Marie Boulanger explores how typography perpetuates gender stereotypes

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Typographer Marie Boulanger has written a book about how typography is a “dangerous tool” to reinforce gender stereotypes and biases in design.


Titled XX, XY: Gender, Letters, and Stereotypes, the book explains how fonts can be associated with masculine or feminine associations that are used to reinforce the binary when designing products and packaging.

Top: The back of the book shows the chromosomes. Above: Her blue and pink spine mocks gender stereotypes

“Type is used as a dangerous tool to cement layers of stereotypes carried through every component of design, such as type, color and layout, when it shouldn’t be,” said Baker.

“Through association, letters become signs that are instantly perceived as masculine or feminine. This distracts from the formal qualities of typefaces,” she added. “When used like this, text is a very powerful tool and I want to show that it’s up to us to know and do better.”

Shapes of letters XX, XY
The book shows how male and female attributes are assigned to different typefaces

London-based Boulanger examines type anatomy, a term given to the “body parts” of letterforms, and explains how and why we attribute masculine or feminine qualities to fonts.

The designer emphasizes how bold and confident lettering is often associated with masculinity, while delicate and ornamental typography tends to be viewed as feminine.

The book warns against gendered letterforms
The cover of XX, XY displays a subtle alphabet

XX, XY reveals how associations of men and women have formed over time and explains that it is important to challenge these prejudices in the design industry to work towards a more equitable world.

Boulanger argues that gendered typefaces lead to products being marketed to people in ways that reinforce stereotypes.

“There is a very deep connection with marketing,” explains the designer.

“Categorying things is a gateway to more sales, especially for products aimed at women,” she continued. “Women are responsible for the vast majority of consumer purchases.”

Historical and current examples are used
Boulanger examines gender associations, from art history to product design

The designer named her project in reference to the XY sex determination system, which uses XX and XY to classify sex chromosomes.

The cover of the book displays a shaded alphabet with the letters XX and XY highlighted in black. A pink to blue gradient has been sprayed along its edges, blurring the two colors.

Two anatomical skeletons by scientist John Barclay
A spread showing anatomical skeletons by 18th century scientist John Barclay

“The name came to me instantly, alongside the cover design,” Boulanger told Dezeen. “It elegantly carries the main premise of the whole argument. We treat and describe letters like human beings.”

Boulanger’s book is illustrated with a mixture of images borrowed from the history of art and current typographic works.

Boulanger explains how we perceive different typefaces
Boulanger compares the way we perceive different typographies

The designer created the book with the goal of making her research into how we automatically make gendered judgments about letterforms accessible to a diverse audience.

With the dimensions and weight of an average paperback novel, the book is designed to be something that can be read while traveling or left on a bedside table.

Male and female beauty products shown in XX, XY
The book explains how typography used on products can be gendered

Currently published only in French, the creator hopes that her project will soon be released in English, mainly for educational purposes.

“Education has always been the main driver of this project,” Boulanger said. “I hope students use this book to realize that we can all shape what comes next. We can find better ways to design and talk about our design work.”

Other recent typographic projects include a typeface designed for a bowel cancer charity that resembles intestines. Another typeface, Periods for Periods, was created to protest period poverty and is made up of dots only.

Images courtesy of Marie Boulanger.

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