The Bumpy Typeface: Gender Constructs And Heteronormativity In Typography

Italian visual designer Beatrice Caciotti’s research into gendered connotations in the genealogy of type design has resulted in her latest project entitled The Bumpy Typeface. 

Gendered language exists in English from differing adjectives that essentially carry the same meaning; think ‘handsome’ vs ‘beautiful’ but in Latin languages, gendered language is a more cemented part of everyday conversation. In Latin languages – from French and Italian to Spanish and Romanian – nouns, adjectives and even verb conjugations are gendered affecting everyday life and phrases. In such languages, professions are gendered differently with a secretary being gendered feminine and a doctor or lawyer being gendered masculine. It was this that inspired Caciotti’s latest project. 

The project’s specific focus on typeface was inspired by Caciotti’s observation that logos of toys typically marketed for girls predominantly contained handwritten and twirly fonts, while on the other side had bold and sans serif lettering.  

Caciotti has written a master’s degree thesis on this topic which found that gender-specific attributes were already being used in typography since the early stages of design theory. Her thesis referenced William Morris, a precursor of design and design theorist, who could not tolerate the modern aesthetics that came with the machine-made books of that time and described what he thought was wrong with the modern shapes which he described as excessively ornamented, light, and feminine. Instead, Morris advocated for a return to heavier, robust and darker shapes to reestablish the vigour of the printed page, thus linking a “feminine” typeface to weakness and listlessness. 

Cacciotti relates this to unspoken codes among modern designers who are prompted to understand these gendered differences in order to be able to sell to a certain gender. Cacciotti found that the use of these fonts not only relies on outdated negative stereotypes about gender but also reinforces the concept of a strict gender binary. 

Cacciotti also found that modern design practises trying to subvert gender ideologies in type but that actually this is part of the problem stating “ if you’re not pink, then you are blue or vice versa, but what if I feel purple?”

Thus The Bumpy Typeface was born to provide a typeface that shows how difficult it is to be unaffected by the persistence of stereotypes in society. The Typeface adopts a variable font to contrast the discriminatory limitations of the gender binary as well as a condensed typeface to express the external pressure of existing norms. In Cacciotti’s own words, she created “two masters that represent the two opposite ways of engaging with the surrounding context: one that adapts and conforms, adhering to the cage in its totality, and shaped with an edgy, axial and geometric shape. This was given a nominal value of 700 and the name Rigid. Whereas at the extreme opposite I designed a character with unexpected shapes, non-conventional, fluid, giving it a nominal value of 300 and the name Fluid,” she says. “From the interpolation of these two extremes are born a series of variables, so that Bumpy in its variant 301 will be a bit more rigid than Bumpy 300. And Bumpy 500 is a variant that is halfway between these two extremes, adhering to the external grid and at the same time presenting non-conventional elements. The decision to design a font family is a conscious decision in opposition to the limiting logics and discriminants of gender binary.”

Beatrice Caciotti: Bumpy Typeface (Copyright © Beatrice Caciotti, 2021)


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