Design and gender studies

In 2015, Tiphaine Kazi-Tani and I organised a two-days conference on Gender and Design Studies with Design en Recherche. We were looking to foster design and research collaborations on a topic we had found crucially understudied. Especially given the gender gap in the design field, which seems to worsen after graduation. This article proposed an overview on the main research strands on the topic.

  • Revisiting the history of design to highlight the contributions of women;
  • Studying how the gender attributed to potential users and audiences shape design, and how in turn design is used for gender identification;
  • Highlighting design projects from the margins, contesting or queering norms and design outcomes;
  • Investigating how gender representations are constructed in design education.

Revisiting the history of design to highlight the contributions of women

As in other fields, the contributions of women to design has pretty much been erased from history. For instance, in a conference about the history of woodtypes, David Shields highlighted the important presence of women within foundries, doing the manual work. But even when they did design typefaces themselves, they were rarely publicly credited. This creeps up in design education: I’ve seen too many design students attributing Charlotte Perriand’s furniture to Le Corbusier, forgetting the Eames were two people, or being enthusiastic about William Morris and entirely ignoring his daughter, May Morris, or crediting her work to him.

During the aforementioned conference, Triin Jerlei examined the design practices, fields and their history in Estonia. She discussed Estonian attempts to develop a design approach focusing on « male » things, in opposition to local design, associated with traditional craft, in which women were majoritarian. This gendering of design practices is a discourse about good design and modernity: implicitly, local design is turned towards the past, while new design practices are turned towards the future. It overlooks how design enables to revisit and reposition the soviet past of Estonia.

Studying how the gender attributed to potential users and audiences shape design, and how in turn design is used for gender identification

Think about toys: despite growing opposition, children are more likely to receive blue toys if they are raised as boys, and pink toys if raised as girls. Similarly, they often receive different types of toys. This gendering results from a design endeavour to produce separate products and audiences—and generate higher profits—as well as from the active investment by parents and children in distinguishing between (two) genders. Children do find value in owning objects that enable them to assert a gender identity that is valued. In other cases though, gender is implicit in design: by supporting activities in which a group is more likely to engage than the other, design can contribute to perpetuate gender-based discrimination. A corollary issue is that of ergonomic norms and statistically gendered interests. In a world where the standard is male, products can be untested and dangerous for women. Science and Technology Studies scholars have long investigated this topic and the « identity work » (Shapiro) design supports (see especially the work of Nelly Oudshoorn and Ellen Van Oost), as have historians (see for instance the book Gender and Material Culture in Britain since 1600).

Communications on this theme illustrate the wide range of corpus, theoretical framework and methods that can be used to study gender in the material culture. For instance, Pierre Noual discussed gendered design of perfume bottles through time and how these reflect evolutions in targeted markets — and gender norms.

Élise Chane and Élise Vinet, as well as Stéphanie Gosset, presented their work on the design of public spaces and gender. The two Élise analysed a corpus of children playground catalogs. They looked at the activities they support and suggest that these are mostly oriented to activities associated with boys, e.g. exerting gross motor skills. They propose bringing imitation games and equipment more traditionally associated with girls to playgrounds. Stéphanie Gosset reported on her observations of the Dubaï transportation system, describing how designers proposed to take into account gender inequalities, and gendered patterns of moving around in the city, in the new tramway cars. She highlighted the difficulties of working both towards ensuring the safety of women in public transportations and towards social equality

Both Fabrice Bourlez and Romain Delamart were interested in the concept of gender performance with objects, inherited from queer theory and gendered design. Fabrice Bourlez proposed a discussion grounded in psychoanalysis, based mainly on movie excerpts, of how objects categorise and produce gender on a daily basis. He further outlined approaches through which to resist the gender scripts, as designers, artists, people. Romain Delamart presented his diploma project on everyday objects attached to gendered professions — le garçon de café and his tray for instance, or the secret diary — and outlined the other ways of doing, the other objects, he found useful in his practice — including the mirror. This takes us to the next theme of the conference.

Highlighting design projects from the margins, contesting or queering norms and design outcomes

I borrow the expression « designing from the margins » from Melanie McBride, whom I first met in 2015 (see also: McBride and Nolan 2017). By this she refers to the necessarily situated point-of-view of the designer, and engage her to adopt design approaches grounded in specific, marginalised, experiences and communities. She aims at changing the ways olfactory material is used, but the expression can be used more broadly, to refer to forms of co-design, design activism or speculative design moving away from a single and universal user or audience.

Hélène Mourrier presented her exuberant queer design portfolio. Ece Canli discussed graphic design experiments around non-binary graphic design, using queer theory to approach writing and typography in workshops, and sustain critical thinking around gender norms. Léopold Lambert from the Funambulist proposed a larger discussion of design in relation to bodily norms, pointing the impossibility of perfectly fitting — but also how norms are sustained throughout the design process through the production of documents

Investigating how gender representations are constructed in design education

Bridging the observations of how design support gender construction, the transformative practices wished by those concerned with queer design, and the preoccupation to highlight contributions of women to design history, this fourth theme look at gender in design education. How do we make designers conscious of their gender assumptions and biases? What are the tools, processes, exercises that will best help our students developing more careful practices?

Marta Isabella Reina presented the work of the dcxcg research group. It develops tools to reduce gender bias in visual communication and help students consider the impact of their decisions and representations on society. A key to this kind of research is the interdisciplinarity: it involves semioticians, graphic designers, education specialists… This is something we also addressed during the conference itself: we proposed participants to ‘deconstruct’ an object and its gendered scripts. Participants were invited to think about physical features, surrounding discourses (marketing) and how these relate to personal experiences of using the said object. They were then ask: how would you reconstruct it differently, with a different set of values?


Instead of looking at overall approaches to examine the intersection of gender and design studies, we can look at fields or sub-disciplines using gender studies to revisit assumptions and theories in that field. In Human-Computer Interaction, there’s a significant body of work around Feminist HCI. In urban planning, you should check out the work of Genrespace (in French). Any other suggestions? Let me know.

Design links

Queering graphic design:

Academic readings:

  • Light, A. (2011). HCI as heterodoxy: Technologies of identity and the queering of interaction with computers. Interacting with Computers23(5), 430-438.
  • Oudshoorn, N., Saetnan, A. R., & Lie, M. (2002). On gender and things: Reflections on an exhibition on gendered artifacts. In Women’s Studies International Forum (Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 471-483). Pergamon.
  • Shaowen B. (2010). Feminist HCI: taking stock and outlining an agenda for design. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’10). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1301-1310. 
  • Cheng, A. (1999). Design and feminism: Re-visioning spaces, places, and everyday things. Rutgers University Press.
  • Greig H., Hamlett J., and Hannan L. (2015). Gender and Material Culture in Britain since 1600, Red Globe Press.
  • Baumhoff, Anja. The Gendered World of the Bauhaus: The Politics of Power at the Weimar Republic’s Premier Art Institute, 1919-1932. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2001.
  • Brulé, E., & Kazi-Tani, T. (2015). Disputing Ergonomics, Deconstructing Users. A Queer Perspective on Design. In Design History Society.
  • Shapiro, E. (2010).Gender Circuits: Bodies and Identities in aTechnological Age. New York: Routledge.
  • A bibliography about gender and Human-Computer Interaction

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