Lady logos: why are they all alike?

The post-menopausal bone-strengthening pill interprets the dancer-
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Thu, Oct 6, 2011 4:45 PM EDT
Even if you've never purchased Mifeprex, the abortion pill that turns 10 years old this week, you've seen the logo. At a yoga studio, in the supermarket's natural foods aisle, or even at a charity event, the silhouette of a dancing woman has become the marker of a product designed for women.

In logo-speak, it's got another name. "It's called a figurative logo, and alas it's been done to death," says designer Sagi Haviv, a partner at Chermayeff & Geismar. His firm has designed some of the most influential logos for everyone from Armani Exchange to the Library of Congress. Working with various female-branded organizations, he's noticed the dancing woman crop up time and again.

"That goes against the whole principle of branding, which is to stand out and be memorable," says Haviv. "At this point not using a dancing woman would be a bigger statement."

The statement was first proliferated at the end of the last century, as demand for wellness products--from yoga mats to weight-loss programs--exploded in the female market. In 1999, when Clif Bars introduced Luna--a nutritional bar "for women, by women" as the website states--with the image of dancing women on the wrapper, the logo hit its stride.

Over 10 years later, the look hasn't changed--but the products have. The image has come to represent hundreds of wide-ranging female products, as artist Shana Moulton recently demonstrated on a design blog. "If the Luna logo was the only dancing woman it might work. But since it exists in a sea of brands using dancing women every brand looks the same," says Haviv.

So how come it's still being used to sell everything from food to medication?

"Body image may be a big part of it," says Gerard Huerta, a designer whose worked with Calvin Klein and Harlequin Books. "Women tend to like airy logos that aren't sedentary. They don't want to feel heavy."

"It can project the notion of fluidity, motion, lightness, freedom," agrees designer Steff Geissbuhler, who's worked with Merck and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.

That light-weight, airy body is created using a
calligraphic style. "It's supposed to look like it's drawn with an angled calligraphy pen--so the line goes from thin to thick to thin."

The design of the body implies the ability to change shape. It makes sense then, that weight loss products would employ the dancing woman. Think of variations used to brand SkinnyGirl cocktail mix or Zumba exercise classes. (See logo gallery below). But when a prescription medication like Mirefex, or Boniva, the bone density drug for postmenopausal women, and a non-profit mentoring program like Cultivating Our Sisterhood International also hop on the bandwagon, the dancing woman is working overtime. And the female demographic feels trivialized.

Shouldn't pregnancy prevention and post-menopausal products target different demographics? And shouldn't low-cal cocktails and self-esteem programs be characterized differently?

For both men and women, logos are designed to reinforce a sense of power. In feminine branding, empowerment equals taking control of your body. It doesn't matter what you're selling.

Compare that with the bold, sturdy lines and sharp colors that are signatures of male-oriented design. Both Haviv and Huerta point to the NBC peacock, with its primary colors and thick outline as a successful example. "It's sturdy, and not active like female logos. The lines are strong, the colors are bright," says Huerta. "Female logos incorporate more white in their colors, which are softer."

Take the logo for the diet soda Pepsi Max, a campaign that Huerta worked on. Traditionally diet sodas were geared towards women, so Diet Pepsi's logo was designed with a soft bluish-white background. Max, the zero calorie, high-caffeine version, was designed to appeal to men with a black background and an amped up red and blue Pepsi swirl.

"They were clear about the design direction: bold and strong," says Huerta. "What's interesting is that the lead designer who gave me direction was a woman and the CEO of Pepsi is a woman. But there was no question about the masculinity of the product design."

Despite the rise in female designers and executives, Huerta finds we're still calling on generations old gender stereotypes to inform branding. "The culture we were raised in translates to the visual images we see on products today," says Huerta. "For men, something we grew up with was your dad telling you 'don't cry, you're a man'. So we're drawn to images that appear bold, strong, and unmoved."

For women the reinforced notion is just the opposite: be unobtrusive, flexible, and most importantly, thin. Losing weight is a directive women have been taught or observed for decades, and it doesn't just translate to the dancing woman logo.

Yesterday, male-targeted NFL launched a line of female-products --yoga mats, jeans and flip-flops-- with the shrunken down football league logo. "Shrinking is a way of feminizing," says Huerta. "The NFL is very firm about keeping their logo standard but it makes sense they'd target women with something that feels small and almost meek."

At least the NFL are trying. They're an old brand, what do you expect? In the future, logos won't always be so polarizing.

"We have new designers coming out of school every year with new ways of looking at things," says Huerta. "Ninety percent of the people I work with are women. As more enter the graphic design field, we'll likely see a melding of masculine and feminine design."

Some designs are already ahead of the curve. "Oprah magazine is excellent because it's a simple O, which has no gender assigned to it," says Haviv. "It's both masculine and feminine."

Packaging for technology gadgets, like the iPad or Kindle, also seems more neutral, targeting age and socio-economics rather than gender. The original iPod ads even used male and female dancing silhouettes. In terms of branding, it's still the best one on the dance-floor.