Friday, January 7, 2011

Silhouettes Matter

What adjectives would you assign to the people represented by these four silhouettes? (No points will be given for "badly drawn.")

Four black silhouettes of adults, two women, two men
Think about it for few minutes. No peeking down below.

First, I'll tell you what mine were, from left to right:

Woman 1: Overweight*, realistic, comfortable, mobile
Woman 2: Insect-like (check out those legs), unrealistic, unbusinesslike, partygoing, posing
Man 1: Confident, businesslike
Man 2: Schlumpy, defeated, overweight, informal

Now for the context. These illustrations appeared with a Star Tribune story about recent research that found skinny women are paid more than normal-weight ones, and much more than overweight or obese women. Skinny men, on the other hand, are paid less than normal to overweight ones. Obese men were paid less also.

Here's how the illustrations were used:

Two women silhouettes with headline SIZE MATTERS and labels above each figure
Front page of the Variety section; the illustration is about a quarter of the page.

Two men silhouettes next to a SIZE MATTERS heading
Next to the jump head on page 2; the illustration is about 1" x 2".

Were sloppy, dishonest or lazy the words you would have assigned to woman 1? Did driven, successful and hard-working pop into your head when viewing woman 2?

I have no argument with research that finds people think these things in general, or that companies pay their employees differently based on appearance. (Although I did wonder how the researchers controlled for other factors.) But I do think the Strib blew it when attempting to illustrate the research findings.

Why does the thin woman have to pose like a model, standing in the classic all-your-weight-on-one-foot stance? Confident people stand on two feet (like the normal weight man). The point of this type of bent-kneed pose is to make the woman look vulnerable.

And the contrast of pose between the two men isn't much better, serving only to exaggerate their differences. The overweight man would look less schumpy and defeated if his silhouette was shown straight on.

To make the illustration helpful rather than misleading, the Strib designers should have used the same pose for all four illustrations, or at least a common pose for the women and a common one for the men. But that would have been more work on deadline, I imagine; they would have had to shoot photos to use as reference instead of just trawling through a stock photo site.

One final note on the incompetence of the drawings: Silhouettes are a lot harder to do well than people think they are, but little effort seems to have gone into these particular ones. The shapes of the skinny woman's knees are bizarre and I still haven't figured out if she has three feet or not. The overweight man's gut, while not completely unrealistic, seems to have been exaggerated. And the fussy little shadows below the figures gave me quite a laugh -- they should begin just below the feet, as they do in the skinny woman drawing. In the overweight woman and normal-weight man images, the shadows make it appear as though the people are standing on one foot.

No wonder these illustrations ran without crediting the artist.


* I'm chagrined to admit that "overweight" is one of the first words to pop into my head when I look at woman 1 (although her shape is pretty similar to mine). I would have qualified it with "somewhat" or "slightly," but was trying to stick to just one word per thought.

1 comment:

Carmella said...

Dang! You nailed it, Daughter. I couldn't figure out why Susan was growling over the paper the other day. I don't think she even stopped to think why those silhouettes tweaked her - she just flipped the page over.