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A practical approach to queering design

The co-founder of the Queer Design Club on what a queerer design industry would look like: more expressive, collective, and subversive.

"Be Gay Do Design" illustration by John Voss. Key art by Anita Goldstein.

Profile picture of John Voss


8 min read

As co-founder of Queer Design Club, I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about queer people in design; but not as much time thinking about “queering design.”

Honestly, I find the subject intimidating. I went to college for design, but not grad school, which I assume is where you learn to “look for alternate readings of texts,” “interrogate your personal narrative,” and get comfortable using “dialectic” in a sentence.

However, I’ve been out as a gay man for two decades, and a working designer for half that time, so I hope that my perspective on queering design might be helpful in supplementing those who are actual experts on the subject—whose work you should absolutely read.

We knew from AIGA’s design census that a disproportionate number of designers identify as LGBTQ+. We also saw that LGBTQ+ respondents earned less and didn’t stay in the field as long as their cisgender, heterosexual peers. But we didn’t have any real data on what the queer experience in design really was.

Images 1-3, left to right: Queer Design Club co-founders Rebecca Brooker and John Hanawalt and members Kelly Small, Seth Katz, Alex Chen, Richard Wade Morgan, and Jordan Green. Image courtesy John Voss.

The Queer Design Count was a survey we ran at the end of 2019 that received over 1,000 responses from all over the world. It turns out that it’s true that in a lot of ways design earns its reputation of being queer-friendlier than other fields, but it still has a long way to go. Although queer designers are half as likely as the American workforce as a whole to overhear anti-LGBTQ+ comments on the job, almost 90% of our respondents had experienced some kind of bias.

And that bias falls along familiar fault lines. Cis folks experience less bias than trans folks, white people are better represented than people of color. Men generally reported better experiences than… everyone else. I think that’s one of the most important takeaways from the count. When we talk about queer community, we’re not talking about a monolith, and we can’t talk about queer identity in a vacuum.

We also can't talk about queer people in design purely in terms of representation. When I look at designs created by the queer community, there are qualities I think demonstrate what it means to “queer design” in practice; qualities I hope we can bring forward in our work.

A photo of a man wearing a vest in a dark room, with a red and purple spotlight shining down on him.
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels. Source:

Queer design is expressive

At its heart, I think of being outwardly queer as a process of owning who you are. Growing more comfortable in that identity, or learning to enjoy the discomfort, and sharing it with the world. That experience can be as joyful as it can be painful. It can be celebratory, it can be defiant, and very often, it can be all of those things at once.

When people submit their profiles to Queer Design Club, we ask what part of queer visual culture inspires them most, and drag tops the list. Drag is visually rich (even—or especially—when executed on a budget), but its expressive power goes deeper than that. Drag uses hyperbole to challenge societal constructs. The best drag performances acknowledge their own artifice while conveying its message with confidence and authenticity.

Any time you express some part of yourself, you have to be a little bit vulnerable. I think a queered design field would make space for authenticity and vulnerability. To be honest about the intent of our designs as we build a show around it. To acknowledge the vulnerability of people who are looking to the products we design to improve their lives. To be responsible with how vulnerable they are when they are in experiences that are not of their design but ours.

"In a queerer field, we would encourage users to make decisions based on informed consent and not slick heuristics."

In a queerer field, we would encourage users to make decisions based on informed consent and not slick heuristics. We would let them define themselves instead of forcing them into binary choices that determine how we talk to them and what we allow them to do. Designers would feel responsible for what their empathy uncovers and would use that insight to create experiences that actually empower people to be themselves, freely.

A black and white photo of the ACT UP protest. Two marchers hold the Silence = Death poster, June 26, 1988.
ACT UP protest featuring Silence = Death poster, June 26, 1988, Eugene Gordon/New York Historical Society.

Queer design is collective

Although empathy has been packaged up as neat little Design Thinking™ books, workshops, and proprietary consulting models, the queer designers I know have a lifetime more experience in empathy than even the most skilled sprint facilitator.

A lot of queer designers I’ve talked to feel they are able to more fully put themselves in others’ shoes because of how much time they’ve spent pretending to be someone else. We’ve turned a survival mechanism of being able to move through spaces that aren’t for us into a professional adaptation. And we bring that outsider perspective with us when we enter the field.

In design today, people on the outside are considered edge cases and most large organizations don’t design for them. But as designer Eric Meyer says, “When you say ‘edge case’, you’re really just defining the limits of what you care about.” So it’s not enough to bring outsider perspectives into the design process, we need to bring in people currently relegated to the edges of our practice and actually center them in our work.

"A lot of queer designers I’ve talked to feel they are able to more fully put themselves in others’ shoes because of how much time they’ve spent pretending to be someone else."

One way to do that is having diverse teams. Studies have shown that diversity leads to increased productivity and innovation, although the queerer the design industry becomes, the less we should need to rely on business metrics to argue for what’s right.

We also have to expand our definition of design to people who aren’t traditionally included in it, and embrace a spirit of co-design. We need to enroll our “edge cases” as our partners in the design process to create work that serves them as well as it does everyone else. We should do this not because products that accommodate users at the margins do a better job at meeting the needs of everyone in the middle (although they do), but because we should be challenging the idea that the experiences we build should have margins at all—or that the business’s margins should define them.

We must also challenge the idea that we are the ones who should be building these designs. Communities can solve problems for themselves when they have the resources and designers from within those communities are empowered to do so. Very often, what a problem calls for is not a designer to unlock the solution but the political will to enact what we know will work (usually money, usually controlled by people who’d rather not see the problem solved). Not every nail needs design thinking or an interface or a logo.

A cover of The Male Figure Volume VI, Fall 1957. The cover features a black and white photo of a man over a red cover. The headline reads "Meet Johnny Felix."
The Male Figure Volume VI, Fall 1957, published by Bruce of Los Angeles, CA. Source: Scanned from author's personal collection.

Queer design is subversive

Some of the most memorable queer designs aren’t attributable to one person. The “Silence = Death” poster, which I think is one of the most striking designs in history, was designed by a collective. Feminist activist artists the Guerrilla Girls work anonymously to keep focus on the issues their work addresses.

Other queer designers’ work goes uncelebrated because it was created in a context where putting their name on it would have been a prison sentence or worse. And that’s why I think one of the most important aspects of queer design is subversiveness. Although I don’t think queer people should be defined by the opposition they face from others, how we meet adversity head-on is one of the most inspiring aspects of the queer community.

So much of the queer visual culture that inspires me personally was created to evade or protest anti-queer laws. I collect Male Figure magazines. I love the black and white cover photography against neon spot colors. It’s simple and it’s camp, a balance I often try to strike in my own designs.

Beefcake magazines like Male Figure were printed at a time when obscenity laws forbade mailing any materials that promoted homosexuality. They are not gay magazines in positioning, but through their content and design, their true nature is clear to those for whom they were created.

Queer designers have worked in defiance of societal constraints both covertly, like Comstock-era publications, and overtly. Protest and activism are where queer people have made some of the richest contributions to design, bringing a signature boldness to messages that challenge not just the political but also the aesthetic norms of their time. Grainy, photocopied posters on garish neon stock have made a more lasting impact on history than the high budget deliverables created by top agencies at the same time.

I don’t think queer design inherently belongs to one aesthetic. Queer people have made contributions to high fashion, fine art, and commercial photography as well as low-brow camp, smutty zines, and pop art. I think the queerer design becomes, the more diverse our visual output will be as more people are recognized for their work without having to filter that work through a dominant idea of what “good design” looks like.

Design can “look queer” for sure, but like drag performances, the best of it will go deeper than a coat of paint. Nike can put the pink triangle on a pair of sneakers, but there remains a difference between commercializing queerness and queering design.

The future of design is queer

To me, queering design means making a conscious and repeated choice to side with my queer colleagues who challenge the status quo. 40% of the designers we heard from in our survey reported having to point out design decisions that excluded queer people to their colleagues. Many of them said it was exhausting to feel solely responsible for inclusive design but were also proud their perspectives as queer people allowed them to do it. That’s one way designers are already queering the profession.

I very much see my work with Queer Design Club being in part about queering the design industry and design practice. I want to see queer designers’ contributions recognized, I want them to feel like they can thrive in the field. But it can’t just be about representation.

If you have LGBTQ+ people doing work that doesn’t change the systems they are working in, that’s not queering anything, that’s assimilating. Assimilation will always to be contingent on playing by a set of established rules. And it’s always going to require leaving someone behind. There has to be an outgroup in this model of the world. You have to challenge the cis- and heterosexist (and racist, and ableist, and classist) underpinnings of the systems designers work in to make meaningful change. And if you do, the output will change as well.

"Queering design, to me, isn’t about bringing queerness into the field as it exists today. It’s about moving that field forward, about being the next link in a chain toward something better."

At the same time, I think the queer community deserves better than to be defined in opposition to our cisgender, heterosexual peers. Challenging -isms in design is important, but it’s also table stakes.

Queering design to me, isn’t about bringing queerness into the field as it exists today. It’s about moving that field forward, about being the next link in a chain toward something better. A design industry that’s queer, not just in demography, but also spirit, will work differently. Its output will be different. How it defines itself and who is a designer, will be different. It has to be.

To make space for the full breadth of the queer community. To give ourselves room to fully express ourselves in all the ways we’ve discussed, means subverting and tearing down a lot of what we take for granted about our field. I don’t know what that will look like, but I know who I trust to lead the way. Being visible, and vocal, and supportive of each other is the first step toward that vision of design.

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