Examining Design Values: Warm, Cold, or Just Right

How products can hit a sweet spot between traditionally female (Warm) and male (Cold) values.

Although our name may make you think otherwise, the interesting thing about the Femme Den is that, while we focus on women, we in no way exclude men. The problem, as we see it, is that design has missed the boat with women. In fact, according to, 71% of women feel that brands only consider them for beauty and cleaning products. That’s pretty sad, right? We see opportunities to create meaningful solutions that are designed to include a female perspective, yet work for everyone. Smart Design (Femme Den’s babydaddy) has always believed in universally-designed products that work for everyone. But, for now, there is an imbalance, as women have to adapt to products that are not designed for them. To correct this imbalance, we must focus on improving product experiences for women.


The imbalance, or opportunity I should say, makes more sense when we look at the origins of industrial design. It is based on engineering–traditionally a men’s profession–and was developed from a technology and manufacturing point-of-view that is all about the “machine.” Styling, speed, the latest and greatest technology, that one extra gigabyte, etc. The Femme Den identifies these as Colder values. While important and vital, these male-oriented Colder values don’t make women feel included. Here’s why: In such chilly environment, women are uncomfortable and, well… bored. What are missing are Warmer values.


Warmer values–that prioritize people, their lifestyles, and creating stronger emotional connections with the things around them–are really what connect with women. It’s imperative to warm up design with innovation that puts people first, not the other way around. The key is to let Warmer and Colder values coexist. That way, both women and men will find meaning in the innovations we all strive for as designers. Let’s take a look at a few examples:

People In Her Life: To learn about what really connects, we often invite men and women to gather, separately, to chat casually on certain design topics. Without stimulus or direction, we let conversation flow, uncovering general attitudes and feelings. Earlier this year, we had a chat on consumer electronics and we learned that men and women talk differently on the subject. The women’s chat was filled with references to their kids, husbands, sisters, mothers, and/or dogs. By the end of the session, we knew their children’s names. Conversely, in the guy’s chat, we didn’t know until the end of the session if they were married or fathers–in fact, we had to ask. They were talking about their personal values only, in contrast to the women, who prioritized their needs along with those of their loved ones. These were really nice guys who cared very much about their families, no doubt, but family just didn’t enter into their product evaluation equation. The difference was startling (and quite entertaining!) and helped us see the importance of paying attention to needs of the whole family.

At one point, the women started talking about the downsides, and their fear, of technology. Although they love the knowledge and resources it provides, they are worried about how too much screen time and limited socialization impacts their kids’ development. They worry that when kids (and grown-ups too!) zone out and spend a lot of time alone, they don’t learn about interaction with other people. But, in the same breath, they often use TV or video games as an electronic babysitter, giving them time to take a break and relax, or to get something done uninterrupted. (Of course, they said this makes them feel quite guilty.) By the end of the chat, it had been staunchly decided that the Wii is the best product design…ever. Why? It responds to their negative views of technology; it allows their kids to socialize with others in a healthier way that never makes her feel guilty. Bravo.


Emotional Connection: In another chat, Lindsay, a suburban professional and mom, told us about a favorite product that she absolutely loves–her Roomba. She wasn’t talking about its high functionality or any product benefits. No, she loves it in…a different way. She talks to it. She scolds it when it misses a spot. She praises it for a job well done. She tells it to go to sleep and recharge. Lindsay isn’t crazy. Lindsay just has an emotional connection to a product design. Of course, if her Roomba didn’t work well, it would never have earned her affection. But, it does more than work well; it brings unexpected personality, magic, and fun to the chore of cleaning. With all the cool things we can do with technology, we should strive to bring products to life, make her cherish them, love them. What’s more, when she loves your product, she is willing to overlook any little peccadilloes, just like she does with people. Encore.


Tech for a Reason: In a recent in-home ethnography study, my colleague met a woman named Pat. Pat talked about her trials and tribulations with her new camcorder she bought for a family trip. It was the best her money could buy, but it had so many buttons and functions that it was nearly impossible to operate. She came home to find hours and hours of footage, not of her family, but of the street and her feet. Eventually she gave up using the camcorder–it was too complex and, as Agnete explains further in her post, she didn’t have the energy or interest to figure it out. Pat doesn’t need all that technology, all those features or buttons. She isn’t a power-user; she just wants to capture memories without the fuss of traditional camcorders. Pat needs a one of those compact camcorders, like the Creative Vado or Kodak Zi8. Why? Because its operation and feature set is pared down to be as simple as her need. Pat doesn’t give a hoot about some hot new image adjustment feature. All she cares about is capturing a moment in her life. These types of camcorders are about people, not technology. Fast to learn, easy to use, fun to share. Perfect.

These are just a few examples of products that succeed in delivering on Warmer values. What about you? Do you have any products in your life that you bought to meet the needs/desires of others? That you love? That offers just the right amount of technology for you? Let us know!

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Erica Eden is a Senior Industrial Designer at Smart Design and a founding member of the Femme Den. She has expertise in diverse fields, including home, health, and packaged goods, but her favorite design challenge is to create an emotional connection through product design, especially in the kitchen. The first product she ever designed, while earning her Masters in Industrial Design from Pratt Institute, was an electric tea kettle that is easy to pour, especially for her grandmother with dexterity issues. Her work has been praised in a number of international design magazines. She also finds any excuse to travel and learn about diverse cultures, food, and fashion around the world.

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 to 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.