Ansley Luce: Rainbow Washing Needs To Stop

What Graphic Designers Can Do About It

By Ansley Luce, Designer and Illustrator, Media Cause

Every June we see a trend of “rainbow washing” – brands throwing up a rainbow flag symbol on their social media, websites, storefronts and more, in a shallow and self-serving attempt to show support for the LGBTQIA+ community.

There’s increasing backlash against it. During Pride weekend, the famous LGBTQIA+ bar Stonewall Inn in New York City will refrain from serving certain beers. While these beer brands may have sported rainbow logos this month, they have also been publicly accused of making contributions to anti-LGBTQIA+ lawmakers. This is just one example among many that reveal how much more honesty we require from brands today.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this lack of genuine inclusivity in graphic design work. Why does it matter, why is it so rare and what can graphic designers do about it to promote a world where everyone feels included and represented?

Why it matters: A lack of diversity in advertising maintains an outdated status quo. Advertising has historically promoted ideals of identity, behavior and race in order to sell goods – but this inadvertently perpetuates ridiculous stereotypes and alienates those who don’t conform to those standards. How often do you see ads featuring nonbinary people, or same sex couples in ads? Have you ever thought about how advertising affects your perspective of others?The darker side of advertising can be hard to recognize when it’s so pervasive in the world around us.

Why it’s so rare: There are several reasons why the LGBTQIA+ community remains underrepresented in advertising. These include:

  • It’s still political to use photos of queer people in content. No matter who your audience is, you’re probably going to get some level of push-back when you make an effort to show people from the LGBTQIA+ community. Even if you didn’t care …
  • There’s simply a lack of imagery in stock image galleries showing the queer community naturally engaging in the world. In commonly-used free stock galleries (Unsplash or Pexels, for example), a quick tag search for LGBTQ or Queer comes up with the most stereotypical images you’d expect – rainbows, flags, marches and more symbols of Pride than actual humans. The images that do show actual LGBTQIA+ humans seem to be ones that comment directly on their gender or sexual orientation – for example, trans people putting on makeup or same sex couples kissing or in front of non-descript backdrops. These are images that still make them seem “different” – objectified, marginalized, and excluded from normal daily life.
  • Algorithms in stock galleries don’t prioritize based on diversity. Rather, they order their images by ‘most popular,’ increasing their likelihood of selection by graphic designers around the world, and thereby decreasing the likelihood of designers choosing diverse images.


What graphic designers can do about it: As a graphic designer looking to combat this problem, you can:

  • Search directly for LGBTQIA+ people when searching for people to use for ads. Getty actually has a pretty decent library. Also, try these tags along with whatever else you’re searching for on your stock sites: LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA+, queer, non-binary, trans, gay, lesbian, same-sex couple;
  • Check out The Gender Spectrum Collection The Gender Spectrum Collection, which features great photos free for non-commercial purposes;
  • Read articles (like this one) for additional insight on how to best present people from the LGBTQIA+ community; and
  • Put pressure and expectation on the brands that you engage with to include diverse imagery and inclusive practices.

Advertising affects us in deeply psychological, often powerfully subconscious ways, so as graphic designers we need to be ultra aware of the images we put out into the world. Pride should serve as a reminder to all of us to make year-long changes that shatter stereotypes and represent and respect those in the LGBTQIA+ community, once and for all.