Few purple personalities in the design world

Gender equity is much in the news again. This issue seems to take the form of a wave, appearing in force periodically and then subsiding. But it doesn’t go away.

Paul Epp

Women want to be treated equally and they ought to be. But they are not always, so the struggle persists.

There are gender overtones in the world of design, as well. It has only existed as an activity that we recognize for not much more than 100 years. In the late 19th century, design was most often a matter of decoration. It was applied art. And women were often expected to be better at this, and they likely were. Decoration is closer to the domain of the home and traditionally, women determined the face of the domestic environment and the various accoutrements of it so they had the advantage of experience.

Pink or Blue?

I think that this is a legacy of our agricultural past, and as recent a past as my own childhood. In that social structure, male and female domains were highly regulated. Men controlled what went on outside, and women, what went on inside. The house, versus the barn (or the rest of the world), so to speak. Not only were the domains separate, there was also often a primacy given to the male’s world. It was (at least in male minds) more important and consequently, more valuable. It was often a rougher world, whether physically, mechanically or commercially and men were believed to be stronger and better able to accommodate those rigours.

These foundational perceptions have survived into the fairly recent past, even as our society has become both urbanized and industrialized. As an example, when I first began to teach Industrial Design at OCA, there were very few females in the program. Industrial design, as it was perceived then, had more to do with machines and structure. It was closer to engineering than to decorating. Now, females make up almost half of the students.

In the Environmental Design program, which has a heavy emphasis on interior design, most of the students were females (and they still are). When this program focuses on architecture, there may have traditionally been more male students. Graphic design was also more heavily male in the past, but that is no longer the case, although the principals of graphic design firms, the ones who deal with clients (businessmen) are more likely be male. The textile arts are still often undertaken by females and wood work is more often practised by males, and this reflects the earlier pattern as well, although there are many impressive exceptions.

My clients have usually been male, and there has been a range of comfort (or discomfort) with the topic of design. Some of the men considered it to be beneath them, however necessary an evil it might be. There lurked an undercurrent of suspicion about it and the designers who practiced it, especially if they were male. It has not always been treated with respect, although my female clients were always comfortable with it. Business has historically been a male domain and it has also been conservative (as it needs to be), and conservatism, at least politically, has favoured traditional gender divisions.

This alpha-male driven uneasiness about getting too close to design has influenced the behaviour of some male designers as well. Some industrial designers, for an example, adopt a hypermasculine persona, so as if to deflect any potential hint of a less than complete virility, and their work may bear more similarities to engineering, a safely masculine field. And then there is superstar designer Karim Rashid, in his pink-suited, metrosexual slender.

Now that there are more females involved with industrial design, the example that I am most familiar with, the scope and range of the work that is undertaken has expanded enormously. Rather than being primarily about machines of one sort or another (snowmobiles and chainsaws, as well as audio equipment and food processors), there is much more attention to user experience and problem solving for health and well-being. This is very welcome and the world of design has benefited most significantly, not that there aren’t very capable females designing very capable machines too.

Equality may not yet be in place, but the most encouraging factor in determining that outcome is the sheer number of female students in almost all departments of post-secondary education. They will be able to impose their views through majority numbers if nothing else. And younger males are noticing this and may be less reflexive in adopting traditional views. As it turns out, I happen to like both pink and blue.

Paul Epp is an adjuct professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its industrial design department.

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