A dash of raunchiness is certain to get your work noticed, but at what cost? We examine the pleasures and pitfalls of using sex in your designs.

Sex sells. It might be the biggest cliché of them all, but nowhere is it more relevant than in design and advertising. Everyday items, from jeans to vacuum cleaners, are sexed up and then sold by the truckload.

It’s design pixie dust: sprinkle a little over your work and your campaign will fly – but only if you get it right. Of course, sex in design comes in a variety of forms: it can be anything from a couple shown in the heights of passion to a smutty joke or innuendo, nudity, suggestive shapes or imagery.

From the Rolling Stones’ lips and tongue logo or Pacha’s cherries to epic expanses of flesh in adverts, it’s everywhere.

Joshua Berger is founder and creative director of Plazm, a US design house, and co-author of XXX: The Power of Sex in Contemporary Design.

“Sex is everywhere,” he says. “If it didn’t sell, it wouldn’t be used... Like food and love, sex is a basic human need. When an advertisement suggests sex as a benefit, it sublimates our innate human desires, replacing them with a consumable product.”

Using sex to generate appeal is nothing new. Creatives have been using it both to shock and to grab attention since the early days of advertising.

In January this year, New York’s Fifth Avenue Museum of Sex launched an exhibition devoted to sex and design.

Speaking at the opening party, Steven Heller, a New York Times art director and author of Sex Appeal: The Art of Allure in Advertising and Graphic Design, noted the design and ad industry’s embrace of sex since the 1960s.

“Most taboos against sexual content in advertising have been busted,” he said. “The industry has come a long way since the days of the veil, when even mild innuendo was held in check.”

Joshua Berger thinks the use of sexual imagery in design and advertising will only get “more extreme.” He adds: “Advertisers bank on the universal allure of all things sexual, which tempts artists and designers to seek new ways of conveying sex at all intensities.