By Gloria Moss, PhD, FCIPD, Professor of Marketing & Management at Buckinghamshire New University and the Paris School of Business and Marc Timmerman, Managing Partner, Axiom Consulting Partners-Europe.

Men and women: poles apart?

In daily life, you’ve probably noticed differences in the way that men and women respond to visual situations. He may not notice the clutter on the floor while she sees the smallest speck. He may be content with the functional faucet tap while she is looking for something more elegant. What is more, he may have fewer problems than she has in driving through a small gap in traffic. In fact, recent figures from driving test results in the UK show that more women than men fail for parking or reversing faults, skills involving similarly good 3D skills. Men, conversely, are more likely to fail than women for driving recklessly or ignoring mirrors and road signs.

What’s the link between these differences and marketing and design? Science has, for many years, laid bare the differences in how men and women “see” but for the first time, we now have information on how this affects men and women’s design creations and preferences. The findings have the potential to revolutionise design and marketing.

Axiom Consulting Partners is teaming up with Gloria Moss, the Professor of Marketing who has deepened our understanding of gender and design preferences, to bring the practical benefits to organisations. This is the first of three articles outlining the new science of perception and the revolutionary consequences for organisations. The new findings can take all the guesswork away from design and marketing decisions, ensuring that decisions about internal and external communications are rooted in solid evidence.

The advantages are not hard to perceive. The old advertising adage, “Half of my advertising is wasted, and the trouble is, I don’t know which half,” comes to mind. An understanding of the visual and thematic elements that men and women prefer reduces that risk considerably. So, read on to find out how to gain these cost savings and the benefits of better targeting.

The new science

If you perused the psychology journals, you would have found studies over many decades showing that how men and women see is not identical. In fact, after height, differences in visuospatial skills are the most robust of all the sex differences, far outpacing differences in emotions or language usage. What psychologists had not done is relate these differences to the design creations and preferences of men and women and that is the point at which a whole new understanding of design and marketing opens up. For you discover that the main differences documented in the psychology literature – men’s superior 3D visuospatial skills including better targeting accuracy and rotation skills (men’s eyes are spaced 5 mm further apart than women’s), higher incidence of colour blindness (8% of men as against 0.5% of women) and access to a smaller range of colours than many women (an estimated 50% of women have a fourth colour pigment, giving access to hundreds of millions more colours than men with just three colour pigments)—are clearly manifested in designs created by men and women.

The design fingerprints of men and women

You can look at a design and accurately guess the gender of the creator. Lots of straight lines, darker colours, few colours and detail and strong 3D and inanimate imagery, these are the hallmarks of male design. Animate imagery, rounded shapes, brighter and more abundant colours and detail are more typical of female design.

What is more—and this is where a fun parlour game turns into something with big dollar implications—several studies by one of the authors (Moss) using samples of websites, graphic and product design reveal that men have a massive preference for designs produced by men and women have an equally strong preference for designs created by women. Indeed, studies by one of the authors (Moss) have shown that women’s preference for female designs holds true across all measures tested. Men’s preference for male work appears to be less universal, with men tolerating aspects of female design such as the shapes that they create and actually preferring their pictures!

What follows? Well, the male design aesthetic is currently the default option in most website design—boxy designs with regular typefaces and few colours. Actually, there is another aesthetic that has greater appeal for women and no lesser appeal (if some male elements are retained) for men. We will discuss this in more detail in the second article in this series looking at websites and retail interiors but before then, you might want to start to notice the features that appear there. Meanwhile, back to the science of perception and the factors underlying the new findings.

Evolutionary psychology

You will often hear people engage in the nature/nurture debate as if these terms were in opposition. In fact, much of the evidence of evolutionary psychology points to the melding of these concepts, with nurture acting on nature over the long-term and altering its composition. If you read evolutionary psychologists such as Professor David C. Geary, author of the remarkable book, Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences, published by the American Psychological Association, you will see that the male/female division of labour, such as between hunting and gathering, has led to adaptive characteristics in visuospatial skills that optimise this division of labour.

The logic and connection to marketing and design? Well, simply put, men’s fondness for linearity, 3D appearance, sparse detail and sparse colour can be seen as the legacy of millennia of targeting prey against a straight and dark distant horizon; conversely women’s fondness for rounded shapes, bright colours and plentiful detail, can be seen as the legacy of millennia of gathering and managing the adult and infant communities. The well attested sex differences in these visual domains—the most robust after height differences—can legitimately lead us to speak of ‘Hunter’ and ‘Gatherer’ vision. This would apply of course both to designers and also the recipients of the design as one of the authors (Moss) argues in depth in her books Gender, Design and Marketing and Why Men Like Straight Lines and Women Like Polka Dots.

Implications for organisations

We know that in an ideal world, organisations should offer an “outside-In” perspective to ensure that customers are offered products and services with real appeal. Given that the majority of purchasers of products are women—they are responsible for 83% of purchases—it is important that women, or “Gatherers,” be heavily involved in design and advertising. However, the demographics of these industries currently greatly favour men. A shift in Talent Management and recruitment and promotion criteria in marketing, design and sales is often needed. Axiom Consulting Partners can help organisations meld their organisations to better deliver an “Inside & Outside” perspective and along with Professor Moss offer valuable expertise in helping organisations implement the necessary processes.

Some of the benefits and pitfalls awaiting organisations are explored in the next two articles. Meanwhile, do not hesitate to contact either author if you have any questions.

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