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How To Design "Manly" Household Products For The Involved Dad

With more men spending time at home and taking care of kids, everyday products should speak to both sides of the parenting equation.

[This is part of the Femme Den series from Smart Design. To read the introduction to the series, go here.]

We’re witnessing a major cultural shift in the work that men and women perform. Just as some women are earning salaries that exceed their partner’s and achieving the highest positions in the workforce, men are breaking ground in roles their own mothers used to play single-handedly.

While some men have been forced into this situation—more men have lost their jobs in the ongoing economic recession—others are entering the "involved parent" lifestyle by choice. The 2010 U.S. Census showed the number of single-father families nationwide is at 1.5 million, a 27% jump in the past decade, and an additional 150,000 men are stay-at home fathers. But the biggest change is how involved men have become at home. In 2010, according to an article in Time, men did an average of 53 minutes of childcare a day. That’s almost three times more than in 1965.

Despite this shift, the marketplace hasn’t fully embraced the "involved dad." Since women continue to drive purchasing decisions for the family, most businesses have yet to look up from their traditional markets to notice men’s changing role in the home. For instance, how do you balance the design of cleaning products so that they appeal to both sexes? And how do you design products that help men feel comfortable and connected to their work in the home?

Let’s look at two very different products for the home and family that manage to include men without alienating women:

Dyson gets even more transparent.

Dyson has found a sweet spot in what Erica Eden describes as "transparent design"—or design that appeals to both sexes but for different reasons. A bigger ticket item like a vacuum will most likely be discussed between a couple, despite the final purchase being made by the woman. How does Dyson make it easier for both a man and a woman to say yes on this purchase? Dyson’s designs emphasize the benefits of suction performance and maneuverability, which spurs women to buy the machines. But once those vacuums make it home, it’s the men of the house who become Dyson fanboys.

If you look at a Dyson DC02 or DC25, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Overall, they resemble typical "man" stuff. In yellow and black (their principal color scheme), they recall DeWalt power tools or Caterpillar construction equipment. The bulging air chambers look technical and functional—more rocket engine than home appliance—and the visible inner suction chamber showcases performance almost like an exposed engine of a hot rod.

Whether Dyson intended the design to appeal specifically to men, it certainly didn’t stop women from making it a market leader. Of course you could argue a lot of women would be happy just to find a product that encourages their husbands to clean!

Diaper duffels for dads

When out in public, even the most rational dad might shun parenting products that make him feel less "manly." For instance, my friend Chris is a tough-on-the-outside social worker by day, but he also stays at home part-time with his daughter, Sarah. Every time he goes to daycare, the park, or play dates, he has a routine of emptying the entire contents of his wife’s handbag-like diaper bag into his own duffel.

Companies that make products for parents are addressing these kinds of insecurities with designs that defy gender classification and make members of both sexes, especially men, feel comfortable performing their parental duties. For example, a company called Skip*Hop models many of its diaper-changing bags after the gender-neutral messenger bag.

The reality is that the home-product user is no longer the "she" of past generations. It’s also the "he" of the new millennium. As men continue to share responsibilities in the home and with the kids, designers need to cater more thoughtfully to him. At Smart Design, we recently worked with OXO to launch a new line of kids’ products called OXO Tot. While designing the brand and product line, we spent a lot of time understanding the needs of both moms and dads so that the resulting products appeal to both gender sides of the parenting equation. At home, men and women share life and many of the responsibilities. Good design makes both feel welcome.

[Top image image courtesy Skip*Hop; other Skip*Hop image by Wendy Copley]

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  • Herald

    Totally like the design direction over there at Smart, I went to buy a yoga mat some weeks ago and felt like there was no option for me. However, I went to Meijer's before having to go to a sports related store where I found only one option that was suitable.

  • JamesWallis

    Until product designers can start getting the basics right, no amount of cosmetic changes will make products more appealing to men. I'm not freakishly tall but I can't find a baby-buggy that I can push without stooping. No amount of man-pockets is going to improve that.

  • Ron Joseph

    Totally agree. Products need to be designed for the function they are supposed to perform and they should be usable by either sex. That's what we do at Zojila

  • Wize Adz

    Wow, you folks are missing the point under a bunch of marketing fluff.

    I'm a practical man.  I like practical stuff.  Make the product work well for a reasonable price, and avoid making it look like it should be only be used by pretty pretty princesses, and I'm happy.  My wife has the same requirements, since she got over the pretty pretty princess thing the when she was six.  I don't care how I look carrying a diaper bag (or my wife's purse), because the fact I'm taking care of my kid the world that I'm a diligent and caring dad, and I'm proud of that.  The fact that I have the right tools tools to do the job slung over my shoulder is just that, regardless of how they look.  Being the kind of stand-up man who can change a diaper, change my oil, make dinner, repair the deck, and make my wife happy all in the same evening supersedes all appearances and all fashion.

    Beyond that, I favor products that can be repaired instead of replaced.  I'm neither young enough nor old enough to waste my time and money on disposable plastic crap.  Planned obsolescence for its own sake, or for the sake of fashion, is just a way to wring cash from my pockets, and I take offense accordingly.  Make replacement parts available online, or use standard parts that I can get at the hardware store, and I'll buy your overpriced replacement parts for years and years, just like I do for my car.  That holds true for everything from kitchen gadgets to power tools to baby stroller strollers to vehicles.

  • PsPrint Printing

    As a woman, I would prefer that red diaper bag to a pink, "feminine" one any day. I think it's not just a matter of producing "manly" products but rather, functional, subtle products for everyone.

  • ItsGrammyTime

    It's been a while since I had little ones -- has anyone made the stroller handles adjustable yet?  I remember them being perfect for 5'4" me, but way too short for 6' dad.

  • Forythe Paul

    LOL, you will be happy to know that most strollers have adjustable handles now.

  • Steven Leighton

    I thought carrying feminine looking baby stuff was great.
    Got me kudos from the ladies and on two occasions trans-Atlantic  upgrades to better seats for me and the baby boy. When we flew east over the Atlantic I got kudos for my boy because he didn't cry (night flights- he slept) and when we flew west during the day and he got fidgety and cried I got kudos for being such a patient dad.
    Gimme that pinky flowery stuff every day!

  • Noe Berengena

    The whole idea of shaping universal purpose products to one or the other sex is indicative of the shallow way of looking at design (from the marketing viewpoint as opposed to its functionality). As a point of reference, let us consider all of the Apple products so celebrated recently with the death of Steve Jobs. Nowhere in the entire stable of items was there a female or a male version of the iMac, iPod, iPad or iPhone. 

  • jordantwigg

    Great to see design and function working well together. My husband would have been all for these type of products if they have been around when our boys were little. He was a great hands on dad, but did feel uncomfortable with very femalle biased products.