Sexism & Fonts

Written by Amy Papaelias on April 8, 2015

“Mom, what’s a sexy lady?”

My five-year-old son asked me this question the day Positype released its promotional site for Lust Hedonist. The Lust Series, a self-described “overly indulgent attempt to infuse wanton sensuality in a typeface,” features a variety of formal contrasts: sharp and curvy serifs, thin counters combined with thick bodies. It is the work of Neil Summerour, known for his crowd-pleasing fonts and lettering, and it is striking. The first styles of Lust, released three years ago, were featured in Typographica’s “Favorite Typefaces of 2012”. So what’s not to love?

We spend a lot of time critiquing typefaces: their formal qualities, their historical references, their contemporary influences. We spend a bit less time discussing how those fonts are marketed and advertised. So I’m not going to talk about Lust here. I’m going to talk about lust.

Consider a few choice lines from the microsites that describe… the type:

“the flowing curves of a woman’s body”

“all wrapped up in the leggy body of a Brazilian supermodel”

“Like a supermodel, it can’t be squeezed into every situation.”

“packed with alternates to play with… enough to turn you on and satisfy”

“It looks good dressed down or in a little black dress.”

Is talking about and presenting type in the visual language of seductive advertising sexist? A conversation around this and related questions ensued on Twitter after the most recent iteration of the Lust Hedonist mini-site. Here’s the image that showed up in my Twitter feed:

Lust Hedonist promotional image

Lust Hedonist promotional image.

Although the Lust promotional sites have been in existence for three years, it was this most recent microsite announcement that received a critical response from type designers and typographers on social media. Where was the outrage in 2012? Why was it emerging only now?

And what’s wrong with images of barely clad (mostly) women juxtaposed with sexually charged messages set in a beautiful typeface? Why can’t a typeface be compared to a sexy lady? In a male-dominated industry and community, this kind of language reinforces the under­representation of women’s voices in the field. Yves Peters’s recent article on women in type design (serendipitously published that same day) cites the relative lack of women who speak at conferences and receive industry accolades. Related creative fields have similar problems: a controversial cover illustration for a Newsweek feature article on misogyny in Silicon Valley received a clamorous backlash on social media for essentially reiterating, rather than satirizing, the article’s main point.

By Summerour’s own account, the Lust series promotional sites are intended to be a parody. In order for a parody or spoof to work, though, there must be some distance from the thing it is spoofing. Adbusters is brilliant at this, using the visual language of its subject but subverting the message through wordplay and image alteration. Arguably, the recent critical reaction came about because the Hedonist promotional image is too close to something like a Victoria’s Secret ad to be a parody. (And indeed, a recent Victoria’s Secret catalog features Positype’s Lust Slim, plus a newly redesigned corporate typeface called Victoria One.) It reinforces the message instead of subverting it.

from Positype’s Facebook page

From Positype’s Facebook page.

Personally, I thought the cats were better.

Is there a history of sexism in font advertising? For answers, I looked to back issues of U&lc. I thought it might take a few hours to find images of naked women. It took a few minutes. From the second issue (1974):

Illustrated ad for the typeface Avant-Garde from U&lc magazine showing a bunch of naked women chasing after a naked man

This was the seventies, people.

Ad from U&lc for a Photo Typositor showing a photograph of two beautiful women with the text: ‘Love us for our faces. Not our body.’

Ad for a Photo Typositor.

And then there’s this gem from the same issue: a full page devoted to Annegret Beier, “the first of a series of articles devoted to the talented women in communications.”

Page from U&lc paying tribute to MS Annegret Beier

A page from U&lc honoring Annegret Beier.

I’m not sure what it means that forty years later, we continue to publish articles devoted to “women in design”. Clearly, we still have work to do.

The worst offender of blatant sexism in recent font promotions is a Tumblr called Fonts & Boobs. The concept is pretty simple. Combine a “high-quality” typeface with a picture of a “cute chick”. Oh yeah, and she’s basically naked and positioned in a variety of provocative poses. All of this is described by the Tumblr’s author as a “useful tool for graphic designers”. Yeah, right.

A well-designed type specimen, like a manufactured image of a naked or almost naked female model, is an ideal — an erotic fantasy. The type designer hopes their typeface will be as meticulously treated as it is in the type specimen, replete with OpenType goodies, multiple weights, and well-spaced justified alignment. In the hands of a typographic aficionado, the typeface is respected, revered, and handled with love. In the hands of a misogynist designer, it turns into a pathetic type nerd’s wet dream.

In the case of Fonts & Boobs, there is no satire, nor any gesture toward satire. And the intended audience is clear from the unapologetic tagline: “You like both fonts & girls?” Here’s the problem, or at least part of the problem: the assumption of a hetereosexual male audience alienates those who don’t fit that description. The Hedonist preview image reiterates this perspective. The question “What brings you pleasure?” is not being asked of the model in the image; it’s being asked of a male viewer. The only time a different audience is addressed is in the site’s warning, which suggests that those without a “sense of humor” should “move on to something else… I wouldn’t want to offend you.”

In the past ten years of my involvement in type, I’ve seen more women enter into the conversation in meaningful ways. Overall, it is an inviting, supportive, and friendly community. But we can do better. Having difficult discussions like this reminds us that we can use language that is inclusive instead of alienating. We can make work that doesn’t reinforce stereotypes and the objectification of women. And, just like my five-year-old is learning, we can choose to find better words.

Amy Papaelias is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the State University of New York at New Paltz. She has presented at the Type Directors Club and TypeCon, and has written for Typographica and The Recorder. She helps keep the lights on at Alphabettes.org

13 Comments

  1. It’s worth mentioning that Lust Hedonist is not an isolated case. Maximiliano Sproviero of Lián Types has used images of women to sell his fonts, including Model, released in February 2015.



  2. Corey Holms says:

    The case as it is framed here is about misogyny in the type community. By omitting that the Lust imagery included photographs of men, the tone of the argument is changed from a morality argument of where does a person draw their personal line of sexual propriety, to the much more black and white argument of sexism (which isn’t debatable).

  3. There is also a promotional brochure that Roberto de Vicq created for the Type Directors Club, maybe 2 or 3 years ago (I haven’t been able to find the exact date). The brochure was titled “How to Make Love to Your Type”.

  4. How about the specimen of Adelle from Type Together? Not sure if that is acceptable or not by general standards. Designed by a woman, by the way.

  5. Hi, I’m Neil, we’ve never met, we’ve never spoken… before or after you condemned my work and slandered me. In general I can handle constructive criticism, but the comments on Twitter and what has been written about me actually hurt. If it were a responsible article, you would have done actual research. You would have reached out to me. You would have acknowledged what you saw me do the moment I learned that some people were bothered by the minisite. Within 12 hours of the minisite’s launch, once I learned that there was even an issue, everything was acknowledged, new material was put up and the site was replaced.

    I’m not a large, indifferent corporation. I am an independent type designer, deeply involved within the creative community. I will listen. What people think and what they think of me matters. When I learned there was a problem, I was shocked, confused, hurt. I moved as quickly as I could.

    Your article doesn’t address that this was a case where someone listened and took action immediately. Someone cared. Your article never addresses any of this. You never asked me why or what I was doing… did you know the first minisite was part of three minisites to be released and available to rather hedonistically geek out on the type… allowing me to transition and expand what the Lust Series could be? If you had done your research, why didn’t you call out Lian Types’s Model typeface campaign or you might also have come across the Adelle specimen, designed by a female designer (presumably with the approval of the female designer of the typeface, that includes a photo of an attractive, nude woman.) Thank you, David. Instead, you portray me negatively. Period. You say you will not talk about Lust, then you flood the article with paragraphs about it alone (and no other contemporary designer’s work).

    I share the sentiments of Corey Holms that your article misses an important point. By omitting and not acknowledging each slide of the minisite, you are distorting your premise. And it begs the question, did you see all of the slides or just the one initially released on Twitter? Was this how you drew your opinion? Did you ignore the images of chocolate, coffee, whiskey, or even the panel poking fun at 50 Shades of Grey?

    And it hurts. I love and support this industry with more than just my time and money. I truly try to make unique work and present it that way, to keep it fun and more than just slapping words on a screen. I would rather wrap my typeface in a narrative and create something tongue-in-cheek, than hit it with 90% off. I’m much more proud of my work than that. And nothing has even been done, overtly or covertly, to demean anyone.

    When I was putting my 5-yr old daughter to bed last night, she saw that I was noticeably upset. She asked why I was so sad and all I could reply was, “Sometimes people will blindly hurt others, solely so they can forward what’s important to them… and that hurts.”

    Why did you do this? I’m hurt and disappointed that editorial decisions and guidance on the part of Typographica on what could be a pivotal article was absent. As such, it is allowed to become sensational instead of truly insightful. Why did you create such an opportunistic piece for click bait instead of exploring whether sexism is a real problem in the type world?

  6. Annie Swafford says:

    Great article! Thanks for historicizing the use of women’s bodies in type!

  7. Zeynep Akay says:

    Hi Neil, and hi everyone else. I missed the debate on twitter at the time, and didn’t get a chance to see the microsite before it was changed. But I’ve since read the tweets and my reaction is based on them, other Lust sites, and the content and comments of this article. I would venture that there are a couple of points needing clarification – and note that I disagree with some of the arguments raised by both sides.

    To me this is first and foremost a design and creativity issue. If I came upon it in another context, I would quickly dismiss the slide shown in the article above, with the scantily clad woman reclining against an armoire, not because it offends me personally, but because it’s cheap, superficial and redundant. It doesn’t have the intellectual or visual depth of considered art direction, therefore it almost doesn’t even warrant a reaction, at least not one that can immediately be extrapolated into a debate about sexism in the type design industry. If anything, it’s very literal: you have a typeface series you’ve named Lust, so you use pictures of nude or partially nude women to advertise it. It’s a tiny leap anyone’s five-year-old offspring can make. And, by the way, pumping the copy and sample text with sexual innuendos is one thing, doing it in a witty and intelligent way is another.

    There is a distinction between sexism in a professional sector and the objectification of women in all areas of culture, entertainment and marketing. As such, there is a distinction between the criticism Neil has received for sexism and the criticism he received for participating in the objectification of women in advertisement. I will examine the latter first: Does this slide, and the imagery used in other Lust sites, reduce the likeness and identity of a woman to that of a sexual object? Yes, plain and simple. Though Neil might argue otherwise, I don’t see a sliver of parody in these images. If anything, the overall and very obvious theme is that he is unironically using the typeface as a metaphor for one such sexual object, or vice versa. Satire is nowhere to be found. Whether this instance of use of objectified women’s images holds enough weight on its own is debatable, as I tried to explain before. But it is a contemporary example of this happening for decades, as we found out in this article. (“Love us for our faces, not our body”– wowza! #ThanksSterlingCooperDraperPrice)

    Where sexism in the design arena becomes a part of the conversation is when Neil initially dismissed his (mostly female) critics as “uptight” and implied that they didn’t understand the enigmatic parody in his work. For this he later apologised, so good on him. But I would urge Neil to see that his peers weren’t attempting to censor him or put him in a creative gauntlet — a point I think he may have missed. Instead, they were, as I tried to do, pointing out that his unoriginal marketing tool coincided with the objectification of women, and challenging him to come up with a more creative solution and not go with the most obvious and over-used ploy.

    I would suggest to Neil that, even though he may not be the first or only one to take this marketing route, and the fact that he himself has been doing it for some years doesn’t mean he and his work are now and forever beyond criticism in this topic.

    And I think most importantly, he should simply own up to it. So far his apologies and the reasons for his changing the site have more or less been that he unwittingly “offended” or “hurt” people, which is simply not the point, it shouldn’t be. Neil shouldn’t change the imagery in his sites because it “offended” people, he shouldn’t change it to appease anyone. He should change it because he himself realised, after genuinely considering the criticism and seeing his work through this lens, that it was simply shallow and bad, that he could do better. If he doesn’t realise this, he is not doing anyone any favours by making these changes. But I think he is doing a great disservice to his typefaces by not seizing this opportunity to present them in a more creative and engaging way.

  8. Rebecca says:

    Great article! This was very well written and thoughtful. I’m thrilled to see Typographica delve into this subject matter.

    Mr. Summerour’s missing-the-point defensive response does not make me more inclined to purchase his typefaces in the future. Previously I had been neutral on the matter and considered doing so a few times (other fonts won out for unrelated reasons each time), despite the fact that I was bothered by the language and imagery he uses in promoting the Lust series. After reading the rant here though, I am more clear that this is not someone I want to give my money to.

  9. Gillian says:

    I think Neil has gotten a bad rap over this. I really enjoyed the playfulness and the concept of hedonism: celebrating sensuality, not “sexism”. Browsing through the mini sites, that’s the impression that I came away with.

    The font is beautiful — made me think at first of Didoni Swash (which I always loved) but a much much fresher take.

    Interesting discussion and opinions represented as well as other examples. I just don’t think this particular case is the poster child for misogyny in the type community.

  10. Nick Shinn says:

    Given that certain genres of typeface — e.g. didones and copperplate scripts — are understood* to signify (women’s) fashion and beauty, I see no problem with targeting designers who cater to that market with faux ads using such fonts.

    The devil is in the details.

    *Spiekermann’s Stop Stealing Sheep… for instance has a section showing how particular qualities are embodied in particular typefaces.

  11. Joshua Farmer says:

    I waited patiently for an update to this important and volatile post but haven’t seen it.

    I as well missed the Twitter discussion, but I favorited a tweet along the lines of, “If you’re using sex to sell type [or anything else], you’re doing it wrong.” I still agree with that statement though I think there are better ways to go about this discussion than publicly posting an article to attack (for the most part) one designer. This is a great and necessary discussion to have, but it can only be beneficial if handled honorably and forthrightly; I haven’t seen that in this instance.

    I was not happy to see Neil’s use of sensual images for his typeface; or Max’s, or Bold Monday’s Pinup, or any of the others. Sex is completely unnecessary to sell type. It’s for this same reason that I have not purchased TypeTogether’s Adelle specimen (though I have happily purchased their others) or FontFont’s “Finding the Perfect Match” when it was available. Whether the designer of the booklet was female or not just doesn’t matter; it doesn’t change it.

    Nick Shinn, Yes, I realize designers will use type for whatever purposes they want to, but I just can’t wrap my head around the connection between the *sale* of type and sexuality. Neil is selling type, not condoms. More than that, it’s not empowering or respectful to continue such lowest-common-denominator appeal. Though selling something with features that are bold, luxurious, and sensual, I’d love to see designers go a different direction than the first cheap thought to which everyone defaults. Where are the designers selling a dumbed-down typeface that use men-as-doofuses in their promos?

    I’m disheartened that the author, Amy, didn’t contact Neil directly prior to the article’s publish date, if what Neil said is true. That’s the least she should have done; that’s responsible journalism/reporting/publishing. And, Stephen, did you know this or ask about whether she had done that?

    Also, she has not responded here on this original post and it’s been several months. Engaging in the discussion on the original post, especially one of this nature, is expected.

    I’d like to see this conversation continue.

  12. I’m disheartened that the author, Amy, didn’t contact Neil directly prior to the article’s publish date, if what Neil said is true.

    Before publishing the article it was my understanding that Amy and Neil were in communication as they had responded to each other on Twitter. After publication I realized they hadn’t discussed the issue directly with each other and I encouraged each of them to do so. Still, it was their choice whether to engage in that way, and I don’t think it should be a requirement. This is an opinion piece, not a news piece, and I think Amy got the facts right, including linking to Neil’s statements.

    My own opinion on the matter is very much in line with Zeynep Akay’s.

  13. Zeynep Akay says:

    Hi Joshua, and thanks Stephen. I agree that it could have made for a more vibrant conversation had Amy joined in in the comments, though I don’t think it’s mandatory. I also agree with Stephen that it’s not mandatory for Amy to have had been in touch with Neil, as it is very clearly a subjective essay. Neil had the opportunity to join the conversation and provide his subjective take, and he did so. I don’t see any problem with either the author’s or the subject’s participation.

    I think it bears stressing that the author of a critical essay, or a critical tweet for that matter, may very well choose to focus on one person’s work. Or, he or she may choose to incorporate other examples and be critical of the producers of those works as well, which I think Amy did. I don’t see how a ‘pile-on’ argument can be made based on Amy making a choice between the above two, especially since she clearly chose the latter. It’s up to us who are in the comments to expand the discourse and change its direction, should we be inclined to do so.

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