Why is design so important? Because there is no way we can escape from it – and this not only applies to the professional designers, but to us all. Since everything is designed (no matter whether it is clever or stupid), not only tables, chairs, lights and computers, but also such apparently mundane things as sellotape, bottle openers and toilet paper – as well as such obvious and therefore easily overlooked phenomena as traffic signs, typefaces, microphones, floors, the internet, the surrounding acoustics and much more. This means: we are surrounded by and live with design 24 hours a day (regardless of whether we like it or even notice it). Therefore: design is important. It shapes not only our environment, but us as well, for example through fashion. Why is gender so important in design? Because there is just as little chance of escaping from it. Here again it doesn’t matter whether we like it or not, whether we are aware of it or not. Every product, sign and service which we are either compelled to confront on a daily basis, or which we – willingly – surround ourselves with every day, also always speaks to us in a gendered way.
However, design has so far remained incredibly ignorant of the gender category, as can be seen from the way it expresses itself within the context of society. While in many other sciences gender discussions have been a self-evident element of the discourse for a long time, in the field of design they have not been systematically and comprehensively incorporated, neither in the theory nor in the research, and certainly not in the practice. This is especially remarkable since design defines our very ordinary everyday lives, everywhere and all the time, and therefore also the people involved in these everyday lives. And that doesn’t happen alone as a process between subjects and objects, rather this interaction takes place indispensably gendered, since cultural experiences and social processes are inevitably influenced by “gender”. Indeed, gender roles are no longer so entrenched as they previously were. Gender identities and sexual orientations have diversified, and are experienced in a more open way. However, gender stereotypes have still not been completely overcome. Certain spheres of work and responsibility are experientially consolidated according to gender, even overdetermined, while others are on the contrary reduced or at a deficit. In this way different skills and abilities, as well as disorientations and narrow-mindedness, are developed in opposing ways. Loss and intensity of experience, as well as competence and knowledge, are not complementary though, since the social evaluation of behaviour and activity, with regards to their “relevance”, varies according to the gender.
In the field of design this is often clearly the case. There are far fewer well known female designers than male designers. Within specific sectors female designers are still barely accepted, and at the moment there are still not many female role models for design. As regards gender equality, in the field of design a predicament is becoming severely apparent. This is due to the fact that a division still often exists here into so-called “hard” and “soft” segments: on the one hand the “hard” industrial design, product design, and media or game design, and on the other hand the “soft” textile design, jewellery design, fashion design and communication design. As long as the topic is merely diversity in design, it cannot be argued against. However, this becomes problematic because both an evaluation hierarchy and a gender allocation are connected to this division into “hard” and “soft”, and one is directly derived from the other. The “hard” design ranks highly on the social evaluation scale, and is de facto predominantly created and determined by men. To a considerable extent, female designers still find themselves in the position which society envisions for them: i.e. carrying out design tasks which have historically been identified as rather private and similar to housework, and therefore designated to and expected of women virtually without question as allegedly typical areas of expertise. These are design sectors which link women to the activities of nurturing, nursing, sewing and tailoring, as well as the decorative, playful/creative and communicative – in short: sectors which place women in domestic privacy. And if female designers do actually work in a male-dominated field such as the automobile industry, the domestic preconception is still active here: they are then responsible for the textiles and colours of the car seats – trend and colour. In the field of design the question presents itself of whether that which, with the extensive exclusion of a gender, was defined as functional, exciting, reasonable, etc., would have been designed and evaluated in the exact same manner if women had actively participated in the design process and its assessment as creators. This is a question which when seen from a historical prospective may be considered futile, but if considered in the future may be more easily answered if and when all male and female designers participate in every design sector in a gender-equal manner.
The gender dilemma also concerns designed objects in the same way: on the market traditional, stereotypical products compete with those which are supposedly modern and either suggest a new femininity or masculinity (gender marketing), or rather assert a more ideological gender neutrality. However, the design of “neutral” objects presumes that male and female designers (just like male and female users who need and use designed objects) are neutral beings themselves. That being said, every individual is challenged by society to express his/her own gender through gender “markers”. For this purpose a social (design) repertoire is available which among other things includes clothing, gestures, the voice, names and designations or specific activities. This is independent from whether people conform to the social roles and norms or not: gender is even present in the rejection of desired gender roles. And this is also the case with multifaceted objects, media and symbols. Gender “neutrality” can therefore not be achieved, however gender sensibility, which helps in overcoming social gender clichés, can be. The future is compassionate design which is aware of the gender issue and aims to offer design which is as open as possible, and which generally includes all people and their most diverse needs.
In doing so we are not concerned with spectacular situations, but rather very normal, sometimes even trivial everyday situations, in which people interact with objects, or in which forms that are seen as secure offer other surprising perspectives, or in which the true “object gender” is revealed through ironic interventions. At the same time it can be proven that the gender category is also a lively, enlightening and important source of information, in order to expose design to a critical analysis. There is the possibility of fundamental innovation if gender is incorporated into design research and practise from the beginning. Therefore: the concept of a gender sensitive, multidisciplinary approach in design has to include not only the various people as creators and users, but also the gender language of the objects as well as the interaction between subjects and objects. In this way the future of design will be able to assure authentic innovation and sensitive gender equality!
PhD in sociology and psychology, author, co-owner of the design consultancy office be//DESIGN, until 2015 professor for Gender & Design and Design Research at the Köln International School of Design (TH Köln) – the first professorship for design expressly dedicated to the topic of “Gender & Design”. Initiator and chairwoman of the international Gender Design Network/iGDN, founded in New York in 2013. Founding member and former chairwoman of the German Society for Design Theory and Research (DGTF).