Thursday, February 02, 2006

His and Hers

Yes, there is sexism in product design

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, November 5, 1997 -- [Image]
When I was seven I had a Matchbox car collection
that was to die for. Once, while I was playing with a
Camaro and a pickup truck, another kid's mom saw me and
exclaimed with disgust and disbelief, "Those are yours?!"
The message was loud and clear: there were toys for girls
and toys for boys, and my desire to play with the latter
was strange behavior. Fortunately, I decided to embrace
my strangeness rather than suppress it, growing up to
follow my interests into engineering and design. [Now
that you mention it, though I enjoyed my Matchbox cars, I
was never too enthused about my Civil War action figures.
Too macho. And that led ... well, never mind. -- Ed.]

Even as adults, the "toys" we choose to play with give
off clues about who we are, and product design provides
many props that reinforce or break down stereotypes.
Social distinctions become linked with visual codes, such
as associating women's objects with delicate powder-pink
pearlized finishes, and men's with black or gray and
hard-edged geometric shapes. Take a product like the
razor: the mechanics of the man's and woman's razor are
the same, but design turns them into two distinct types
of products.

In some cases, consumer electronics design is
refreshingly unisex, such as the bright yellow sports
lines of portable audio equipment which speak to a way of
life, rather than an age group or gender. On the other
hand, CE in general can be viewed as one of the worst
culprits of gender-specific design. The black boxes and
cryptic controls that have been standard outerwear for
stereo receivers, VCRs and tape decks communicate an
exclusively male aesthetic in the same way that pictures
of little boys on the package of a toy chemistry set do.
CE fetishes have given men an opportunity to bond with
one another in an exchange of shop-talk-like specs about
subwoofers and tweeters, turning the home entertainment
system into the garage of the indoors.

So what if stereos are designed with men in mind? Women
still get their teapots and dishwashers, don't they? With
men losing all sorts of privileges to women, why not
leave them with these remnants of their masculine
identity? The obvious problem with these attitudes is
that they perpetuate the communication gap between the
sexes; they maintain outdated design traditions that grew
from times when men and women led very separate
existences, and women were excluded from many aspects of

If domestic appliances like irons, washing machines and
cooking ranges are going to remain the female domain
while the guys get all the good stuff -- objects whose
sole purpose is recreation and entertainment -- there's
bound to be a conflict. With so many instances of both
men and women working full time, housekeeping as well as
playtime become shared activities. New divisions of labor
in the home mean that the systematic exclusion of women
won't work anymore. (That's right, guys, we want you to
change diapers and let us control the stereo once in a

At the same time, men can get something out of the
democratization of design by being relieved of the role
of technical expert. Nowadays, instead of complaining
about how user-unfriendly a design is, a guy might feel
compelled to struggle with it and get into the techie
details in order to prove his machismo -- the human
equivalent of the peacock showing his feathers. This is
absurd in a couple of ways. Of course it limits the guy's
freedom to express his feminine side -- I thought I was
treated badly with my Matchbox cars, but that was nothin'
compared to the little boy who brought a doll into the
second grade. Still worse is the fact that he's going to
pay money for a poor design that he has to waste time
learning to use. Perhaps the severity of the
VCR-flashing-12:00 syndrome has finally given men an
opportunity to admit electronic limitations.

Women's updated roles in society have made them a bigger
part of the decision-making process when it comes to
family purchases, and manufacturers are starting to wake
up to this by marketing to us both in design and
advertising. Let's hope this will result in more
enlightened product concepts, as well as an interesting
way for American industrial design to evolve.

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This column is an exclusive.


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