Revealing gender bias in pictograms
Master thesis by Mujgan Abdulzade on exploring gender bias in pictograms.
Hochschule Anhalt, Dessau, Germany, 2020.
The visual language in our surrounding environments perpetuates patriarchal gender roles and fails to include genders other than male. For instance, the majority of public signs that we come across on a daily basis resembles a male body, even in contexts where specifying gender is not necessary.

My research revealed that the idea of “Man as Default”, in fact, exists not only in pictograms, but broadly in different forms of visual languages within various mediums. Even though many decades have passed since the 1970s, modern forms of visual language do not necessarily differ from its predecessors in regard to biased representations.
My research also investigates how “Man as Default” is being perpetuated to this day not only through design, but also in our more traditional means of communication, namely verbal language.
The message of this thesis project is to invite all the visual communicators to become more aware of what they design, as adhering to traditional visual language propagates socially outdated norms in public and digital spaces. Therefore, it is important for design practitioners to rethink the ways of visual communication in order to prevent widespread use of designs that pertain to systematic oppression.

I hope the examples I brought up from everyday scenarios and ideas for improvements discussed within this thesis, will make a room for discussion and inspire collective action, in order to make visual design more inclusive and intersectional.
Scroll down to see the overview of the chapters or click to "Go to PDF" button below
To all my strong female friends, role models and many more people who inspired me along the way: Thank you for re-writing narratives of past that have been neglected for too long due to patriarchy.
Go to pdf


This chapter describes how Helvetica Man and Woman pictograms or toilet signs for men and women came to life, and how up until today they carry socially outdated norms through the censorship of woman’s body with the dress/skirt.
On the following page you can see two examples from different mediums of visual communication: The Western oil painting (Figure 1) and common toilet sign for men and women (Figure 2). At first glance, you might wonder how they relate to each other, except for both depicting a man and woman. They belong to completely different time periods and are displayed or used in different contexts. Here comes the twist.
There is actually one subtle feature they share, which comes across clearly if you pay attention to how women are portrayed in each of them. In the oil painting, you can notice a man posing confidently half naked, while the woman is trying to hide her nakedness. The same pattern applies to the toilet sign where the woman’s body is covered with a dress. Even though compared to oil paintings toilet signs are a much more modern approach in depicting the human shapes, they inherited the same legacy of portraying women."


This chapter illustrates and condemns the usage of Helvetica Man as human default in supposedly neutral contexts such as pedestrian sign. Redesigning the pictogram allows achieving gender-neutral perception of the sign, as judged by more than 100 participants in a survey.


This chapter takes a deep dive into history of pictograms to find the roots of androcentrism in pictorial language. Due to their huge influence on pictorial and in graphic design, analysis of Olympic sports pictograms is the central theme here. A survey was used to assess the gender perception in certain well-known Olympic pictogram sets. These results are followed by the great interview with the iconic graphic designer of Mexico 1968 Games, Lance Wyman.
" Mujgan: Going back to Olympics, I am wondering how would you describe the development of pictograms within the Games? Would you say that there are certain patterns, general themes they all fall into? I am just curious about why for example Barcelona 1992 pictograms look very gender-neutral in very artistic style with brush strokes and then there is a set of Atlanta 1996 pictograms just right after that which explicitly depicts a silhouette of male body in a very detailed manner. There is no way that they were meant to be neutral.

Lance Wyman: I think the general tendency one could observe is that by time they all started becoming stylistic. I mean, what you said about Atlanta is a good example. I think their design was in some way hinting at Greek athletes from the ancient games (Figure 23). And, of course the Greeks didn’t have any women. They were all men running around with those black silhouettes, you know, pottery and everything. So, I think it’s the birth of all of these images that come from an attitude that’s either intentional or just naively the way it is."


This chapter describes how "Man As Default" is entangled in our culture and seemingly subtle things such as everyday language. The primary implication of Man as Default in language is the use of generic masculine (usage of masculine pronouns to refer to everyone). This pattern reveals itself more clearly when we talk about certain professions that are traditionally considered by the wider public as "masculine" or "feminine (e.g. doctor-male, nurse-female). The chapter further illustrates how the phenomenon in the verbal language can also find its way to pictorial designs, and what we can do to make them more inclusive.


This chapter attempts to suggest how Design activism could be a tool to fight against the patriarchal language of iconography collectively. The animation below is an example how future technologies could help the designers in this regard. For now, it could be seen as a collective call to action for the present and future generations of designers to be more aware of what they design and to make sure their visual messages do not contribute to the perpetuation of gender bias.
Man As Default aims to reach out to more designers who have been tackling the problem or people who are actively involved in seeking for better alternative as a way out from patriarchal visual language.

Therefore, if you happen to be one of those practitioners described above then please feel free to submit your proposals to this website.
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