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Comparing Two Major Websites Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 3810 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The purpose of this report is to compare two websites. Both sites are similar in terms of their content and structure due to the fact that they are aimed at similar demographics. However the sites are different in terms of the gender of their target audience or user. The two sites that will be considered are the homepages for GQ – Magazine, typically aimed at a male audience and Cosmopolitan Magazine, typically aimed at a female audience. GQ – Magazine, hereafter GQ, is a popular, ‘up – market’, men’s magazine featuring fashion, business, sport etc. It appears to be targeting a ‘blue chip’ demographic; young men with a large disposable income. This is apparent through the content of the site, featuring expensive gadgets, ‘flashy restaurants’ and expensive fashion items (see figure.1).

Figure one: example of GQ products

Cosmopolitan Magazine, hereafter Cosmopolitan, is also a popular, ‘up – market’, women’s magazine, the site features topics on careers, beauty and holidays. It also appears to be targeting a ‘blue chip’ demographic, namely, women in their mid twenties to early thirties with a large disposable income. This is apparent through the content of the site, featuring expensive beauty products; hotel getaways and lingerie (see figure. 2).

Figure Two: Example of Cosmopolitan products

The following report will explore the different strategies that each of the two sites employs in targeting its gender group.

‘Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique (1963) emphasised the impact of popular women’s magazines, whose articles, fiction and advertising celebrated a very particular form of domestic, suburban femininity , one that operated in a sphere almost completely separate from that of men’ ( Carter & Steiner, Critical Readings: Media and gender, Page 1).

This clearly outlines that products targeted at different genders will have very different attributes. We would therefore expect a male orientated website to be designed differently to a female orientated website and it is this aspect that will be explored. We will examine the sites in terms of their structure, choice of colour, use of fonts and images in an attempt to discover what importance these aspects have in targeting a specific gender group.

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Homepage Structure and Content

On opening GQ’s homepage, the first thing the user is confronted with is a series of semi – naked, famous women that alternate through flash animation. The pictures consume almost the entire left hand side of the page and are accompanied by text. For example, there is a picture of Nell McAndrew and the text below says, ‘Nell McAndrew shows off her beach bod’. This is done in an attempt to draw the user to the content of the site. ‘Use photos of identifiable people who have a connection with the content as opposed to models or generic stock photos’ (Nielsen & Tahir, Homepage Usability, Page 22). This use of flash animation signifies a technological theme, something that the male gender tends to be associated with. ‘Males are defined as competitive and technologically inclined’. (Carter & Steiner, Page 244) This male gendered theme is continued with the use of dark masculine colours such as blacks and blues, something which will be discussed later in this report. The page itself is quite compact with virtually no free space, graphics taking up the majority of the page (see figure 3); however it is designed with ease for the user in mind. The page can be easily read, the text is large and bold, black text on light backgrounds and white text on dark backgrounds. All of the graphics on the page are modes of navigation taking you to a particular part of the site. Further navigation is neatly placed at the top of the page. ‘When you use graphics to purposefully illustrate content, you can greatly enhance a homepage’. (Nielsen & Tahir, Page 22)

Figure Three: GQ Homepage

In comparison, Cosmopolitan is a far less creative paradigm. The page contains very few technical aspects, the only animation being the navigation boxes at the bottom of the page. The page is simplistic with plenty of free white space, ‘white space can guide the eye and help users understand the grouping of information’ (Jakob Nielsen, Designing Web Usability, Page 18). This is certainly true of Cosmopolitan. The text is centrally placed on the page making it simple and easy to understand and use. The page is elegantly designed with bright pink text on a white background, designed to draw the user to the information. A small amount of graphics is used on the page, a man and woman kissing in the left hand corner and a picture of an issue of the magazine placed centrally on the page. The navigation is tidily placed around these, with the main navigation bar, in dark pink at the top of the page. The page was clearly designed with simplicity and ease of use in mind; the ‘box detail’ graphics nicely separate themselves from the core topics, making it easy for the user to navigate around the page. Cosmopolitan is clearly aimed at the female demographic; the choice of colour is one aspect which will be discussed later. The other aspect is the design, which reflects the attributes we associate with the female gender, elegance, style and simplicity.

Figure Four: Cosmopolitan Homepage

Both homepages adhere to the stereotypical conventions of what a homepage should look like in terms of structure and content. They are designed with ease for the user in mind. The content of the site is purposefully enhanced and recognisable from the onset. ‘The first immediate goal of any homepage is to answer the questions, where am I? And what does this site do?’ (Nielsen, Page 167). However it has been displayed that this goal is met in two different ways because the sites are appealing to two different genders. GQ adhering to the key signifier of a home page targeted at a male audience, thus having very little free space, being technically enhanced and using dark colours. In contrast, Cosmopolitan also adheres to the key signifier of a homepage targeted at a female audience, thus having plenty of free space, minimal technology and using bright, light colours. It is not by accident that such contrasting designs have been employed, each design has been carefully planned so as to suit the needs and expectations of its demographic.

Use of Colour:

The GQ Logo uses a combination of orange and white, orange being the actual letters ‘GQ’ and white for the background. The remainder of the page uses combinations of light and dark blues as well as black. A survey was conducted in the early 1940s by Eysenck in an attempt to see what colours were preferred by certain genders. In respect of orange, he found that ‘yellow was preferred to orange by women and orange to yellow by men’ (Khouw). In respect of blues he found that ‘blue for men stands out far more than for women’ (Khouw). Within this paradigm, the signifier ‘Orange’ has connotations that tend towards masculinity; these connotations are obtained through social codes, ‘Roman Jakobson emphasised that the production and interpretation of texts depends on the existence of codes’ (Chandler. D, Semiotics the Basics, Page 147). When asked whether the colour orange is more masculine or feminine, one person said, ‘I think it’s more masculine, you see it on rugby tops and you associate it with the orange mobile phone logo and blokes are more into phones than women’ (Male, Age 21). Therefore the ‘signified’ as depicted by ‘Sassure’ is that the web page could be assumed to be male orientated because the colour orange is more associated with men. ‘Sassure defined a sign as being composed of a signifier and a signified’ (Chandler, Page 18). Likewise, with the use of the signifier blue we can also draw upon similar connotations. One student said, ‘blue is definitely a mans colour, baby clothes for boys are always blue’ (Female, Aged 21). Again this connotation is derived from social codes, in this case, babies clothing. Therefore the signified conclusion is that the Syntagm or combination of the colours Orange and blue on the GQ homepage, signify that this site is probably aimed at a male demographic.

In contrast Cosmopolitan uses only two main colours namely, pink and white. However this also has important connotations. ‘Connotation is a term describing the relationship between the signifier and the signified’. (Chandler, Page 140) In this case the Syntagm or combination of two signifiers namely pink and white have connotations of femininity, therefore the signified outcome being that this page is probably designed for a female demographic. Again, these assumptions that pink and white are associated with women derive from social codes. When asked whether pink was a feminine or masculine colour, one person said, ‘pink is definitely feminine, it’s on our clothes, shoes, accessories, everything’ (Female, Aged 20).

It is quite clear that colour plays an important role in the design of a homepage. Certain colours are preferred by certain genders, other colours are simply attached to certain genders, pink for women and blue for men. The use of colour therefore must play an important role in expressing the gender orientation of a webpage; this is something that will be tested later in this report through the use of the ‘Commutation Test’.

Text and Fonts

There is not a great deal of difference between the text of the GQ homepage and that of the Cosmopolitan homepage. Both sites display large bold text, this is obviously done in order to draw the user to the page and enhance content. However there are some differences. Firstly, despite both sites having large bold text, GQ tends to have larger and bolder text than that of the Cosmopolitan homepage. An expert review was carried out on the different designs of homepages; in particular the review was interested in the text sizes of different sites and whether this had any connections with gender differences. ‘Font size ….Gender issue, women prefer smaller font’ (Expert Review). This report is also concerned as to whether any font styles are generally considered masculine or feminine. The GQ homepage uses Arial font and Cosmopolitan uses Verdana. This is quite interesting; a report carried out by Karleen Weitzel indicates that A feminine font is generally more flowing, elegant, and isn’t usually extremely uniform. A masculine font is generally comprised of straight lines and perfect circles. She gives examples of both Feminine and masculine fonts; some feminine fonts include, ‘bickley script, monotype corsiva, paintbrush, script, Old English, and venice (Weitzel). She added that masculine fonts tend to include, impact, haettenshweiler, Lucinda console, the arial fonts (regular, black, and narrow), tahoma, courier new, and verdana (Weitzel). As outlined above, Cosmopolitan uses Verdana, this goes against the stereotypical trends that Weitzel highlighted, she claimed that Verdana was in fact, a masculine font. However GQ adheres to the stereotypical trends outlined by Weitzel by using the Arial font which is considered a masculine font. Despite Cosmopolitan rejecting the stereotypical trend of a feminine font and adopting a more masculine one, the site still represents femininity in its text by using smaller, delicate sized text.

So where do these assumptions of feminine and masculine fonts derive? The connotations associated with these fonts certainly reflect the masculine and feminine ideals. Men are large, bold creatures and women are small delicate creatures, therefore the signifiers or font styles and sizes used, reflect this. As a result the signified result would be, if the text is large, bold and straight lined, this site is most likely targeting a male demographic. In opposition, if the text is small, delicate and uniform, the signified result would be that this site is probably targeting a female demographic. ‘Anything is a sign so long as someone interprets it as signifying something, referring to or standing for something other than itself’ (Chandler, Page 17).

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GQ is without a doubt relying on the use of images to draw the reader to the homepage and deeper into the content of the site. As previously mentioned in this report, the flash animation images on the page, take up the entire left hand side. The images consist of famous women such as, Kylie Minogue, Nell McAndrew and Gwen Stefani. They are all posing in a very seductive manner, some with their legs open, other cup their breasts towards the camera. This is a clear indication of this site being targeted at a male demographic. The site is providing images that will attract the user to the site presumably because the images will entertain the target audience; however these images are purposely placed in order to draw the audience to the site, therefore benefiting the user and the provider. ‘Studying semiotics can assist us to become aware of the mediating roles of signs” (Chandler, Page 14). The use of famous people further adds to the attraction of the site as it is using images that the user can identify with. It is important at this point to clarify how these images present the idea that this page is aimed at a male audience. This can be done through a semiotic analysis. ‘Semiotics seeks to analyse texts as structured wholes and investigates latent, connotative meanings’ (Chandler, Page 8). It is fair to say that just because there are pictures of women on the page, doesn’t mean it’s a male orientated website. True, however it is the ‘gaze’ and ‘pose’ of the celebrities that connote meaning. Social codes are defined in Semiotics the basics as including bodily codes such as, ‘bodily contact, appearance, facial expression, gaze, posture’ (Chandler, Page 149) It is through these codes that we derive meaning or connotations. If we take the picture of Gwen Stefani for example, (see figure five) the signifier being the picture of her, we notice three things. Firstly she has very little clothing on and the clothing she does have is silky and seductive. Secondly she is gazing directly at the camera, thus directly at the user and finally her legs are wide open portraying a sexually seductive pose. These bodily codes connote that the picture is trying to seduce the user of this page, attract them to the image and make them want to wander deeper into the content of the site. These types of images are not used on a female orientated site and therefore the signified result is that this page is male orientated. When asked whether this site is male or female orientated, based on the images only, one person said, ‘at first it’s confusing because there are pictures of restaurants, cocktails and bars which I would associate with women, but when I saw the pictures of the girls and their poses I knew it was aimed at men’ (Female, Aged 20).

Figure five: Gwen Steffani

Cosmopolitan on the other hand, uses far less images and certainly none that have sexual connotative value. The one main image on the page is of a man and woman kissing in the left hand corner. The user is drawn to this image but it does not take priority over the content on the page. Interestingly at first it didn’t appear as though a semiotic analysis could be performed on this to justify a well argued signified conclusion, however closer analysis of the picture conveys a deeper meaning. (see figure six). Again, we will examine the pose. The man in the picture is seen as unimportant; he is turned away from the camera by the woman’s hand. In contrast to this, although the woman is not directly looking at the camera, her face can be seen by the user, you can see what she looks like and therefore this signifies her priority in the picture. This pose also connotes that she is more dominant than the man in the photo; she is turning his head away and allowing her face to take priority. Therefore it could be argued that this image in the signified sense connotes that this site is female orientated. Although the woman is not of utmost importance, her pose certainly suggests her superiority to the male. This serves a purpose; the site is giving the user an image they want, connoting power and control over the male species. This image in a sense portrays the realities of life that women can dominate and be superior to men. ‘In defining realities, signs serve ideological functions’ (Chandler, Page 15).

Figure six: Cosmo Image

It is clear that images play a huge role in helping to target a particular gender. For men, sex sells. A site called body and mind declared that ‘beauty has power over us’ (body and mind). And for women, selling realities and reminding them of their importance and equality in relation to men also sells. It is clear that these images have importance in signifying the targeted gender of these sites. In the final stages of this report we will put this to the test by using the ‘commutation test’, in an attempt to clarify the importance of key signifiers on a homepage and the important connotations they have.

Commutation Test:

The commutation test will help us to understand the importance of certain aspects of a website and what affect this has on the user’s interpretation of the text. In this test we will look at two aspects, namely colour and images. We will change the colour and images in an attempt to determine what connotations can now be drawn from the text and whether these will conflict with the connotations drawn previously. ‘Structuralist semioticians refer to the ‘Commutation Test’ which can be used in order to identify distinctive signifiers and to define their significance – determining whether a change on the level of the signifier leads to a change on the level of the signified’ (Chandler, Page 100). There are certain forms that the test can take, for example substitution, transposition, addition and deletion, paradigmatic and syntagmatic transformations respectively. Due to the lack of ability to perform the actual test, a group of people, mixed genders, were asked as to whether certain changes would affect their opinion on whether the site was male or female orientated.

The first test was a paradigmatic change. ‘A paradigm is a set of associated signifiers which are all members of some defining category’ (Chandler, Page 80), in this case the paradigmatic change was colour. The question posed was in relation to the GQ homepage. If this site was pink and white, what gender do you think it would be targeting?

‘If it was pink and white it would be a girl’s site, girls love pink, and their clothes are pink. Plus you always see those American movies with the stereotypical teen girl and everything they own is pink’ (Male, Aged 21)

‘Like I said before, I already assumed it was female orientated until I saw the girls on it because of the bars and cocktails advertised on it, if it was pink and white, I would definitely assume it was a girls site. (Female, Aged 20)

Taking into account what the last female had said. I decided to ask again, only this time I would syntagmatically change the page. ‘A syntagm is an orderly combination of interacting signifiers which forms a meaningful whole in the text’. (Chandler, Page 81) In this case the syntagmatic change would be the deletion of the large picture on the left hand side of the GQ homepage. So the question posed was, if the pictures on the left hand side were not there, what gender demographic would the site be targeting?

‘If I was just to glance at it I would probably say a girl, because of the bars and restaurant advertisements’ (Male, Aged 21)

‘I agree, I would assume it to be a girls site, the pictures of the cocktails and bars are ‘girly’, we like cocktails, blokes just drink pints’ (Female, Aged 20)

From the responses received, it is without doubt that both colour and images play a significant role in the gender representation or identity of the page. Merely changing the colour or deleting an image had a large impact on people’s opinions. This commutation test identifies the importance of website design. Things must be orchestrated in a well thought out manner in order to reach the target demographic, in this case men or women. It is these design techniques, the consideration for colour and images, that essentially could make or break the success of you website.


In conclusion, this report has outlined some very important points in relation to the design and construction of a website. Although they are similar in the paradigmatic sense and serve to appeal to a similar demographic, they are different in their approaches to serve their demographic, namely men or women. This is done subtly through the use of colours, font size, font styles and images. Despite the subtlety of such differences, they play a significant role in appealing to the target user. It has been through a semiotic analysis of the websites that has highlighted the importance of such differences. Sassure asserted the importance between the signifier and the signified and it is drawing attention to this model and applying the aspects of the websites that helps us to draw upon important connotations in respect of colour, text and the use of images. It is our association with codes and conventions that helps us to identify the link between the signifier and the signified, this is something that has been recognised by GQ and Cosmopolitan thus explaining why their designs were approached differently. The issues raised in this report will certainly be taken forward to the next assignment in designing an actual website given that the evidence presented clearly indicates that the design of a website, whether it is colour or images, is of great importance to the success in reaching the target user. ‘Meaning is not transmitted to us, we actively create it according to a complex interplay of codes and conventions of which we are normally unaware’ (Chandler, Page 14).


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