Sunday, 14 September 2014

Visualising Gender Norms in Design

This is an article about gender norms in design and makes some really interesting points about femininity in design and use of stereotypes and what have become norms. 

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Gender equality and equity in design is often highlighted, but it often results in producing designs that highlight the differences between men and women, although both the needs and characteristics vary more between individuals than between genders (Hyde, 2005). Examples of such design are Little Pink Tools (tools specially designed for women) and Dad Gear (child care products for dads). Furthermore, there are often practical considerations such as environment, functionality, and ergonomics to pay attention to, where the discussion and analysis of gendered product language is not highlighted. One exception is unisex products, which in some cases have been successful, like with the perfume CK One by Calvin Klein and Swatch unisex watches. The problem with a unisex design, as we see it, is that one often avoids using gendered colours, shapes, and attributes, so the result often becomes pale and/or without a strong identity. Unisex design, therefore, does not contribute significantly to blurring the boundaries of gendered product language.

There may be several reasons why gendered product language has not been problematized more. One reason could be that product language is considered self-evident, as naturally given, and therefore difficult to challenge – although clearly visible, it is also invisible. Another reason could be that the conditions for a gender critical perspective on design have not been very beneficial. Buckley (1986) noticed that women have been involved in design history in a variety of ways, but consistently ignored in, and excluded from, the literature of design. This means that their influence on design has been systematically discouraged. The essay “Ornament and Crime” (Loos, 1997) where the modern architect Adolf Loos critiqued everything from teapots to shoes, famously foundthat the ornament of design being criminal, primitive, degenerated and most importantly, erotic and feminine, has had a great influence on design and design history of the 20th century. We cannot disregard this actuality.


Design as a scientific area is expanding,which implies that the role of the designer will be questioned. Art critic and Ph.D. Linda Fagerström (2010), shows in her research project Sex, Gender and Design that a deeper gender perspective on design and the designer’s role is greatly needed. Her study also shows that designers themselves are calling for this. However, it seems to us that a critical gender perspective on the design process has not so far been widely incorporated in design research. We also lack a proposal for how designers can take advantage of such knowledge in practice.

The purpose of this article is to take a first step towards discussing and exploring a critical perspective in the design process. It discusses in what ways design artefacts and aesthetics can be seen as a (re)production of gender, in the light of the concepts of hierarchy and separation foundational to gender theory (Hirdman, 1990, 2003). This is a question about how we talk about, evaluate and design artefacts according to whether they are associated with a traditionally male or female domain (Berner, 2003; Cockburn & Ormrod, 1993; Wajcman & Mackenzie, 1999).


The purpose of this article is not to discuss the design process itself, but to highlight how a gender perspective can be visualised by a gender critical design practice. This is exemplified by a case in which the product language of an artefact associated with a traditionally male domain is substituted by the product language of an artefact associated with a traditionally female domain, and vice versa. In this way, the invisible meanings and values connected to each artefact, become visible.

Theoretical Starting Points

In this article, our theoretical starting point is inspired by the feminist critique of design. Throughout the history of design, the common view of women as belonging to the private sphere and the man belonging to the public sphere (Fraser, 1989) has been crucial to how artefacts are designed; design of artefacts depends on who is going to use them, the context of which they are a part, and the space in which this occurs (Kirkham, 1996). In the work process, one still uses a gendered product language, in which the female-feminine and male-masculinehave polarising definitions clearly distinguishing between men’s and women’s needs. The man’s superior position in society has also created a standard in which female product language is belittled and opposed (Buckley, 1986; Sparke, 1995). Feminists and design historians have taken the traditional design concept ofform follows function as symbolic of male oppression of women. The machine (the man) takes priority over the body (the woman) (Ahl & Olsson, 2002; Attfield, 1989; Attfield & Kirkham, 1989). Design historian Penny Sparke (1995) describes in her book As Long As It’s Pink how the design world, during modernism, began to develop a language and a philosophy based on the male culture – something she continues to believe to this day. This has created a two-tier system of values based on the systematic devaluation of femininity. ‘Private’ stands in contrast to (and is valued less than) ‘public’; the same goes for ornamental to minimal, natural to cultural, traditional to modern, consumption to production, taste to design and so on with each concept being associated either to ‘femininity’ or ‘masculinity’ (Sparke, 1995, p. 222).

Functionalism and the principle form follows function were questioned in the 1960s, indicating a paradigm shift in design. However, as Krippendorff (2006) points out, the concept is still frequently used (p. 6). We do not argue for the feminist interpretation of form follows function per se, but use it as an analytical starting point.

Product Language

According to Gros (1976) “product language” represents the “sensual functions” of a product. These functions can be subdivided into formal aesthetic functions, i.e., those aspects that can be observed irrespective of the meaning of their content and semantic functions (Figure 1). The latter is then divided into two constituents:indication function and symbolic function. There are some inquiries made about the formal aesthetic functions being further explored in relation to the semantic functions (Zuo & Jones, 2007). We agree with this and, further, that these functions are so intertwined with the overall product language that, when separated, there is a risk of losing important correlations between the formal aesthetics and the semantics. Therefore, in this article, the functions will not be analysed one-by-one since this will lead to an oversimplification of the product language. Formal aesthetic functions like shapecolourmaterial, and décor are analysed, as well as (and concurrently as) indicating functions like graphics and buttons and symbolic functions such as metaphors. In addition, we examine the role of verbal language in the gendering process of products regarding the division into product categories, name setting, and use of attributions. To quote Klaus Krippendorff (2006):“The fate of all artifacts is decided in language”(p. 148).


The Gender System

Seen from a gender perspective, the value system described by Sparke, reflects the gender structure on which our society is built. Gender researchers use the term gender system or gender order to explain this pattern. The gender system is described as a power structure (norm) that organises the relationship between the sexes on a symbolic, structural and individual level (Acker, 1990; Connel, 1987; Harding, 1987). Hirdman (2003) further suggests that the system is built according to basic principles of separation and hierarchy. The separation principle means that the behaviours and tasks are divided into ‘male’ and ‘female’ as opposites. The second principle is the hierarchy principle, which considers the male as the true standard of human values, and what he does and makes as being superior to that of a woman.
In addition to this, there is an on going discussion in the field of gender studies on the concept of intersectionality, which is how social categories such as ethnicity, religion, disability, and class are intertwined with gender qualities and how they interact. In this paper, we will nevertheless focus on the gender system according to Hirdman.

The gender system’s principles can be traced and characterised in design (Rommes, 2006). There is a clear illustration of the separation principle in how products are targeted at children. With the help of the product language, gendered toys and clothes appear from an early age. The products are also sorted as being “for girls” and “for boys” in the stores. The message is hard to misinterpret: girls should wear princess dresses, play with dolls, and toy housework products, while boys should wear dark clothes with prints of skulls or dinosaurs, and should play with war toys and construction kits (Figure 2). The division creates expectations for boys to be tough, smart, and logical, and for girls to be beautiful, quiet, and caring (Kirkham, 1996; Lepkowska, 2008; Rommes, Bos, & Josine, 2011).


Figure 2. The artwork Maia and Her Pink Things from The Pink Project, 2006 (left) and Kihun and His Blue Things from the The Blue Project, 2007 (right) by JeongMee Yoon, illustrates the separation principle in design in a striking way.

The same expectations follow us much later into life. Using the aesthetic dichotomy, properties, and explanations are coded into masculine and feminine. Products targeted at women are characterised by soft, clean, organic shapes, and bright colours (preferably pink), and there is often some sort of decoration such as hearts, diamonds, or flowers (Figure 3). Products targeted at men, however, are characterised by complex, angular shapes, and dark colours. Preferably, the products also express some kind of machine aesthetic and enhancement of performance, or have an expression hinting at danger or challenge (Figure 4). The differences are seldom as obvious as for the Braun’s shavers (Figures 3 & 4). Still, these are equally (or even more) important to observe. It is very often a relative matter; an object for women can have ‘masculine’ attributes and be conceived as an object for men as long as there is no alternative for men represented. However, it is worth noticing that it seems quite hard to find the opposite, an object for men with ‘feminine’ attributes which can be conceived as an object for women as long as there is no alternative for women represented. In some cases, the difference between a masculine design and a feminine design can be a question about colour, function, or size alone; still, there is a difference.







Hirdman (2003) argues that the principle of separation is followed by the principle of hierarchy, which would indicate that male products also are valued higher than female products. This principle is based on the acceptance of man as the norm and women as the exception. The same thinking can be traced to the fact that female products often diverge from the ‘regular’ product selection (that is targeted at ‘people’) and is explicitly targeted as being ‘for her’ (Figure 5).


In product categories related to traditional female domains (like home care products, child care products, hygiene products, and make-up), one can see that women are the main target group. However, it is important to keep in mind that these domains belongs to the private sphere and has a low status in society (Carli, 2001). Inspite of the fact that women (or mothers) are the main target group, they do not seem to become the norm (people). Therefore, products within these product categories that are targeted towards men become something else without being an exception to the norm. For example, cosmetics targeted at men are called ‘grooming products’ (not ‘cosmetics for him’); Philips’ iron targeted at men is called a “power-tool” (instead of home appliance, which probably is more associated with use by women); child care products targeted at men become Dad Gear (not child care products for men), and so on. Until recently, TENA incontinence protection was simply called TENA Lady (for women) while their incontinence protection for men was called TENA Protection Guard. However, this made them hard to find in the stores and TENA had to add‘for men’ on the packages. This could imply that products associated with women’s domains (which are less valued in society) and femininity must become something different to maintain their status, thus being accepted by men. According to Hirdman’s (2003) gender system, this could be interpreted as an example of the principle of hierarchy in design thinking.
There are many examples where a masculine product language is used to communicate superiority. These products are described with superior adjectives such as professionalexclusive, or intelligent. More simple and cheaper versions of the same product category tend to adopt a more ‘feminine’, often bordering on childish expression (Figures 6 & 7). Even traditionally culturally feminine products seem to follow this logic (Figure 8). This supports Hirdman’s theory of the principle of hierarchy in product language.




The product language is also strengthened by an often emotionally-charged name, based on the value system’s principles. The separation principle is especially clear in products within the hygiene industry, where products targeted at women have names that refer to softness, intimacy, emotions, and childishness. Examples of such product names are the perfume Sexual Sugar from Michel Germain, the epilator Silk-épil Soft from Braun, and the watch Baby J from Casio. The men’s collections stand in contrast, with names that can be associated with characteristics such as precision, strength, challenge, and intellect. Examples of which are the shaver Smart Touch from Philips, the fragrance Adventure from Davidoff, and the energy drink Monster. Intellect, strength, and adventurousness are characteristics that are prized in Western society, while intimacy, emotions, and naivety are less so (Kessler & McKenna, 2006).
Even in non-gender-specific product categories, one can find examples where the image of what is feminine and masculine is reproduced by choice of name. DUKA home store in Sweden used to call china with floral decoration such names as Lovisa and Anna, while china with a single stripe was called names like Gustavand Carl. The furniture company IKEA chooses to put girls’ names such as Felicia and Alvine on the soft, intimate, and decorative products like fabrics, rugs, curtains, and upholstery, while more functional products such as bookcases and chairs, receive a boy’s name like Billy and Sebastian. Here, the hierarchical principle may not be as clear as the examples above, but it can nonetheless be discerned. Floral decoration could be described as a symbol for romance (a feminine characteristic), while a stripe could be described as a symbol for rationality (a masculine characteristic), where rationality is regarded as superior to romance (at least in Western society) (Kessler & McKenna, 2006; Prokhovnik, 1999). Regarding IKEA’s choice of names, the products with female names are all textiles, which is a traditionally feminine thing. The products with male names, on the other hand, are mainly made from wood and steel, which are traditionally masculine materials. Textiles as material and textile work are strongly associated with the private sphere, while wood/woodwork and steel/steelwork are associated with the public sphere, where the public sphere is considered superior to the private (Martin & Sparke, 2003). It is not hard to imagine that IKEA’s choice of names is based on the traditional idea of the division of labour in the household.
There are of course, exceptions. Alessi, Karim Rashid, FRONT, and Marc Newson are just a few examples of original design that challenge normative thinking. Still, they are all also examples of high-end design aimed towards an educated elitewhich a majority of people can’t afford and, thus, constitute a minor part of the global market.

Implications for Design

This gives us reason to more deeply discuss the meanings of certain statements and examine them from a broader perspective. That fact that the drill can be perceived as inaccessible gives a broader interpretive variability, if we assume that not only features, but also places, are gendered (Massey, 1994; Prhat, 2004). This could, of course, be about the weight of the drill, but it may also indicate that the drill is stored in a room that is off-limits in an everyday sense. To examine this, it is relevant to discuss the nature of a person’s relationship to the place of storage; this becomes particularly relevant in the case of possible changes in everyday practices and behaviours – if the drill was designed so that it became a natural part of everyday life, would more (in this case,mostly) women change their behaviour? As we can see in, for example, Little Pink Tools, it seems as if these aspects have been central in the design process. The tools are delivered in a purse-like bag to attract women. In the same way, the Philips iron for men is delivered in a solid case to attract men. This design solution creates a dilemma: it can of course contribute to a change in behaviour, but there is also a risk that the strong gender codes in the design exclude those who do not fit into the norm. As Maria Abrahamsson (2007), editorial writer for one of Sweden’s biggest newspapers, Svenska Dagbladet expresses: “Some women may identify themselves with kitchen tools, I certainly don’t” (our translation from the original in Swedish). Therefore, we believe that it is important to search for solutions beyond gender-dichotomous thinking.

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This has given a great insight into the visualisations of gender within products and brands. The aspect of language and gender was really interesting, especially due to the way in which most of such gender connotations are totally overlooked. I never noticed the IKEA naming system in regards to gender before! This is highly stereotypical. 
The image including the energy drink, deodorant and hair remover really makes a statement about the gendering of such products. It is much more clear when you look at the opposite products just how stereotypical and 'samey' the designs are. There is definitely an ethical debate here. 

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