Creating Innovation

Clichés, gender sensitivity and customisation in design

Gender has – at least as a term – arrived in the mainstream, the vocabulary is on everyone’s lips. Since the 90s, Prof. Dr. Uta Brandes has at the Cologne International School of Design the world’s first profession for “Gender and Design”. She teaches, researches and advises global corporations on gender sensitivity in design and explains in the interview how innovations can be designed, clichés avoided and designs made gender-appropriate.

Prof. Dr. Uta BrandesPhoto Credit: Nele Martensen

How do gender and design relate to each other?
When I started in the mid-1990s as the first female professor of gender and design in the world, people reacted with incomprehension. They said design is about aesthetics and functionality – and this has nothing to do with gender. But what we think is functional and aesthetic is very gender specific. Today, the word gender is on everyone’s lips, younger generations, companies and many universities are interested in the topic, even lots of men. But it still didn’t really get into the field of design.

Where do you see deficits?
A simple example is the automotive industry. There are very few female designers, and if there is one, she is responsible for interior and fabrics, rather than technical developments. These are gender clichés about what men and women are supposed to be competent at. But still, I’m optimistic because some things have changed in the past years.

What’s the reason for these clichés?
It’s a historical development: Typically, the bourgeois woman in the 19th century was, more than ever before, supposed to be in the house, in private, locked up. While the man went out into hostile life, the women remained excluded from professions, universities and even libraries. Their only field of activity was the interior, the private, the domestic. The result, in short, is the ideology that women are more skilled in those areas, and that has continued to this day. Often, unconsciously, children are treated and educated according to their gender. And then girls are interested in dolls and the boys are in cars. It deserves a closer look at how this is actually caused.

The magazine “A Women’s Thing

And the industry serves the clichés.
Yes, in the drugstore, hygiene and cosmetics that is particularly clear. The companies have discovered how to get the men “cosmetically”, with appropriate design. The dark blue filled shelves are reserved for men, the pastel ones for women. With wet shaver, it is particularly striking, because there is the pink, elliptically curved “Venus Embrace” – and the angular blue one is called “Mach3 Turbo”. Both could be identical. With this so-called gender marketing, the stereotypes are confirmed and even reinforced. With children’s toys and clothes, it has never been so bad as it is today.


What is the solution?
My ideal would be designs, that are more open and can be customized. That means you can tailor and adapt the thing to personal needs. I call it fluid design. This includes an awareness that people are different and stereotypes should be avoided.

What advice do you have for companies and designers?
People all over the world are constantly redirecting things and using things for a purpose other than originally intended. In the former jam jar we do pins, the fridge door becomes a pin board. From this knowledge, design professionals could learn to develop new things, opportunities, even in the digital domain – just by watching and looking closely how people actually use things. This is how innovation can arise. And gender justice.

Notamuse Cover
Driven by the lack of female role models in graphic design, notamuse is a project that critically investigates the visibility of women graphic designers in the design public

So what makes a successful design?
The criteria for this usually are sustainability, reduction of material, the repairability and reusability of a product. I would add the ability to perceive what people actually do with the product – and to always have a gender-sensitive point of view.

Prof. Dr. Uta Brande’s “iphiGenia Gender Award” honors gender-sensitive designs. The winners in 2018 were the company “Aesop” in the category “Evolution”. In the category “Revolution” the magazine “A Women’s Thing” made by internationally renowned journalists in New York was awarded. And the young talent award “Volition” got a group of master students for “notamuse“.

Words: Bettina Krause

Portrait Notamuse
Portrait Notamuse

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