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The problem with aspirational design (and what designers should do instead)

Design often exploits people’s anxieties about who they think they should be. Instead, it should focus on who they actually are, says sex-tech designer Ada-Rhodes Short.

The problem with aspirational design (and what designers should do instead)
Ada-Rhodes Short

Ada-Rhodes Short, PhD, is the senior mechatronics design engineer at the sex-tech company Lora DiCarlo. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.

Doreen Lorenzo: Your product Osé [a robotic sex toy] launched to a little bit of controversy at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year. What do you think about that?

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Ada-Rhodes Short: We put an incredible amount of work into Osé, and I think we really captured lightning in a bottle. We’d really made something amazing, and when I found out that we were getting a CES design innovation award in the robotics and drones category, I was just on-the-moon thrilled.

Then when we found out that the award was being rescinded, it was just completely devastating. It took the wind out of our sails. We worked on this great product that uses all these cutting-edge technologies and design practices, but we’re not going to get any professional recognition for it because it’s a product designed for women and people with vaginas to enjoy their bodies. But when we got past that initial shock and [CEO] Lora Haddock decided that we were going to tell our story anyway and fight back, it was really amazing to get all this support from our community. [The award was later reinstated.]

Osé [Photo: courtesy Lora DiCarlo]
DL: Talking about what happened at CES, do you think business and tech are out of step with diversity and the changing beliefs that creative young people have, particularly women and minorities?

ARS: Absolutely. My side hustle is teaching mechanical engineering at Oregon State University where my class is only 10% female, 90% men. That’s a big bottleneck going into the industry. But even that is based on larger cultural context, where we’re actively discouraging women and people of color and minorities from being included in the tech and product design industries. Only about 20% of tech jobs are held by women, and some upsettingly high percentage of tech executives are white men. We’re still dealing with racism and misogyny in one of the most cutting-edge, “forward-thinking” industries.

DL. Let’s talk a little bit about you. Tell me how you got to do what you’re doing.

ARS: I knew I wanted to work with robotics from a very young age. I remember when I was about 10, I had to write a report for school on what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I wanted to be a robot doctor. I wasn’t entirely sure what a robot doctor was outside of I wanted to be a doctor that made robots, but now I get to call myself a robot doctor.

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I was on Quiz Bowl and Science Olympiad, which were hugely formative in my confidence for the engineering industry. By the time I got to college I’d already won awards for engineering projects I’d done, so going into it, I felt like this is something I could actually do, which was really important because there wasn’t a lot of support for people that didn’t fit the white male cisgendered heterosexual mold in engineering.

DL: What are some of the projects that made you happy?

ARS: Like a lot of people in my field, I got caught up by R2D2 and seeing this character that has all this personality and charm and acts in ways that are unpredictable and unique and interesting. A lot of the projects I took earlier in my career really focused on getting toward that point–making robots that behaved more like natural living things. I worked for the company Sphero for a while on the app-enabled BB8, which was amazing. And then that led to a job at Misty Robotics, where we are working on a home robot that would just exist in your home on its own.

But what excites me most is when I see something like a high school student or a college student making their own home robot, seeing all of these people coming up after me who grew up post-internet revolution and have access to all these components that were beyond my wildest dreams as a child.

DL: Talk a little bit about what design means to you.

ARS: To me, design is making a series of deliberate decisions. It’s such a broad definition that applies to everything from an engineered system, where every single part of it is calculated and measured and quantified and verified, to a painting just done by dancing on top of a canvas. It is just a series of decisions that we make and then the things that come from that.

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DL: Do you think the concept of design is changing?

ARS: It is definitely is changing. Design has gone from being almost evolutionary in its necessity to human life to developing increasingly up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from food, shelter, hunting to eventually our more aesthetic needs, things that communicate who we are, to the more aspirational needs of who we will be.

And I think in the past decade of design we’ve really gotten caught up in this aspirational design that we see with things like Fitbit or the latest iPhone. I really hope that the next step in the evolution of design moves backwards from aspirational design and we start to really focus on affirmative design, and designing things that aren’t saying this is who you should be. Instead, this is a design for a product for who you are.

DL: In your world, design and engineering just mold together. What can they learn from each other and if they’re ever opposed, what happens?

ARS: What we find in engineering is answers-driven, and then design can often miss the mark and not work well. But in engineering design, we’re really being philosophical and considering what the answers mean and how do we implement this well. Otherwise, you end up with a product that nobody wants. If you want to make something that people will really love, you need to find the balance between what is rationally possible and what feels emotionally true and important.

DL: What does inclusion mean in the design and engineering practice?

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ARS: Inclusion in engineering design means that we included not just our whole selves, but did our best to include the whole self of the person that we’re designing for. A lot of design products we see are really hypersegmented and honestly really bad design because it’s aimed at this at one person in this vague demographic. Inclusivity in design is asking how do we take our product and make it so the most number of people can fit in it and not just feel like this product reflects me, but makes me feel welcome and seen.

DL: Do you find when you’re teaching that more women tend to take your classes?

ARS: The classes I teach, honestly, you have to take them anyway. They don’t get much of a choice. But as a trans woman who’s visibly queer, one thing that really warms my heart every semester is there will inevitably be a few students who, after the first class, will come up to me or send me an email and say, “Hey, it really meant a lot to me to see a queer woman teaching my class.” Or “I really felt included by just seeing you as my instructor.” Because I definitely don’t fit the mold of the typical engineering instructor or professor. I’m wearing heels up in the front of the room and wearing dresses, got all my makeup on. I think it is important for them to see someone succeeding in this industry that looks more like them.

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About the author

Doreen Lorenzo is Assistant Dean at the School of Design and Creative Technologies, and Founding Director of the Center for Integrated Design, both at The University of Texas at Austin.

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