“Lots of folks have been having fun with these sweet buns here.” From a rack of various body parts, a School of Visual Arts design student handed a visitor a pair of inflatable buttocks to try on.
The exhibition was from students at the MFA program in Products of Design at the New York City school. It was part of NYCxDesign, the city’s two-week design extravaganza. Amid the sleekly designed chairs and lamps on exhibit, the young designers wanted to raise a different question: How does design help construct our gender identity?
“How do we industrialize gender?” instructor Sinclair Smith asked his class as they worked on the project. “Is it handed to us, is it created? Are we responding to the market or are we telling the consumer how he or she should be?”
The class, an exercise in “design performance“–the art of getting consumers to physically interact with products or systems to better understand them–had decided to focus on gender for their final exercise.
They created nine interventions for their roving exhibit, which wandered through various sites in the city asking visitors to question how they display gender.
Reshaper, a rack of puffy, realistic-looking body parts–like the buttocks above–invited people to try on new parts and spend a few minutes acting out the associated gender roles. The students also built fluorescent, abstract versions of other body parts. The point: To playfully get people talking about how body parts influence the way we act.
Three other designs helped visitors reimagine their own bodies. Translator offered portraits of participants as the opposite sex. Renderer used software to make changes to someone’s photo at their request, asking them to think about why, exactly, they might want bigger biceps or a smaller waist. Deconstructor, a set of stickers that emphasized certain body parts–like eyelashes, mustaches, or nipples–invited visitors to play more with their appearance and perceptions of their gender.
Rebrander, a set of medical-like tools, was designed to tattoo people with colorful fragments of gender icons as a way to remind visitors of the way gender norms have been forced on people in the past. Using the tools, people could mark themselves as they chose, inventing their own identities.
Olfactor, a simple game, gave visitors a doll scented with deodorant–marketed either to men or women–and asked them to guess the sex of the baby based on the smell. The game was designed to point out how parents shower kids in gendered baby gear–and how that eventually leads to gendered marketing of random products (like deodorant) that could easily be gender-neutral.
Dispenser offered candy labeled with negative traits associated with gender, forcing visitors to choose a particular trait and consider the effect that “harmless” stereotypes might have.
All of the designs were meant to start conversations, not provide any definitive answers.
“Really what we want to do is broaden the possibilities for people to consume objects and systems and artifacts beyond the little boxes that have traditionally defined gender norms,” says Smith. “We’d like the designed landscape to be more of an open spectrum that can allow people to define themselves as they want to be defined.”