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Designing for Gender, When One Or Both Parties Reap the Rewards

What are little boys made of?Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails What are little girls made of?Sugar and spice and all things nice The rhyme has been catchy enough to stick around for more than 200 years. But we think designing for gender is a little more complicated than sugar and spice or snails and puppy dog tails. Here are two situations when designing for gender works brilliantly–just not in the way you would expect.

What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails

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What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice and all things nice

The rhyme has been catchy enough to stick around for more than 200 years. But we think designing for gender is a little more complicated than sugar and spice or snails and puppy dog tails. Here are two situations when designing for gender works brilliantly–just not in the way you would expect.

dyson

The first situation is when the design is stereotypically masculine, but women end up reaping the rewards. Men tend to love technical sophistication, power, and new toys. James Dyson supplies all of that in one powerful package. His vacuum cleaners are designed to look like incredible, futuristic devices. A vacuum cleaner image on his website has popup menus with “pneumatic actuator” and “high-torque clutch.” Oh, and it’s not a lowly vacuum cleaner, it’s a Dyson Airmuscle. A friend of mine happily describes it in a way that’s telling: “It could be a jet ski, fighter plane, spacecraft, or a robot that massages you.” Take a wild guess–which gender is lusting after this vacuum?

So are you thinking the Dyson is designed for males? Think again. For just $600 a husband gets an awesome toy, and his wife doesn’t have to vacuum.

The second situation is when the masculine and feminine coexist peacefully. Most products are used by both genders. The challenge is to have them appeal to both. I’ve discussed the design of the Mini Cooper with people from of all ages, backgrounds, and geographic locations. The Mini succeeds in pleasing both men and women, without compromise. It’s able to do this because men and women notice completely different things about the design.

mini

Women love this car because the look of it makes them happy. They tend to have a strong emotional connection to it. They enjoy how cute, fun, and well-made it is. Women consider it feminine without being condescending. They talk about the car like it’s a sidekick, “She’s charming, spunky, and has integrity.” Meanwhile, men tend to pick up on the sporty, fast, high performance stunt car background. They see the air intake and the wheel flares. It’s a “real” car. Totally at home with the boys.

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The Mini manages to walk a very fine line and please both sexes. Men describe the car as masculine or gender neutral while women say it’s feminine.

We think both ways of designing for gender inspire. We love that they’re creative and unexpected. Do you have any examples or products or experiences that are appeal to both genders? Or things that try but just flat out fail? We’d love to hear what you think.

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Yvonne Lin is a Senior Design Researcher at Smart Design and is one of the founding members of the Femme Den. She has a BA in Visual Art and a BA in Engineering from Brown University. She is the inventor on more than twenty patents and has designed products for companies like Nike, Johnson & Johnson, Hewlett-Packard, Lego, Pyrex, Microsoft, and OXO. She also spends a lot of time skiing, rock climbing, traveling super economy class, and putzing around her apartment making small art projects. Her favorite things, and things to do, are her cat, handmade toys, skiing powder, and climbing routes that are easier for short people.

The Femme Den is here to save good women from bad products. They started as an underground collective of international women at Smart Design, searching for answers in a world that was not designed for them. They’ve now grown into a leading team of design researchers, industrial designers, and engineers who are paving the way for a deeper understanding around design and gender. They speak around the world on the topic, working to stimulate positive change in the design and business communities.

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About the author

Yvonne has 16 years of experience designing best-selling products, branding, and digital experiences for companies like Under Armour, Johnson & Johnson, Nissan and Lego and she's an inventor on more than 20 patents. As an avid skier, Yvonne became painfully aware that the outdoor industry fell short of meeting her gear and apparel needs

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