Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?
How do we encourage more females to become industrial designers?
When I catch wind of a design conference my fingers go scurrying across the keyboard towards the URL. But I don't go clicking on the glamorous location (usually a hotel ballroom) or the glitzy parties (usually at a hotel bar). I go directly to the speaker lineup. I count the number of female speakers. I count the number of male speakers. And then I do some math.
That math is, admittedly, getting better. The dearth of women speakers at design and tech conferences has been well-documented and well-debated. The upcoming TEDxWomen, for example, can be read as proactive commentary on TED's male-heavy lineups. With vigilant attention to the issue, organizers of conferences are making efforts to seek out not only gender and racial diversity, but simply new, fresh voices, as opposed to the same old standbys.
But when I first clicked over to the site for this week's Industrial Designers Society of America's international conference, which kicked off Wednesday in Portland, my heart sank again. There was a grand total of seven women out of 35 total speakers (two more have since been added). And here's the kicker: The theme was DIY, a category that, thanks to the craft and maker culture, could be said to be predominantly female. My eyes fluttered in disbelief as I searched the headshots for female faces.
"I'd love to see more than ten percent women, I really would," says Michelle Berryman of the Atlanta firm Echo Visualization, a past-president of IDSA who was inducted as a fellow of the organization last night. While there aren't many statistics on women in design, Berryman spent her tenure doing research by surveying membership rosters and talking to her peers to help bring more women into leadership positions. "We've done quite a bit of outreach to make sure it's not just a bunch of 45-year-old white guys," says Berryman, noting that three of IDSA's presidents have been women. Earlier this year, Linda Tischler noted over at Fast Company (where I'm also a contributor) that an unusually diverse jury would be judging IDSA's annual IDEA awards, whose winners were honored this week at the conference. Proactive indeed, but not the norm.
I could write a whole series of articles on the ways that women are faring in—and in some instances, dominating over—various areas of the design industry (and check out this story in The Atlantic that says women now make up a majority of the workforce). But seeing as architecture and graphic design fields seem, anecdotally, to be closing the gender gap, and especially as this is discipline of design where so much great humanitarian work is done, the gender disparity in industrial design is dismaying.
"I think it's a product design thing," says Yvonne Lin of Smart Design, who said she's "not surprised" at the low numbers of women. She thinks something happens after female designers leave school, where she says she's noticed the number of women being much higher, maybe even 50 percent. "Somewhere between design school and working in the industry they get lost," she says. "They go into things like research because women are interested in people. Not just this 'product as icon,' but how they use it, live with it, the whole experience." Many women also disappear into the craft or DIY industries, she says, where they'll continue working with their hands but not really identify with product-oriented or manufactured design as their discipline.'>
Gary Hustwit's 2009 film Objectified featured far more male designers than female ones
An encouraging sign is the changing industrial design industry itself, which is taking a more holistic view of products that includes everyone from ethnographers to experience designers. It's evolving in a way that might be more appealing to women, says Karen Reuther, recently at Nike and now at Ziba Design, who has been working in the industry since 1979. "I'm seeing a less traditional approach to industrial design, with textiles, color, methods of making—a richness to it that that I think gives new opportunity for entries into design, including women." She hopes to make the field more visible and accessible to all people, not just women, who can see their multifaceted talents embraced by a company that won't force them into traditional roles. "Diversity is good for business," she says. "It's important for people to see the face of industrial design for what it is and what it is going forward. It's not the traditional way I studied 30 years ago."
Women are also increasingly exposed to female industrial designers who are moving beyond artifact-making, into community- and experienced-based efforts. Take someone like Valerie Casey, who worked at industrial design powerhouses like frog and IDEO before founding the Designers Accord, or Emily Pilloton, who used product design expertise to launch the non-profit Project H. Women are also reinventing fields like service design, where designers like Hilary Cottam are proving that there are groundbreaking ways to make a difference using their traditional skills.
But the brightest future for the recruitment of women in industrial design is actually coming from the top down—as clients demand it. At Smart Design, Lin is a member of the The Femme Den, a group of women designers who tap into different projects and offer insight on products for both men and women. But they've been drumming up interest since companies realize that it pays to market to and design for women: females make consumer product purchasing decisions more often than their male components. Lin uses her Femme Den role to show the value of having women in the design process. "I feel I have a responsibility to help people realize that men and women judge design differently," she says. "Women bring this different perspective that might reflect who is actually using the product, compared to who is buying it."