New hookup app Pure, designed by Russian studio Shuka, is as blatant and transparent as they (currently) come. With a monochrome vagina for its logo and striking black, white, and millennial pink illustrations of lollipops, gaping Georgia O’Keeffe-esque flowers, and bondage masks, Pure looks like no other dating app on the market. Its no-nonsense graphics are meant to express the unique selling point of the app, which broadcasts users for only an hour before it deletes their profile, thereby encouraging quick get-togethers instead of long-term dating.
But can the branding of a hookup app like this make the pursuit of no-strings-attached sex feel empowering? Can it combat the slut-shaming that has historically conditioned women to believe they should be discreet about sexual desire?
During the early days of online dating, market research suggested that a lot of women felt it was undesirable to acknowledge being on dating sites at all, let alone with purely sexual intentions. Therefore, hookup apps saw it as in their best interests to be anodyne when it came to branding. To combat the Craigslist rhetoric of “meet hot babes who want to fuck,” most apps avoid displaying any semblance of sexual intent, opting for graphics more in the realm of “acceptable” network-building sites like LinkedIn. Bumble, the “female-friendly” Tinder where women start chatting first, looks more like a “buzzing” coworking facilitator than a space for intimate dalliances and erotic play.
Even apps that are more explicit about the intent of users, like threesome facilitator Feeld, have the unmistakable air (and shade) of Airbnb. Grindr, on the other hand, is clear about its intent and encourages its users to be so. A lesbian equivalent Scissr has a transparent name, but its branding looks like an early version of Instagram, complete with typewriter icons and pictures of 35mm cameras.
As I argued last month in an article about how the sex industry markets to women, this evasive branding has been proactive in encouraging a female-born consumer to experiment when they’ve been taught from a young age to be discreet about desire. However, evasive branding also perpetuates the problem by promoting the idea that sex shouldn’t be openly discussed. That’s why Pure’s approach to its graphics is potentially quite radical.
Its logo, its illustrations, and its interface are transparent; its erotic art digest and weekly newsletter, Sex Is Pure, also designed by Shuka, is equally visually striking.
“We created a design that would first look bizarre, and then at a second look, feels friendly and usable,” say Shuka. “The main idea was to attract media attention—always a good thing for a start-up—and to create an identity that would be talked about through word of mouth, in the same way that the hookup stories that take place via the app are.”
But many elements of the app are problematic, and deflate the radical potential of its transparency. The bizarre copy sells Pure as a hookup app for “awesome people” (a sure-fire deterrent to any actually “awesome” potential users), and its tagline promises that it’s a “discreet” platform (despite the fact that the branding, and app icon, are overtly not so). While the illustrations are fresh and definitely sexy, I do wonder why there are only female characters in the mix. There are boobs, the vagina logo, drawings of gaping mouths smothered in lipstick… Why just one kind of sexuality, and no other experiences, desires, or a sense of fluidity?
Shuka’s illustrations for Pure business cards and the launch party paraphernalia, on the other hand, feel refreshingly bold and original. A series of evocative brushstrokes delineate a number of figures in various interconnected positions: some are androgynous, some are more clearly defined. This juxtaposition of strong linework and looser, brushstroke illustration styles was part of Shuka’s plan, the agency tells us. “It should be tactile, and graphics should have differing edges. We think that underscores sensuality.”
While the app encourages transparency, the primary focus of the design is to get attention (and it’s worked), not to promote women’s sexual freedom.
The use of a vagina as a logo is not to destigmatize, it’s a purposeful “look at me,” and this is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the branding. It’s important we promote destigmatization of female body parts—like the efforts of #FreeTheNipple—but we should not confuse a design that’s destigmatizing with a design that’s capitalizing on the fact something is stigmatized, and is therefore using it to be “rebellious” for media attention.
The imagery Shuka has designed is fresh and eye-catching, and certainly unlike any other app, but ultimately its provocation is a hollow marketing ploy. This is starkly revealed by the fact that its in-app illustrations are only catering to one kind of sexuality. The sense of transparency is welcomed, but it should be taken further by embracing a multiplicity of genders and sexualities.