Those traditional bathroom icons that adorn the signs of public restrooms—an outline of a man and a skirted woman—may seem innocuous enough. But to transgender or nonconforming individuals, they force an often uncomfortable and difficult choice every time they have to go to the bathroom in a public space. In a larger sense, they reinforce a binary gender system with only two choices—male or female—automatically labeling people who complicate that notion of identity as "other."
The movement for transgender rights has been making significant advances, and public restrooms—the only public space still segregated by sex—have become a battleground over civil liberties. It's as much a design issue as it is a social and legislative issue, and architects and designers have been offering their expertise by designing gender-neutral bathrooms that provide privacy and safety to all people. Society is moving beyond the dichotomy of identifying people as strictly male and female, and those little pictograms are embarrassingly behind the curve.
So we asked six different designers from four different design studios to get us there. Here are their ideas for gender-neutral bathroom icons, in their own words and images.
Krista Oraa, Design Director, Siegel+Gale
"To indicate an 'all-gender' restroom, the icon merges both a female and male form with simple lines and a minimalist design approach."
Vivi Feng, Designer, Siegel+Gale
"The first idea incorporates the human rights campaign logo in the body of the center icon to symbolize gender and transgender equality. The second idea incorporates typography, with the A and two LLs in the middle icon indicating that "all" are welcome. And the third icon simply indicates a restroom is a restroom—it’s available to whomever needs to use it."
Geoff Cook and Min Lew, Partners, Base Design's New York Office
"The shrug exudes the attitude of 'whatever'—a bathroom is a bathroom, and all are welcome."
Jonathan Notaro, Executive Creative Director & Partner, Brand New School
"Deep down, no matter how you identify, we’re all just a bunch of bones inside. So why not lift the skin of the ubiquitous bathroom icons and reveal what’s in each and every one of us? I came at this from a logistical standpoint, asking myself, "What the hell do we do with all of these old signs?" Well, maybe we don’t have to get rid of them after all. I designed this graphic to be used as an overlay on top of the existing signage, either with a stencil or sticker film."
Sam Becker, Creative Director, Brand Union, New York
"As the process of racial desegregation unfolded in the United States, there was a clear need to update signage and re-educate the public. What’s remarkable is how few post-segregation signs needed to be created to facilitate this transition; it mostly consisted of removing signage that discouraged integration. While race and gender are not interchangeable, there are definitely parallels to be drawn here. Public restroom signage appears to be one of the last pockets of our visual culture with overt ties to gender, and therefore, separation.
The more we thought about this problem, the more obvious it became that any inclusive visual solution should focus more on what actually happens in a bathroom, rather than on who should be using it. We also recognized that this is a polarizing subject that elicits strong emotional responses. Therefore, we would recommend a slow signage migration, beginning with captioned signs that alert restroom-goers to the differences they can expect with gender neutral bathrooms. Eventually, the icon will be able to stand on its own.
In other words: One loo, no matter who."