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Introducing Smart Design's Femme Den Series On Gender And Design

Smart Design's think tank presents an ongoing discussion of how gender should be included in good design.

[This is the introduction to a new series by Smart Design. For the first post, click here. — Ed.]

"Girls like dolls and pink. Boys like fire trucks and blue." The differences were obvious to the five-year-old who recently informed me of these seemingly clear divisions between genders. As Smart Design spends more and more time studying gender similarities and differences, and how this knowledge should influence good design, all I could think was, It doesn't seem so clear-cut to me.

Gender does matter in design. We haven't yet mastered how to embrace it.

The Femme Den started thinking about gender and design five years ago as an expansion of Smart Design's commitment to understanding people. Since starting that first public dialogue around this controversial topic, the conversation has gained momentum. Our initial five points for considering gender made its debut at the 2006 Universal Design Conference, in Kyoto, Japan. Over the years, we have been developing our perspective and deepening our insights through work with clients and sharing around the world. Several of us have spoken with the design and business communities, we were featured in the 2009 Masters of Design in Fast Company, and we did a short burst of blogging. We've heard our colleagues at IDEO and Continuum pick up on the theme, and we've seen greater attention paid to the topic at conferences (IDSA, TED Women). It begs the question: So why all the fuss about gender in design?

We're beginning a new series of posts that will help lead the discussion on exploring the different ways in which gender impacts (or ought to impact) design. The "fuss" makes sense when you realize that women control 85% of the spending, yet 71% of women feel they are only considered for beauty and cleaning products. These simple statistics clearly indicate that gender does matter in design and our profession hasn't yet mastered how to authentically embrace it. We think the emphasis must now shift to exactly how it matters and the ways of including it in good design, with a more nuanced and complex dialogue around this deeper exploration.

Gender motivates much of human behavior, but cultural sensitivities prevent these differences from being commonly discussed or explored. We will move beyond our sensitivities and dive head first into opening up this topic. The Femme Den started with the notion that because the design world is male-dominated, women's values, needs, and desires were not being well understood and represented in products on the marketplace. Through our work, we've learned many factors that need to be taken into consideration: How different hormones impact the reactions of men and women differently, how our bodies scientifically differ in complex and meaningful ways, how our brains process information differently, and how men and women talk differently about their product experiences. But we've also learned that businesses have a lot to learn about how gender impacts men.

Understanding gender necessitates building expertise — knowledge that can then inform good design of products for both him and her. Gender is complex; it's not simply understood by just being a man or woman. If you're interested in how gender impacts design and how to include it in good design, please join us for the conversation.

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  • Anna K Donahue

    Only women know how stupid some designs are. For example have you ever cleaned a refrigerator or a stove? Yes, I know, I know, guys clean too, but everyone knows that they don't really see what we do. Besides, fifty years ago what guy would be caught dead in the kitchen so why should he have anything to do with it including the design?
    Women need to step up and take the challenge seriously with all the risks involved. Speak out, jump in, be brave and become a part of the conversation and invention. Stop worrying about gender and start using our ability and brains to level the playing field.

  • Renee

    The “fuss” makes sense when you realize that women control 85% of the spending, yet 71% of women
    feel they are only considered for beauty and cleaning products. These
    simple statistics clearly indicate that gender does matter in design and
    our profession hasn’t yet mastered how to authentically embrace it.

    I agree that it matters, but more so in the sense of how society treats gender and not anything intrinsic to gender.

    The reason why women control 85% of spending is because western society has gender expectations that dictate that women take control of maintaining households.  Increase of women in the workforce doesn't really matter because the expectations still stand that it's the work of women to stock the shelves at home.

    The reason why the majority of women feel only targeted for beauty and cleaning products once again is because of expected gender behaviors. Men are expected to do things and women are expected to look pretty. The cleaning part is just an extension of what I had previously mentioned in the above paragraph.

    I'm cautious about trying to draw on biology in an attempt to figure out the sexes.  Most studies aren't conclusive and they draw heavily on western biases.
    Furthermore, they aren't interchangeable.

    You can't take the fact that there are differences in the hypothalamus between men and women and then translate that into product design with different colors if color has nothing to do with the hypothalamus.

    Likewise you can't say that differences in the Inferior parietal lobule mean that men are more mathematical and therefor likely to enjoy technical and industrial related designs more if you don't take into account that women are persuaded not to enter the fields of science and technology.

    Basically, neurology is a minefield and it's best to leave it out in favor of some more obvious issues like gender equality and gender perception.

  • maria

    Renee, I agree with you 100%. The key questions and answers are in understanding how society dictates how men and women must behave, what are acceptable professions, tastes, etc.

    Whitney, I think you're heading straight into the old socially acceptable thinking that biological differences provide the answers.

    From what I've understood, both from studying biology and from managing people is that personality plays a much greater role than gender. But perhaps that's another topic :)