike the two-dimensional tree, featured a realistic, three-dimensional image of men pulling horses and carts against a backdrop of sky and farm buildings.

These four cards were shown to 65 adults and children consisting of librarians in a local reference library, shop assistants, acquaintances (including their children) and people attending a charity function. All were asked to identify their favourite card, and the male and female preferences were virtually mirror images of each other with each gender strongly preferring cards created by people of their own gender. The following figures tell the story very clearly, with the results coming out again at an extremely high level of significance and suggesting (with 99.9 per cent certainty) differences in men and women’s reactions:

Female preferences: 24 preferred the female-designed card and 7 the male-designed card

Male preferences: 11 preferred the female-designed card and 23 the male-designed card

You might be asking yourself how representative this sample was. It is true that the sample size, though modest, is large enough to pass muster for journal publication — the results were published in the Journal of Brand Management and my co-author again was Andrew Colman, Professor of Psychology at Leicester University. In terms of embracing a cross section of people, the sample included several nationalities (English/Scottish, Indian, Turkish, Algerian, German, Italian and American) and occupations (shopkeepers, librarians, lawyers, psychologists, business consultants, secretaries and entrepreneurs). The heterogeneous nature of this sample makes it considerably more representative of the wider urban population than the many student-only populations used in a large proportion of psychology experiments. In fact, it may surprise you to know that 75 per cent of British and American psychological research studies are conducted on students and that the usage is at least 50 per cent in the UK. Despite this extensive use of students, researchers in this field tend to present their results as generalisable to the wider population.

In terms of the aptness of Hume or Kant’s approach to aesthetics, the results of the Christmas cards experiment augured in favour of Hume but further experiments beckoned before he could wear the victor’s crown.

Testing reactions to everyday objects

In order to further compare male and female reactions, I teamed up with marketing specialist Dr Gabor Horvath to create a design questionnaire to test people’s reactions to a range of everyday designs. It can be surprisingly difficult to discover the design history of objects but, over a number of years, I had built up a bank of designs which had been created by a single designer. Gabor and I selected paired items (with pairs rated as similar in terms of quality and function) and the items in our shortlist include cushions, chairs, drink cans, frozen fish packaging, Christmas cards and underground station designs. In this experiment, we asked respondents in six countries to rate these designs on a scale of one to ten and they were also asked what they liked/disliked about them. Reactions were elicited from 481 men and women in the UK (79), Germany (128), France (137), Hungary (69) and China (68) with the gender distribution of respondents being pretty similar.

In terms of the designs, you can probably easily picture these items from brief descriptions. The first two were from that emporium of modern design, IKEA, and both cushions. They were both rectangular-shaped but covered in very different fabrics — one a floral pattern etched out in turquoise, pink, green and white, and the other a linear pattern with criss-crossing orange lines (no prizes for realising that the first was by a female designer and the second by a male designer!). The second image showed a pair of children’s chairs which were visually rather similar with one a single seat in red plastic (with feet wider at the bottom than the top) and the other a small wooden bench in orange and yellow, with animals etched into the back. The similarity of the chairs may, in fact, have detracted from their usefulness as stimuli.

By contrast, both sets of food items were strongly differentiated. Of the drinks cans, the male-designed image was of a black Strongbow drinks can with an armoured man pulling a bow within a square surround. The second can (female-designed) was diaphanous with a rotating band of pink supporting an impressionistic image of a strawberry. As for the frozen fish, the female-designed packet showed the product hovering in mid-air, with a childlike lower-case typeface complementing the absence of three-dimensional space. The male-designed packet, by contrast, presented the fish product receding away from the viewer, so firmly anchored in space, with a realistic image of a fisherman standing to one side and regular upper-case typeface crowning both.

As for the Christmas cards, these were the ones used in the experiment described a few pages ago and the final pair of images showed underground interiors from the London Underground network: one was from Leicester Square station, with vertical and radiating straight grey lines, and the other, from Marble Arch, showed baby-blue and white stripes alternating under red archways decorated with white polka dots. The first was the work of a male designer and the second, one of just three stations on the 270 station network, designed by a woman!

The results of the five-country preference tests? The men in the sample were drawn equally to the designs produced by men and women but the women showed a strong preference for the female-produced items in five out of six cases, demonstrating a massive tendency to what I term “own-sex preference”. Significantly, the respondents came from a number of countries, as mentioned before — Britain, France, Hungary, Germany and China — so it is exciting to see these differences manifest across national boundaries. For those with an eye to the data, the numbers are shown in the following table. In terms of the significance of the results, only the responses to the first pair of designs, the chairs, showed no significant difference in men and women’s responses: everywhere else, there was a statistically highly significant tendency for men and women’s preferences to differ. Even if you don’t massively like statistics, the numbers speak volumes and tell a headline-grabbing story.

Another fascinating discovery related to the features that men and women singled out as appealing or unappealing. For example, the qualities in the male and female designs that the men quoted as appealing to them were that the design was “simple, bold, strong, not busy and traditional” with the women referring to colour as the main attraction, particularly when the colour was a shade of red. When asked what they disliked about the designs produced by men (a fact never revealed to those taking part in the experiment), the men cited elements such as colour (particularly when it was red) while the women referred to “lack of colour”, “too plain — no pattern”, and “conventional appearance”.

As you can see, the women are drawn to products with detail, bright colours, nice patterns and an unconventional (childlike) typography. What they tend not to favour are elements from the male-produced aesthetic such as absence of detail, absence of colour and conventionality. The men, by contrast, are drawn to these very elements showing that men and women’s tastes across different countries and continents can be poles apart.

By now, it was looking as though Hume was winning hands down but to declare him the outright winner demands irrefutable evidence. A final experiment beckoned, this time involving the lingua franca of website designs.

Consensus on website design?

By June 2010, the Internet user population globally reached 1.9 billion with annual growth estimated at 20%—60% per year. The design of a website has a critical role in attracting people to websites and yet a pair of Israeli researchers, Dr Talia Lavie and Dr Naom Tractinsky of the Ben Gurion University, referred in 2004 to the “paucity of research” on web design. They filled the gap with work assessing the dimensions of perceived visual web aesthetics, but although they documented the reactions of a decent sample of 125 engineering students (this included 89 men and 36 women) to a website, they neither evaluated the website that they were rating in terms of its male/female qualities, nor did they distinguish between the reactions of the men and women in their sample.

Failing to distinguish between men and women’s reaction is a serious error. In 2003, for example, a study showed that by 2000, the online gender gap in the US had disappeared with women significantly more likely to use the Internet than men. Moreover, a separate study from this period showed that women constituted the majority of new Internet users in the period 1997—2000. Knowing that women were fuelling much of the growth in Internet traffic made it important to discover whether men’s and women’s reactions to websites were similar or not.

In these early years of the new millennium, I was working at the University of South Wales (the former “University of Glamorgan”) and I teamed up with a superb statistician, my previously mentioned colleague Dr Rod Gunn, to find answers to this question. Rod is a Welshman with a PhD in maths and his idea of a good bedtime read was the latest book on statistics (“equivalent of a novel for me”) and we compared websites created by men and women in the UK and then in other European countries. Details of these studies can be found in Chapter 7 but essentially statistically significant differences between the male and female-created sites emerged on 13 out of 24 factors analysed. These related to the use of colour (women used more and different colours in the typeface), linearity (the male websites manifested significantly more linearity and the female websites significantly more rounded shapes), subject matter (each gender tended to show own-gender images) and tone (the male-produced websites had a more serious tone than the female and were more likely to engage in self-promotion). Looking at the results, it was not unreasonable to speak about major differences in male and female web design production aesthetics and we say more about this in Chapter 8 later on.

The $64,000 question related to how unsuspecting third parties would react to websites that were typically male or female. In a bid to find an answer, we asked another group of 64 international students (38 male and 26 female) to rate their preferences in websites which we had assessed as typically male and female. The students had a rating scale of 0—20 and were not told about the real purpose of the experiment — as far as they were concerned, this was a study into general design preferences.

A few days later, the email with the results dropped into my inbox. With excitement, I scanned the numbers and found them tremendously exciting since they pointed to a strong, statistically significant tendency for men and women to prefer websites created by those of their own gender. As if this wasn’t enough of an adrenaline fix, the results also showed women resisting all aspects of the male aesthetic (preferring the shapes, pictures, language, typography, colours and layout in the female-produced websites) while the men tolerated the shapes used in both sets of websites and actually preferred the pictures in the websites designed by the women. The results were true at a 1% confidence level.

By now, Hume was winning hands down over Kant. The experiments described here highlight deeply divided opinions, with a striking lack of unanimity on what constitutes excellence in the visual field. Given the evidence supporting Hume’s relativistic stance, one might find it strange that people still crave winners and losers in art, design, architectural, gardening and photographic competitions. Is it not likely then that the winners will be selected around the personal preferences of the judging panel?


The age-old dispute as to whether beauty is relative or universally perceived finds some kind of resolution through the experimental results reported here. The question is no longer one for conjecture but one with robust findings that support Hume’s rather than Kant’s views. Hume can finally take the victor’s crown.

The journey has shown that male and female preferences are equally distinct but in extraordinary ways, never charted before. Essentially, men are happiest travelling on the male tramline and women on the female tramline. So, for a man, the tramlines that work best will be straight-lined, with little detail, little colour, offering views of objects and facilitating movement and lots of it. Envisaging these co-called ’hunter’ tramlines, the perfect gift for a man could be a ticket to the North American International Auto show, the docks at Red Hook’s Pier in New York City or the St Katherine’s Dock museum of shipping in London. Alternatively, you might purchase a ticket for a long and interesting train journey (better make it a return ticket if you don’t want your kind gift to be misinterpreted!).


Happy Birthday, darling! I do hope you enjoy this one-way ticket to Vladivostock!

For women, however, the tramlines that work best will be rounded, etched with lots of detail, colourful, affording views of Mother Nature and creating as little sense of movement as possible. It is not by chance that we give flowers to women rather than to men since the parallel tramlines on which men and women prefer to ride make this a sensible option.

Knowing that tramlines need to operate together to be effective, you can see how problematic these differences can be. It can problematic for domestic harmony and problematic too for men and women in a corporate setting, particularly when they are not aware of the differences in their visual make-up. You end up with people accommodating themselves to the preferences of the other gender, riding on the opposite-sex tramline, creating an imbalance that threatens to derail the tram.

Parallel tramlines

To talk of visual tramlines might seem an exaggeration were you not aware of the strong evidence for difference and the magnitude of the phenomenon. “Why haven’t I heard of this before?” you ask quite reasonably, and the answer relates to a mixture of chance and fashion. ’Chance’ because it was a chance event that ignited my interest and propelled me into running design experiments and rooting out old studies; ’fashion’ because the done thing these days is to debunk sex differences rather than highlight them. However, with the visual domain that we are dealing with we are on very safe ground since visuospatial differences are acknowledged to be the most robust of the sex differences after height.

Moreover, a greater understanding of the relativistic nature of aesthetic preferences casts new light on situations. For example, the high proportion of men in curatorial positions and prize juries and their likely tendency to ’own-sex preference’ may be a factor in the dominance of male work in art galleries worldwide. Likewise, the high proportion of female art teachers at school level may be a factor in girls achieving higher grades in the 17+ ’A’ level exams in Great Britain than their male contemporaries. At the same time, with a higher proportion of male than female students receiving first class degrees, the possibility of ’own sex bias’ in undergraduate assessments raises its ugly head, an issue I explored in 1996 in an article laying out data supporting this.

Extrapolating from these results to the world of galleries and high-prestige prizes would make the selection of gallery curators and juries absolutely critical. For businesses, the selection of designers and other creatives would be absolutely critical and should be determined in relation to the gender and preferences of the customers. Since the majority of these are female — one estimate puts this at 83% — and since much of the design and advertising professions are currently male-dominated, there are serious issues about the sub-optimisation of the products of these industries for audiences of women and how to improve this situation. We will say more on this later when we look at design and advertising.

Certainly, you can be reassured that the approach adopted here is anything but reactionary. In fact, the logical consequence of the evidence presented here is that men and women’s visual skills produce unique forms of creativity which increase the strategic importance of having both in the workplace. This means that highlighting gender differences is by no means to denigrate either gender or to relegate women to a domestic role but to highlight the need for dual tramlines rather than just one.

Meanwhile, having mapped these parallel tramlines we will look at some of the explanations for differences in men and women’s visual creations and preferences. Much of what we discover comes from the world of psychology so we leave the shores of art and design for the time being, returning to them in Chapter 5.