Monthly Archives: March 2014

What Drives Good Design? Breast Pumps, Oxygen Tanks and More

Debbie says:

Courtney E. Martin and John Cary have some things to say about breast pump design.

The pump is a symbol of the modern work-life conundrum. In theory, women have the freedom to honor the wisdom that “breast is best,” while still pursuing their own careers. And yet, to do so, they’re forced to attach themselves, multiple times a day, to a loud, sometimes painful machine that makes one feel anything but powerful.

No doubt inspired by the ubiquitous public service announcements about how healthy breastfeeding is for mother and baby, 77 percent of new mothers do it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2013 Breastfeeding Report Card.

… the modern pump remains largely unchanged since it was first invented. Edward Lasker, an engineer, produced the first mechanical breast pump and secured the patent in the 1920s. In 1956, Einar Egnell created the Egnell SMB breast pump, a more efficient answer to Lasker’s original design. Nearly 60 years later, little has changed about the fundamental design of the mechanical pump. …

We believe that all mothers deserve a better, more dignifying breast pump. It’s a critical, daily tool for the working mother and a no brainer investment for early childhood health (thus, the federal government subsidizing its use at such a significant level).

And beyond the health benefits of a better breast pump, there is a lot of money to be made by the company that attempts to really understand what would make the lives of working mothers easier and more pleasant. One pregnant friend put it in stark relief, “There were approximately one zillion different kinds of baby carriers to choose from when I was registering, but breast pumps? About three, and none of them looked significantly different from one another.”

Their article makes me think of my mother, before she died almost ten years ago, struggling to get her arthritic hands to work the clasp on her oxygen tank while having to conserve her breath, and saying almost the same things, once the oxygen was flowing. COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is hard enough; can’t we have decent tools to cope with it? 77% of nursing mothers pump; close to 100% of people with COPD use supplemental oxygen.

Martin and Cory attribute the problem to sexism, and to designers who have never lactated, and they are not wrong, but the issue goes deeper than that, because plenty of (mostly old) men have COPD. Breast pumps and oxygen tank apparatus (and crutches and wheelchairs and other durable medical goods) are things that economists call “low elasticity.” In other words, people who need them will buy them, whether they are any good or not. Strollers and other baby equipment are also “low elasticity,” but they are also consumer goods–you see them in stores, you comparison shop, sometimes you get them as presents. You have an opportunity to think about “is this one prettier? is this one better designed? will this one last longer?” You can buy them for a wide variety of prices with a wide variety of designs and options.

Durable medical goods don’t show up in stores much. What comparison shopping you can do is generally done on line, or you order the one your doctor recommends, or the only one your health insurance plan will pay for. Maybe there is some consideration of fit, and maybe not.

I’ve seen friends light up because they found colorful crutches, or ways to bling up their wheelchairs. More and more, I see decorated canes on the street. All of these could use more variety and more style, and some of them would benefit from more efficient basic design. But at least these are things we see in the world. Breast pumps are not only sold in low-profile venues, they are used in low-profile venues. No one ever sees them except the new parents and an occasional visitor. And while you may see oxygen tanks on the street and users with cannulas in their noses, you don’t see how they work; you only see them working.

Design improvements generally stem from two sources: competition and visibility. The items that have neither–no matter how much they might benefit from design attention–languish in the land of unmanageable connectors and ridiculously loud motors.

Sometimes, however, an enterprising designer/entrepreneur sees a need and fills it. Let’s hope several of them read Martin and Cory’s article.

“Groin Gazing”: Taboos, Penises, and “Fashion” Photography (NSFW)

Laurie and Debbie say:

Photographer Claire Milbrath did a fashion photography shoot for Vice (a print and online magazine) called “Groin Gazing,” in which casual clothes are (apparently) being sold to men (sexual orientation unknown) by means of torso and groin shots, showing (apparently) erect penises under the clothes on offer.

brown shirt, brown jeans, bowling ball

Tracy Moore at Jezebel picked this up:

I think it’s all just great. The beauty of it is that the spread can function on multiple levels — 1.) it’s a bunch of dudes’ clothed boners. 2.) They are depicted as types, with no heads or faces, as women are often shot in spreads (“dismembered”) 3.) The effect is a powerful one: It wordlessly comments on how women are shot while also upending a lot of assumptions about what hetero women want, like, enjoy, think about, when it comes to men and images.

Moore seems quite confident that the photography is directed at women, and is making women happy (and she has some tweets to back up her claim). The spread, however, raises lots of issues:

Because of the amazing level of taboo about penis pictures in our culture, we can’t even be sure of Moore’s first point. Is it a bunch of dudes’ clothed boners? Or a bunch of dildos under clothes? (Is that why a lot of the dicks look so much alike? Is that why the poses each have very generic names, like “the baseball player” or “the boy next door”? The dude above is “the chongo.”) How different is this from lingerie ads before the entire female body became acceptable media fodder?


We can’t help but notice that the penis taboo has two very separate aspects. The taboo against erect penises is primarily an erotic taboo. Outside of gay male porn, there are very few places we can see photographs of erect penises, or learn anything about what they’re like, except for the ones we might have an opportunity to see in real life. That makes Milbrath’s photos (or the earlier Calvin Klein ads) a target of curiosity: how long? how thick? curved? Also, if you take a minute to try to imagine the men in these pictures, in these poses without clothes, the effect changes drastically, in part because the erect penis is so strongly linked with erotic/pornographic imagery. Also, if they were nude, we could see their real bodies, not just a photographic fantasy, and that would change everything.


The taboo against relaxed penises is primarily a male-protective taboo. With the exception of Laurie’s photographs (more of which can be found in Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes), there are even fewer places where anyone can see photographs of relaxed penises, and most men are uncomfortable showing them except in situations even more intimate than sex. Jonathan D. Katz addresses this issue in Familiar Men. Katz says:

Female nudity can be ubiquitous, but to present the male body threatens to give the lie to the rich meanings we associate with it. All of which may explain why it’s so rare to see naked or near-naked men in art, advertising, popular media, or that host of other venues in which the female body is now coin of the realm. … I think novelist Dorothy Allison said it best when she remarked that she thought the penis was the original source of the literary concept of irony, that something so small and vulnerable could be accorded such impressive powers. To see a penis is to know that it couldn’t possibly be a phallus.


Given the intensity and complexity of the taboos, who is the audience for this work? Straight women (who seem to be having a good time, and who maybe buy clothes for their partners)? Straight men (who are the bulk of the audience who theoretically might buy the clothes)? Gay men (the only group which has lots of access to erotic penis pictures whenever they want)?

And why are the photos headless? Moore thinks it’s a comment on headless shots of women, and she’s almost certainly right. But this choice, along with the generic names for the men in the photographs, also functions as a comment on penises and taboos: the topic is so charged the men have to be anonymous.

Thanks to Alan Bostick for pointing out the Jezebel article.

(Penis photographs by Laurie Toby Edison, from Familiar Men.)