From the Pathmakers exhibition on mid-century modernism and feminism to a new series of Fresh Talks that kicks off later this month with an open discussion on gender fluidity in design and culture, The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington is beginning its 2016 programming on a timely note by addressing changing public opinion around gender issues.

“We set out to right the balance,” says museum director Susan Fisher Sterling and director of public programs Lorie Mertes, who relish the task of recalibrating history and correcting this particular area of neglect. They emphasize that gender fluidity is playing an increasingly large role in mainstream culture, and note Amazon’s popular series Transparent, the recent announcement that Jaden Smith will be the face of Louie Vuitton’s women’s collection, and the admiration for the ambiguous, androgynous and shape-shifting identities of David Bowie.

To further the discussion and ask: “Can Design be Genderless?”, the museum has invited design writer Alice Rawsthorn and designer Gabriel Ann Maher to discuss if and how this definite cultural shift is having an impact on design. To start, it’s important to tackle the long-standing biases of history, but also to make sure that there’s support for the work of contemporary designers dealing with issues of gender and feminism. “Recognition is the first step to Enlightenment. That’s how change happens,” Sterling and Mertes say with necessary zeal.

“Design is an agent of change,” says Rawsthorn.

For her part, Rawsthorn is fascinated by the resurgence of interest in and redefinition of feminism in design. We discuss how design reflects and reacts to the needs of its time; it’s is productive, it transforms to fit with the desires of the contemporary world, and since there’s a contemporary movement setting out to redefine gender norms, this inevitably will lead to a response in design.

“Transgenderism is a hugely complex and challenging issue for design,” Rawsthorn tells me. “But it presents a great opportunity for experimentation. Hopefully, by airing these issues talks like this can raise awareness and contribute to design discourse in the broader context of design’s relationship to personal identity.”

Sterling and Mertes compare the challenge of gender equality in design to the Disability Act of 1990, which succeeded in taking our attitude towards the disabled out of the dark ages. Before then, wheelchair access to buildings was near impossible. To make that change happen the design of interiors and exteriors, signage, access, and accessibility had to be reconceived entirely.

There’s an equivalent, or perhaps even more complex challenge that lies ahead for redesigning areas that don’t conform to the current status quo. To begin with, Sterling and Mertes would like to see more spaces for breastfeeding in public buildings as well as a new genderless signage system for bathrooms.

Toca Boca, Hair Salon.

As Rawsthorn says, “Design has to find new ways of enabling individuals to express an increasingly fluid and nuanced multiplicity of gender identities, not just in easily customizable fields like fashion and graphics, but in objects, spaces, software, and so on.” There are a few projects up to the challenge: Toca Boca’s learning apps are deliberately gender neutral, as are the Twine video games designed by Porpentine and Anna Anthropy. There’s also the research of Maher, the second speaker at the Fresh Talks event.

Maher sets out to design a world where a person can imagine a unique gender for themselves without it being tightly defined by the products, marketing, and spaces that surround them. They can construct their gender in a way that isn’t determined by sex, challenging the stereotyping that is pervasive in everything from commercial graphic design to product design. Packaging is just one area that desperately needs to be reconsidered. Take tampon boxes, a product that’s just for women, are almost always covered in graphics of flowers and ribbons, emphasizing the idea that being a woman is inextricably linked to a certain aesthetic, in this case a sickeningly saccharine one.

Yet Maher says that design doesn’t just propagate stereotypes in the worlds of marketing and advertising—but that gendered definitions are inscribed in the shape and language of design itself. Take plugs and sockets, for example. The product defines its parts as female and male, establishing a crude link from design to genitals. It may seem like a small part of the overall picture, but it’s everyday items like this that shape the language, and from there the landscape that perpetuates a narrow idea of what’s “normal.” To detangle the troubling link between gender and sex on a wider scale, we can start small, from one design to the next.

So how can design today, even at smaller levels, aim for a truly genderless aesthetic? What would that look and feel like? Rawsthorn describes how in the past, people have combatted dogmatic binary codes  through the appropriation and subsequent subversion of visual opposites. “David Bowie did this brilliantly in his early ’70s glam looks, as did Patti Smith by donning a boy’s shirt, tie, jacket, and trousers on the cover of Horses,” she says.

Gabriel Ann Maher.
Gabriel Ann Maher.

Today, subversion is taking a different form as designers step away from appropriation, sampling, and reapplication in order to imagine a new visual language altogether. For example, instead of donning a shirt and tie to subvert gender norms, Maher wears outfits that transcend binaries completely, choosing clothes that could suit any body type or form, like trousers done up at the waist without a zip, and a loose top that’s not tailored to enhance any body part. The color is a deliberately neutral grey. Maher calls her process DE_SIGN—as in “de-sign,” to remove the gendered signs ascribed to spaces, clothing, and products.

“To develop a more nuanced visual language, we need to move further than visual opposites,” stresses Maher. “We would have to question the systems of visual language through culture and through the study of their meaning. In other words, through the signs and symbols attached to visual representations.” She cites a series of electric adaptors developed by Zach Blas; the adaptors humorously question the idea of a male or female end, and suggest a way of breaking from those repressive binaries.

Zach Blas, Adaptor

A world of genderless design is a world where sense of self can evolve from the person, not the culture.  Rawsthorn mentions the work of Danish furniture designer Chris Liljenberg Halstrøm, whose ambiguous designs have a neutral aesthetic free from gender associations, so each individual can interpret the work as they wish.

Rawsthorn suggests another possibility: an aesthetic that aims for multiplicity, not neutrality. “It’s also possible to reflect the plethora of possible gender identities by defining a polyphonic design language with a diverse range of colors, textures, forms, symbols, narratives, and so on, as Faye Toogood did in ‘Agender,’ the gender-fluid fashion areas designed for Selfridge’s department stores in London and Manchester last spring.” Gender is a vast, complex spectrum, so a visual vocabulary that can be mixed and matched according to the desire of an individual is key.

Maher and Rawsthorn’s Fresh Talk at the National Museum of Women in the Arts will address these points and more. Sterling and Mertes hope that the discussion will spark action—no matter how small—and not just debate. “If someone comes out and goes to their HR department the next day with a request for genderless signs in the toilets, that would a step in the right direction,” they say.

What would make them most pleased? “We’ll be happy when the Redskins stadium has gotten rid of the stigmatized name and has gender neutral toilets,” they say playfully. “If that happens, we’ll know we’ve succeeded.”

The Fresh Talk will be held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts on at January 27 at 7 p.m. EST, and will be live streamed on the museum’s website.