Everyday Things: Are They Designed For You, or Against You?

Laurie and Debbie say:

Kat Ely at medium.com has a comprehensive and thoughtful piece on gendered design, “The World Is Designed for Men.”

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Ely concentrates on four areas:

  1. Seat belts: “Female drivers are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash.”
  2. Medication: very important, but not an industrial design issue.
  3. Office temperature: “the algorithms that dictate temperature regulation in many modern office buildings were designed in the 1960s for a 154-pound male” (Everyone does better work when they’re more physically comfortable.)
  4. Tools: “The sawzall pictured above left looks comfortable for the man to use but when I hold the same tool it’s far less ergonomic.”

Ely has a lot to say about the demographics that lead to a world designed by men, and what a world designed by women might look like. She’s clear that she doesn’t want a world designed for women:

Flip the situation — if cars were designed with only smaller framed women in mind, we’d find ourselves in an equally problematic situation. It seems immediately absurd when the roles are reversed, but we seldom question the disparity in design when it’s the status quo.

Where she’s going is toward what the disability community calls “universal (or inclusive) design,” the benefit of designing for the extremes:

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OXO products (pictured above), for example, are kitchen gadgets designed specifically to be comfortable for people with arthritis who have difficulty gripping traditional kitchen tools.

Oxo’s general popularity is hardly the only example. Ely gives several more, including one we all use every day:

1973: Vint Cerf, who is hard of hearing, develops email, in part because it’s an easy way to communicate with his wife, who is deaf.

Reading this article made us both think about what it means to live in a world designed for someone who isn’t you. All children, by definition, are living in a world not designed for them.

But when child grows up to be an able-bodied person within an average male size range, everything starts to fit. Most likely, that child will take it for granted, in an “I always knew I would grow into things fitting” sort of way. If they grow up into a world that doesn’t fit, whether or not they take it for granted, they will adapt to it. They will become accustomed to what they can’t reach, can’t hold, can’t maneuver or handle. They will learn accommodations and work-arounds, or give up on things they might otherwise have done because the bar is too high.

And, consciously or unconsciously, they will internalize the ways things don’t fit as about them, not about the world. The gap between “my hands are too small” and “this drill is too large” is difficult to bridge. Especially if you are socialized as a woman, socialized to do emotional labor, socialized to accommodate, make peace, find compromises, you will internalize a belief that the tools and office temperature are “just something I live with” and that disastrous auto accident was about your driving, not about how cars are made.

When the whole world is designed for a small slice of people, not just the 49% or so that are male but the smaller percentage that are the “right size” of male, that becomes what we take for granted. We internalize the physical pressures of gendered design the same way we internalize the societal pressures of our skin color, or our weight, or our physical abilities.

Universal design wouldn’t just make the world more usable for so many of us: it would improve how we see the world, and how we see ourselves in it.