Mars and Venus

30 Oct 2003|Davis Masten

Typically I love articles on design. I remain disturbed by Michel Marriott’s recent article For Mars and Venus: A Midpoint in Design (NYT CIRCUITS, October 9, 2003). I agree with many of the points in the article, particularly the quote from my old friend Brenda Laurel “If you are a man you are not a wuss for carrying it around. That’s the bottom line.” Brenda has had to fight in a man’s world and understands that if the product is” too fem”, it narrows the market. But I object to the article not drilling down a deeper gender and design issues.

Design, at least in the world of industrial design, interaction design and product development is still a man’s world. Women are still a small minority in the design world. While Steve Jobs can inspire great design out of men and women, most of the design infrastructure is biased towards the considerably less complicated world of men.

Women’s envelope of concern typically is broader and more multifaceted than men’s. Across the United States women typically have the responsibility for family, day to day finance, the diet, well being and scheduling in the household to name but a few of the multiplexed experiences women have to weigh and balance everyday.

Our gender studies we did for Brenda in the early days of Purple Moon showed that emotional development and the corresponding emotional language is a much richer tapestry with girls than boys. There are aspects of the social dynamics within girl’s lives that I believe most men never have a sense of, let alone ability to value or articulate it in design.

Not only are women’s lives more dimensional, the bar continues to rise for what it takes for the average woman to feel like a success. This sense of inadequacy increases as science develops new metrics of understanding and cultural awareness increases as an interconnected world accelerates us. Generally there are just an increasing number of variables and distinctions about them and all the while, expectations on women are to demonstrate mastery of all their domains.

I believe that we need more women designers. They understand these pressures both practically and intuitively. Until women are more able to influence design, the experience of many products will lack as deep of a connection as they might. I have argued for over a decade that women represent an untapped market in the trillions. Slowly strides have been made. But I remember talking with the VP of the Decision Center for one of the automobiles companies. He argued that what a team of women designing a car would do “make a better space for a purse?”. I don’t know what women would do to redesign a car. But I do know that this particular car company had fewer than 5% of its design staff as women. With so few women the company will never have the perspective or the resources to discover this new ground.

There are so many areas where women needs and desires are divergent from men’s. For instance, while the average 18 year old male defines the experience of a music speaker by the size and penetrating resonance of its subwoofer, most women think of the speakers as an eyesore or an obstacle to great interior design. The speaker designs are generally between Mars and Venus. But there are many women who love Home Theaters not only for the entertainment but also because the trend is for speakers inside the wall and out of the way. This speaker example is just one of many where the solution to meet women’s needs is not about a compromise but an entirely different perspective. If there were more women involved in design, this change in speakers might not have had to wait until the home theater revolution evolved.

Women have such an enormous buying power it is unfortunate that there are so few women designers to help unleash this power. At a time the global economy needs new markets with BIG ideas and FRESH alternatives, the women’s market will remain largely untapped at least as addressed in the world of industrial design and interaction.

I hope that design, like science and technology can attract more women to their fields. With these skills women can design a world that better suits their needs. The need is enormous and grossly underserved.

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