Design needs more feminism, less toxic masculinity

More grandmothers, too.

Design needs more feminism, less toxic masculinity
[Photo: piola/Getty Images]

A recent trip to the airport showed me the future of design.


The waiting area at the gate was chaos. Luggage sprawled everywhere, everyone looking into their phones, competing lines to get onto the plane, boarding groups becoming one. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve probably experienced it many times. As a designer, I always look at these things and think: There has to be a better way.

In the midst of this, I noticed a grandmother by the windows. She’d created a little fort out of a couple of suitcases and a blanket. What looked to be her grandchildren were happily playing. And then some other kids joined them, and suddenly the parents of all the children were smiling and chatting. It was totally bizarre, and also, the loveliest airport scene ever. Those people actually all wanted to be there. They weren’t waiting like the rest of us, they were playing.

It made me wonder how we might create that kind of airport—an airport where we all enjoy the moment and feel connected. What if a grandmother were to design an airport?

I imagine that she would be more likely to imagine ideas that could truly transform airports. She might, for example, be more inclined to consider the needs of each generation. She might value some qualities, such as compassion or relationship-making, over others, while being creative with constraints. She might reference the range of people she’s met, the stories she’s heard, the experiences she’s learned over the years.

You’ve probably already guessed that this story isn’t really about grandmothers. It’s about changing who generates the ideas in design, and who has the voice and power to contribute to decision-making. It’s about the lessons we can learn from grandmothers: How we bring the fullness of the human experience to every moment. It’s about freeing ourselves from the idea that design leaders need to be authoritative and instead should act as community organizers who elevate others. Great design will emerge from the intersection of ideas, experiences, and identities. Less machismo, and more feminism. A focus on innovation and transformation. An emphasis on optimism, empathy, and adaptability. More inclusion at the proverbial table, and then, questioning if power should even come from a seat there.


There are some compelling recent examples. Think of the Women’s March, which was designed to be inclusive at different scales–from welcoming various identities to providing shelter for breastfeeding parents. There’s Coinbase designer Connie Yang, who’s trying to make cryptocurrency accessible and tangible. There are also countless female-founded startups that are seeing opportunities–from tampon subscription services to new financial planning models–that others have ignored. What underlie their designs are 10 key behavioral shifts:

  1. From a focus on few to the inclusion of many
  2. From focusing on functionality to embracing beauty
  3. From self-protection to vulnerability
  4. From top-down dictation to all-around collaboration
  5. From reliance on reason to consideration of intuition
  6. From designing for profits to designing for purpose
  7. From taking credit to amplifying voices
  8. From rigidity to adaptability
  9. From protection of status to advocacy for others
  10. From acting with fear to leading with love

These 10 shifts will enable the next generation to be, not just design leaders, but designers of leadership. The shifts may feel at odds with the status quo. They may change with time. But they suggest new models of power, of working, and of seeing potential in others and the world—new ways to lead in the future of design.

Jessica Tillyer is managing creative director of SYPartners.