Weekly Editorial

Women's Influence in Furniture Design

Written By Rob Kirkbride, Editor-in-chief, OI Publications • March 18, 2024

The Insider_Weekly_editorial_3.18.24

Does gender matter when it comes to product design? And where are all the women furniture designers? Those are just two questions examined by writer Molly Klimas in a feature story found in today’s issue of officeinsight magazine.

It is an interesting read. And I’m not about to steal Molly’s thunder in this column, but I will answer the first question I posed as a resounding “yes.”

“Shrink it and pink it” is a common phrase used in product design when it comes to women, meaning products are often designed by men, for men and simply scaled down and colored pink. And I’m sure every woman reading this can relate to a product, designed by men, that really doesn’t work for a woman.

You might think this is more of a nuisance than a real issue. But not accommodating women or considering them when designing products leads to products that are at a minimum less hospitable and often more dangerous for women, according to a Harvard University report.

According to the study, women are 73% more likely to be injured in a car crash than men and in the military, women suffer pelvic fractures at a much higher rate than their male counterparts, all a result of using products where the female population is an afterthought, if any thought at all.

“Women represent over half of the global population and in the U.S., they influence nearly 90% of all purchasing decisions. Yet only 19% of practicing industrial designers, also known as product designers, are women, and only 11% of design leadership roles are held by women,” Harvard reported.

Molly’s reporting shows that there is hope for the future as more women graduate from design programs, but there are deeper problems to consider.

Although women are graduating with degrees in industrial design in equal numbers as males, within 3 to 5 years of graduation they leave the profession, according to the Harvard piece. The report goes on to say: This dearth of female designers results in products perpetuating stereotypes of female consumers and misses the actual needs of the user group. The percentage of practicing female architects in the US is in similar proportion to industrial designers. Today, almost 50% of the students in US architectural programs are women. However, the number of women who graduate from architectural programs to become registered architects falls dramatically: currently, only 17% of registered architects are women. Furthermore, the number of women that achieve upper management levels, become partner, and own architectural firms, has not increased at the same rate or in the same proportion as their male counterparts.

Creating one-size-fits-all products (that don’t fit all) ignores the fact that men and women are physically different. Look around the typical office. Women sit differently than men, interact and organize their desks differently than men and move through and experience the office differently than men. So why are so many of the products found in an office designed by men?

I have a lot of friends in the industry who are furniture designers (most of them men) and they work hard to create products that work for everyone. They are not ignoring women in their design, they simply don’t have the same experiences as a woman. It’s not like they are trying to make products that ignore these nunaces. They simply haven’t experienced life in their shoes.

That’s why Molly’s story is so important for the industry to read. And I hope you see it as a call to action. Next time you need to hire a product designer, pick a woman or at least a design team that includes women. If we want to make the workplace truly inclusive, it needs to be designed for everyone.

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