Forbidden, sensitive, or downright embarrassing—designers have a significant role in visually communicating taboo topics in a new light.
In this article, we consider how and why you should strive to confront taboos in your designs in 2023. We offer case examples from the worlds of design, photography, illustration, and advertising.
Let’s discuss reshaping the public’s perception of menstrual health and dismantling lingering stigmas surrounding ageism and disability visibility. There’s so much designers can do to break and reshape taboos for contemporary audiences.
Why You Should Break Taboos in Your Designs
It’s 2023. The world has made huge progress in areas related to gender and trans equality, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and health communications. Designers play such an important role in progressing the cause of a marginalized group. Their work plays out in overturning once-stigmatic subject matter by visualizing taboo themes in marketing, advertising, and branding.
Some brands choose to tackle extreme taboos in an effort to “shockvertise.” Here, we’ll look at how designers can instead approach sidelined subjects and milder taboos with sensitivity and intelligence, in an effort to promote greater public awareness of important issues or minority groups.
Only a few years ago, we were seeing a very different brand climate. In it, open discussion of mental health or the inclusion of disabled individuals in mainstream advertising would have seemed less achievable. Activist groups, charities, and governments do a huge amount in raising awareness about these once-sidelined themes.
Designers also have a vital role to play in communicating them to the public in a way that’s engaging, creative, and highly visual. By lifting some of these themes into the commercial sector, taboo subjects often become more naturalized into everyday social discourse. This makes the role of design in actioning social change more influential than some might think.
Below, discover more about the sidelined subjects that can and should be approached by designers and brands in 2023. Then make your designs more impactful and meaningful for a contemporary audience.
From the stereotyped depiction of older women in advertising to period product branding, there are a huge number of topics and themes that still retain a taboo association in Western media. License these images via oneinchpunch, Photoroyalty, and Marjan Apostolovic.
How You Can Break Taboos in Your Designs
Designers occupy a unique position in the process of breaking social taboos. While other groups may set the agenda in raising and discussing taboos, brands and designers are often the individuals who bring these taboo topics to a wider audience through advertising and marketing.
So, how can designers begin with tackling taboo themes in their work? Here are some useful tips for tackling sensitive subjects. . . .
Do Your Research
Talk to individuals and groups who could be affected by these sidelined topics. What imagery would they like to see in advertising related to the issue that affects them? How can the current standard of imagery related to this issue be improved? Start from an informed stance whenever you tackle taboo, stigmatized, or sensitive subject matter.
Approach Subjects with Sensitivity and Avoid Shockvertising
Some brands see taboo subjects as an opportunity for attracting more clicks, eyes, and sales. When it comes to sensitive topics, commercialization shouldn’t be the aim of the game.
Raising awareness about these issues in a considered and moderate way is much more effective for destigmatizing taboos. As a result, your brand will be considered more trustworthy and relevant.
Some Audiences Won’t Be Ready for Taboo Content
There will always be a fine line between breaking down stigma and offending those who are not ready for those taboos to be broken. Approach a subject with sensitivity. Target your audience effectively.
Be prepared to respond from an informed standpoint if viewers take offense. This will ensure that discussions and topics are brought to the public’s attention in a responsible way.
Avoid Using Stereotypes and Strive for Diversity
Stereotypes are the unfortunate companion to taboo topics. They prevent taboos from being fully discussed and eventually broken down. If consumers repeatedly see the same stereotype visualized across a wide range of images, they tend to believe that stereotype is an accurate representation of that demographic. It’s not.
Avoid narrowing the possibilities of what visual communication can do. Aim to use as diverse a range of imagery as possible to tackle a taboo topic.
Below, we’ll look at four areas which would benefit from increased design coverage over the coming year. We’ll show how you can effectively and sensitively communicate these themes through your designs. While not all explicitly “taboo,” all include topics and themes that suffer from stigma or lack of media coverage.
These areas include:
- Age Diversity
- The Female Gaze
- Body Diversity
Read on to discover more about communicating each of these sidelined topics through your design work. Learn from our tips on choosing photography, illustration, and putting together graphic design for advertising projects.
1. Age Diversity
This is a lingering taboo that has a particularly negative impact on women in the Western world. Age discrimination can have life-limiting effects on individuals in relation to work, social roles, body image, and health.
While a third of the American population are over the age of 50, only 15% of media images depict individuals from this age bracket. Age discrimination negatively affects older women most. Still, it also impacts older men and young people through negative stereotyping.
For older individuals, stereotypes surrounding aging can contribute to feelings of social isolation and loneliness. So how can designers change this?
With a wide range of female-targeted imagery focusing on personal appearance, the narrative can and should be shifted from “anti-aging” to embracing aging as a natural (and often positive) process.
Take your inspiration from Instagram influencers like JoAni Johnson (who starred in a recent Fenty campaign) and older female actors like Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, and Helen Mirren. Many women prove that age can often improve your flair for fashion or performance.
BBDO’s award-winning “Ageless” advertising campaign for Tena is another prime example of authentic age-conscious advertising. It was commended for its proven results in changing negative attitudes towards sex and incontinence.
The age discrimination prevalent in advertising imagery certainly raises questions about how society values older individuals. Are we only valued for the commercial work that we do in our earlier decades? When we retire, why are older individuals often portrayed as having diminished social roles? This could be an opportunistic time for volunteering, a new career, or simply focusing on self-care and family!
In design, age discrimination can be avoided by showing how older individuals are not one-note pensioners. They’re as diverse in their interests as any younger individual. They have valuable skill sets that could go beyond the tech-restrictive skills of those from the digital native generation.
As studies show that more older women are pursuing DIY projects, solo travel, and expressive fashion choices, imagery should reflect this diversity accordingly.
At the other end of the age discrimination scale, designers should also be mindful of how they portray younger audiences. Dismantle “snowflake” or teenage stereotypes with images that show how young audiences can have diverse interests and identities.
Younger age groups are shown to be more engaged with activism and social causes. They strive to improve equality for marginalized groups, as well.
It’s also a positive step to embrace imagery that includes individuals from a range of age groups interacting with one another. The increased social separation between generations in the Western world often leads to misunderstanding, and sometimes hostility, between generational groups.
2. The Female Gaze
In the aftermath of #MeToo, it feels like monumentous steps have been made towards destigmatizing sexual assault and confronting the abuse of patriarchal power. In 2023, designers can further the progression made by the movement by increasingly prioritizing imagery which is female-directed.
This is photography and illustration created for women by women, showcasing a view of female identity that reflects the female gaze.
There are a wide range of female photographers, illustrators, and artists who are already doing this. American portrait artist Cindy Sherman is a notable and long-standing example. Sherman’s work focuses on dismantling female stereotypes from film and culture, with the artist as subject in self-portraits of the jaded seductress, the unhappy housewife, or the working girl.
In the fashion world, photographer and model Helena Christensen has self-directed and photographed campaigns for lingerie brand La Perla alongside an all-female team, with the aim of bringing a new interpretation of lingerie to female audiences. This is a far cry from the male-directed “Hello Boys” Wonderbra campaigns of the 1990s.
Opt for Female-Centric Photography and Illustrations
Historically, in advertising, women have often been—and continue to be—compartmentalized into neat categories that have been dictated overwhelmingly by male directors. Looking at design with the female gaze in mind asks whether women have been involved in the staging, art direction, or execution of the image.
You’ll find that these images not only convey a broader scope of female experience, but also resonate much more strongly and honestly with female audiences.
Issues related to hygiene and health are among the most common and widespread taboos globally. Whether related to concerns surrounding privacy, body ownership, or religious practice, health taboos can be a particularly reactive and tricky area for brands to cover in their marketing content.
Luckily, as we move forward into the mid-2020s, there’s a larger social shift towards more open discussion of health-related topics. Amongst them, mental health, menstrual health, and menopause are starting to benefit from more open discussion in the public sphere. This opens up opportunities for brands connected to these health issues.
From mental health apps to stylish (and no longer needlessly discreet) period products, there are numerous ways designers can further destigmatize health topics through consideration of packaging, UX design, and branding.
Color Choices Can Make a Statement
Look to inspirational menstrual product brands such as Nixit and Inertia. They aim to make clinical, all-pink packaging a thing of the past. In your own designs, consider using color and imagery that accurately reflects menstrual blood (no more weird blue gel for contemporary period brands).
Quit disguising the medical reality of menstruation. After all, 26% of the global population have periods. We know what they look like by now!
The fantastic contemporary branding for menopause treatment service Juniper also uses illustrations and color to clarify common symptoms. This builds public awareness and consumer trust.
Mental health is another formerly taboo area that can be destigmatized through design. Charities like Movember and the Face It Foundation are good examples of brands who focus on men’s mental health through their communications.
Designers can select imagery that encourages greater openness in how men, in particular, seek help for mental health issues.
4. Body Diversity
It seems incredible that different body types still tick the taboo box in Western advertising. Branding and advertising industries still have a long way to go when it comes to depiction of body diversity.
While the fashion industry is taking steps towards greater size diversity across editorial imagery and runway shows, there’s still a distinctive lack of disability visibility. Brands also often exclude disabled consumers from access to a wider range of goods.
Ultimately, it’s more difficult to purchase products suited to your body type, or simply to see individuals like yourself, in brands’ marketing imagery.
Represent All Abilities and Genders
A recent Nielsen survey showed that a meager 1% of advertising imagery was related to disability or disabled individuals. In most cases, this was in connection with products or brands that treat disability.
In 2023, it’s important for brands and designers to include disabled individuals within depictions of everyday life, at work, socializing, or with family and friends.
The same ethos must be applied to visibility for the transgender and LGTBQ+ communities. These groups still lack general visibility in design and advertising imagery, and are often subject to negative stereotyping.
Accurate images depicting transition are distinctly lacking in mainstream media and, in the coming year, designers can see this as an opportunity to raise awareness about this marginalized group through illustration and photography.
As designers, we should always consider whether we’re depicting a diverse range of individuals when we design. Would everybody be able to recognize themselves in your work? In relation to aspirational imagery for fashion branding or the beauty industry, this is particularly vital to promote inclusion and broaden our limited beauty standards.
Conclusion: Breaking Taboos Through Design
Designers can and should be at the visual forefront of taboo-breaking. Take action through your designs. Make informed choices about photography, illustration, and graphic design. You’ll soon find that public awareness and perception are dramatically shaped by commercial design.
In many of the sidelined subjects discussed above, we’ve talked about a greater need for visibility. In many cases, the media is the first point of communication between the public and sidelined individuals.
Step into 2023 with confidence, break taboos responsibly, and change the world one design at a time!
Cover image via contributor Jacob Lund.