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Femme Den at CAC

(photo from Soapbox Cincinnati article here)
Last night, Erica Eden and Nathaniel Giraitis, from Smart design's Femme Den, gave a talk at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center as part of the 'Where Do We Go From Here?' speaker series. I'd been looking forward to the talk for awhile- these are top notch designers coming to our city and giving a presentation for free. What's not to like? 

The presentation was great- both visually and verbally. They opened with the quote, 'design is about people, not things.' That quote originated from Tom Dair, co-founder of Smart, but was recently repeated by First Lady Michelle Obama. From what I can tell, it's at the heart of everything Smart Design, and the Femme Den, does.

Next, we got a little background on the Femme Den- how it came to be, and why it's important. Eden and Giraitis shared a number of examples of 'designed for women' products that have missed the mark by focusing on what makes men and women different, not what makes them similar. One of my favorite examples is the Dodge La Femme from 1955 (see below.) It's a smashing vehicle that's pink on the outside and pink on the inside, and comes with an umbrella, jacket, rain boots, and hand bag to match. It's a real-life Barbie-mobile. This car is a powerful example for more than one reason- it was designed based on assumptions and stereotypes about women, and it flopped, but it also shows that gender was recognized as an important design factor more than 50 years ago.

What makes gender, and even more specifically women, such an important design factor is the fact that they do 80% of purchasing. At the same time, women only make up 10-20% of product designers. Tapping into the female market is a huge profit-making opportunity for consumer product companies, and that, seemingly, is where the Femme Den comes in.

As an aside, in the Q&A after the talk, someone asked if Eden thought that more women were becoming industrial designers. Her answer was pretty interesting to me- she said that in school, about half of the class were females. It's the same way today. Somewhere along the line, though, the girls leave the industry. No one knows, exactly, where they are going or what's making them leave. I have a strong theory that it has something to do with design education being more antiquated than the industry...

Anyway, back to the talk- next up were case studies from the Femme Den. These were enlightening because it was a chance to get a little bit of back-story on some relatively well-known projects. It was at about this time that Eden and Giraitis started to emphasize empathy. Throughout the rest of the talk, they stressed the need to design for people who aren't you, and to empathize with people you might not understand. This practically gave me butterflies- it's entirely what I believe in, and the reason, to me, why design is such an interesting and compelling field. 

My favorite case study was the Cardinal Health Endura Performance Apparel Scrubs. After spending some time talking with doctors and nurses who spend their days wearing scrubs, the designers at Smart found that women had tons of complaints. The deep V-neck of the shirt made them feel exposed, the rise of the pants caused chafing, and the length of the pants often resulted in dirt being drug into environments that were meant to be sterile. Smart responded with scrubs that addressed the needs and concerns of the women, and they turned out to be great for men too. That's powerful stuff. 

After presenting a couple products that were developed with women specifically in mind, Eden and Giraitis transitioned into talking about different groups of people who are under-served, and the advantages of empathizing with the user. They presented yet another really compelling example: the LG Qiblah. When LG, a Korean company, wanted to get into the Middle Eastern market, they decided to start with a cell phone. As crazy as that sounds (it's hard to stand out in such a saturated segment), they struck gold by tapping into the religious culture of the region. Muslims face Mecca to pray five times a day. LG designed a phone with a compass that points to Mecca and a prayer alarm. The phone became a best seller and opened the door for LG to enter the Middle East.

As you can tell by the length of this post, the talk got me all excited about design and empathy and making the world a better place. One of the most exciting parts of the talk, as a whole, was the fact that the designers showed that empathy is a profitable part of the design process. Connecting with the user can and does result in better sales, and the Femme Den is establishing quite the track record to prove it. 

In school, the projects I enjoyed most were the ones where I got to climb into someone else's shoes for a little bit. When I designed a hiking light for the Grand Canyon, I went there and did the hike, and my 'ah-ha' moment actually came at the bottom of the canyon. When I designed a port-o-potty, I toured the warehouse where they're cleaned and stored, went to an international trade show, and talked to tons of people about doing their business in a little teal box. That immersion, and the resulting empathy, is what has kept me interested in product design. It's inspiring to know that Smart- one of the leading design firms in the country- is putting a priority on it.