Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Visualising Gender Norms in Design: Meet the Mega Hurricane Mixer and the Drill Dolphia

Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Visualising Gender Norms in Design: Meet the Mega Hurricane Mixer and the Drill Dolphia

Article excerpt


Everywhere, we are constantly confronted with information that reflects society's perceptions of, and rules about, what is acceptable and what is not. The information can be obvious, informative, explanatory, or obtrusive such as in advertising, on signs, or in informative texts and warnings. It can also be subtler in the form of codes, which indicates a piece of information converted into a form or representation. These can be conveyed through, for example, the design of cities and buildings (and the accessibility to them), clothing, body language, as well as the design of products.

These codes both guide and govern our lives by creating both mental and physical boundaries to our actions. Our interpretation of the codes depends on our previous experiences and is drawn from a variety of factors, such as class (income, education, etc.), ethnicity (culture, history, religion, etc.), and sex (male/female, sexuality). It is also a question of location (geography), space (context), and time (modernity). We may say, therefore, that we are nurtured by our environment, as well as by each other. These things reflect values and express desires. Everyday environments and their forms and functions are the result of someone's conscious intention. It is therefore important that designers understand how the artefacts they create affect the formation and maintenance of these ideas, which include gender. The form can be considered to embody, reflect, and reproduce gender roles and power structures in our society. Inspired by the Offenbach theory of product language (Gros, 1976), this article uses the term product language when referring to these codes in the design. Gros makes a distinction between the practical functions of a product on the one hand, and the formal and communicative aspects - the so-called product language functions - on the other. We will elaborate more on this later.

The field of gender studies has by now established a large volume of empirical research as well as a theoretical framework. There is literature on the subject that is developed in the fields of (for example) art, film, psychology, technology, and anthropology. However, the discussion of gender issues in design practice, or in design research, is still in its infancy. Existing design research notes the way things are, how they became so, and their effects (Attfield, 2000; Berg & Lie, 1995; Cockburn & Ormrod, 1993; Kirkham, 1996; Sparke, 1995) but there are few examples that try to identify the underlying structures (Jahnke, 2006). Compare this to the debate in architecture and technology where established conventions are questioned and debated on a regular basis (e.g., Berner, 2003; Bonnevier, 2007; Faulkner, 2000; Rendell, Penner, & Borden, 2000; Sanders, 1996; Wajcman & Mackenzie, 1999).

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. …

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