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Smart Design: Why Girly Designs Directed At Women Often Backfire

Women don’t always take kindly to being isolated by gender or being told that they’re "different." There needs to be a rock-solid rationale for separate, visible design solutions.

[This is the second post in a series by Smart Design. Click here to read the introduction and here to read the first post. — Ed.]

To connect with women, companies often create separate "women only" products. This can have limited success, because women don't always take kindly to being isolated by gender or being told that they're "different." There needs to be a rock-solid rationale for separate, visible design solutions. Visible design makes sense when physical differences exist, suggesting that men and women have incompatible needs. For example, as a woman, I don't have a beard, so a trimmer shouldn't be designed for me. Visible design also makes sense in social situations where we desire to be different or attractive in a uniquely feminine or masculine way, like in fashion and grooming.

The distinctions between these concepts aren't always black and white. It is easy to get lost in the gray area. For example, a product that is obviously designed for women shouldn't always reflect a stereotypically feminine ideal. To better see why, let's take a look at a woman's roles in the course of just one day. She feels differently about her femininity whether she's getting ready for a dinner party, at kickboxing class, or paying the household bills. While everyone has different moods and modes in their lives, a woman's range is by and large more expansive. In one day, she might go from wearing hiking boots to high heels, from breastfeeding to home improvement. Things go wrong when we presume that all women want to express their femaleness at all times of their lives. How many products have you seen that are designed for women in an overly stereotypical way? We've seen plenty — from women's skis sporting floral patterns and names like Vamp to computers that flaunt calorie counters, recipe finders, and pastel paint jobs.


By understanding her gender mindset, in the moment she's using a product, it may be the best choice to create a gender neutral or even masculine design. When we were designing a women's timepiece for Nike, that's exactly how things turned out. It is a fashion product worn inside and outside of the gym by the target user — young, urban women — justifying our visible approach. The standard saccharine, pink, cheap ladies? watches don't match their personal style, are über-girly, and worse, puerile. These women want a watch that expresses femininity in a bold way, integrating the machined look typical of quality men's timepieces with a fresh and feminine aesthetic. We were able to strike the right balance between performance and fashion. You'd never call this watch "girly." I'd love to hear your thoughts on products that misinterpreted femininity.

Up next: When to choose transparent design.

[Top image via The Smithsonian]

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  • Tiffany Lowyns

    I think a female needs to chime in here. I like the color pink.  I like to wear pink when I am doing something that I don't normally consider "feminine" lifting weights or shooting firearms. It motivates me to try activities outside my comfort zone. 

    What annoys me is when athletic companies don't size items for women's bodies.  I am a petite woman, I cannot wear many of the athletic watches because they are  simply too big for my wrist. You cannot take a man's watch, paint it pink and call it a woman's.  I have often wondered what kind of people design athletic apparel  for men who have never seen a woman's body? 

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Good point, that "feminine" and "girly" are not the same. Sadly, I think that many products and pitches that attempt to connect with men also fail to distinguish between "masculine" or "manly" and the sort of thing that would appeal to a teenage boy. We have a fair bit of growing up to do as a society.

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Time Coach to Creative Leaders

  • Nicolas Lehotzky

    As a designer, I recognize that it isn't always easy to design with women in mind. As you mentioned, there are lots of stereotypes about women's preferences in shape, size and color for example. However, every human being is different, and I do not believe it is possible to determine a positive response from any target pool no matter how extensive the 'market research' in fashion oriented products, such as watches.Pre-determining a fashion product's appeal, however, is not something I would believe right away. After all, Nike's watch division was shut down for a reason. 

  • Ben Gould

    There is a lot of truth in the comments below, and I especially agree with the concept we all learned from Field of Dreams: "if you build it, they will come." But! When we are talking about products that are specifically bought as a means of expressing style (fashion accessories) you will sell a whole lot more product if your design strikes a chord.

    I applaud Nike's design solution above.  The no-comment black/white and silver routine is always a safe bet to avoid offending any sensitivity to gender-specific product.  And, the vertical layout lends itself to completing a femininely slender design. The end result appears very sophisticated and design-conscious.

    The bottom line: a big company like Nike can afford to experiment with many different styles, in order to put a watch on just about everyone's wrist, in fact, here's mine
    What is important for all of us to learn is how to hit the broadest market with our designs, and attract the broadest range of consumers. For those of us without the resources of a fortune 500 company behind us, that 1 great design had better be the right one. Even if it's pink.

  • Brandon Smith

    Although I understand your thinking behind over hyped gender stereotypes within (though not necessarily limited to) the industrial design industry, I have to agree with Alex in that a product's final design is not wholly a factor of the stereotypes of its intended gender's usage. 

    Any company (at least the smart ones) before putting out a product will do its homework ensuring that not only is there a market to support its product (whether real or perceived) and that its product meets the needs/wants of said market.  Few products create a market (ex. the iPad... I didn't know I needed it until they invented it) and the vast majority are merely a production of it's intended market's needs and wants.  Basically, if a market did not exist for pink plastic women's watches, their creation would not exist.  So long as there is a market to support it, a product will exist to fill it (or will be created to fill it) regardless of its supposed gender overtones. 

  • Alex Chatham

    The misguided stereotypes of taste that are applied to women  are also applied to men. There are many examples of  misinterpreted masculinity to balance out the misinterpreted femininity that you're talking about. A Dewalt stereo system is the male equivalent of the pink watch that you show. Some people are into that, just like some people probably bought those pink watches. 

    I think that most products do not reflect an identity that is linked to sex. Almost any serious design firm does research on the intended market for a product. These products therefor reflect a more complex set of criteria, and needs than you are supposing here. 

    How many design firms have a room full of men smoking cigars saying, " You know what women like? Pink. That's what."?

  • niels kongshaug

    I am working with clothes, so my comment is based on this background, not products not related to the sex, as a dress is. For us, we design clothes with the feeling of the society. From prehistoric times, the looks of the women in the tribe was to show how successful the tribe was. And I am not talking fashion, before that, before clothing almost. If the tribe on a savannah was successful, the women would have long and healthy hair, if the tribe was successful the women would have nice and good fur coats. And as this is a comment I will stop with examples and conclude that also today we see that women with a healthy life, meaning a stable relationship with a man, she will always have long hair, and any woman would also like a fur coat. So for products to hit the women and get them to buy it, the product has to hit the chores of the mood today. Until 1990 all women wore should paddings, after the threat disappeared, the round sholders came back and because we today do not have any real threats like the H-bomb able to destroy everything 20 times in a few days, merely a bomb that kills less than the traffic, the should paddings are not successful now. 
    How to translate this to a new watch, well for sure this is difficult, and I can only agree that no body likes to be talked down to, treated as either a dumb sex object or a dumb adventure guy.
    Niels Kongshaug, Italy 13.july 2011

  • M Stanger

    "and because we today do not have any real threats like the H-bomb able to destroy everything 20 times in a few days, merely a bomb that kills less than the traffic"

    I don't know where you got that information from. Modern nuclear weapons are fully capable of completely wiping us out many times over. 

    Certainly some governments talk about disarmament and proclaim that they'd never use such terrible tools (usually in the context of trying to look like the 'good' force in the face of a purported 'evil empire'). 

    If you believe that there are not stockpiles of deadly weapons around far more threatening than an "H-Bomb", I applaud the propagandists on their success in pulling the wool over the eyes of the people.

    Sorry to divert the comments section, I do realize I've fallen into the trap mentioned in this XKCD cartoon so long ago ;-)  

  • Thinkso Creative


    Defining what is "feminine" is the core issue here. It is true what they say: Women are complex. It's impossible to pigeon hole an entire gender, and this proves true time and time again with the continued failure of gender segregated products.

    Is there still a place for female specific products? Should new products and services targeted towards women be marketed in a "separate but equal" sense? Perhaps.

    ...but please, corporate America, lay off the pink!