Women & Design: Building Diversity in Industrial Design

by Caterina Rizzoni, industrial designer at Design Central

Dec 5 2018 - 3:29pm

It’s no secret that industrial design is still a boy’s club. Statistics differ from source to source, but there seems to be a general agreement that women make up somewhere between 10–15 percent of industrial designers. To those in the industry, this doesn’t come as a surprise, despite the efforts that have been made to equalize women in all industries in the last few decades. Somehow, industrial design has been left behind. 

However, last weekend, I got the opportunity to head to the second-ever Women & Design Summit, hosted by IDSA Chicago. Spearheaded by the amazing Kat Reiser of Webb deVlam, the one-day summit featured a lineup of speakers ranging from consultancy mavens like TEAMS’ Marianne Grisdale, FIDSA, and Kaleidoscope’s Audra Norvilas, to badass founders like Ti Chang, IDSA, of Crave and Nichole Rouillac, IDSA, of Level. These women spoke on topics ranging from how design education can fail women, to founding their own companies in order to create the diversity and mentorship that they didn’t see in the industry. 

From the get-go, women in the field of industrial design find themselves at a disadvantage—Iowa State design educators Betsy Barnhart and Kellie Walters, IDSA, spoke at the Summit on how design pedagogy limits the opportunities of women after graduation by prioritizing male-dominated skillsets. Barnhart and Walters’ research shows some alarming trends. Sketching, for example, is one of the most valued skills a designer can have upon graduation—yet their double-blind study reveals that only 3 female students were ranked as top 20 sketchers in their class. A lack of female design educators, and a pedagogy developed by and for a male audience is a large contributor to the disadvantages of women in both academia and practice. And there are huge consequences—instead of remaining in the field of industrial design, and contributing varied and diverse perspective, women are opting out entirely. Though women make up almost half of ID students, the rate of industry retention is remarkably poor, dropping off precipitously as women reach their early 30’s and begin to leave the industry. 

Asking why women leave the industry elicits any number of responses—from unsupportive culture and limited upward mobility, to the impossibility of demanding leadership roles and starting a family, women are being pushed out of the industrial design industry year by year. Many of these women enter ID adjacent fields like research and CMF—and these roles are important! But it’s also important to make sure that women have a seat at the table as industrial designers, too. Speaker Julia Burke found as much in her role as the Director of the Advanced ID Studio at Whirlpool. “We have a weirdly narrow vision of what an industrial designer is,” Burke said, in response to a peer telling her she didn’t fit his view of what a “designer designer” should be. We over-value traditionally male dominated skillsets like stylized design sketching and engineering, and under-value female-associated skillsets like empathy-based research and sketching for emotional communication. Obviously, sketching and engineering are vital to the industrial design process, and I don’t dispute that—but we also need to be more self-aware about which skills we elevate, and which we ignore. 

Many of the speakers at the W&D Summit also touched on one particular shared experience—that of not seeing women in leadership roles, and often of being the first or only woman in their workplace. Both Nichole Rouillac (co-founder of Level) and Ti Chang (co-founder and VP of Design at Crave) founded their companies to help build a future that they wanted to be a part of, one in which female designers are supported and empowered. Mentorship is key to helping young female designers remain engaged with the industry, and seeing women in leadership validates the ambitions of budding designers. And that’s the best thing, about events like this—by gathering the women who are changing design, IDSA Chicago is creating the validation and visibility that young female designers need. Representation matters.

When we build a more diverse team, we have a broader spectrum of lived experiences from which to draw. As Burke experienced at Whirlpool, diversity leads to better incomes in part because it’s harder. Breaking the boy’s club monoculture of industrial design has tangible value for our end-users and stakeholders—and for ourselves, as human beings who find fulfillment and joy in our work. But none of this can happen unless we are proactive about uplifting and empowering the women in our field. As students, designers, educators and leaders, we all have a responsibility—and I, for one, am delighted to see IDSA take an active role in changing the industry for the better.

And for our future fearless female leaders, I leave you with a few key takeaways:

  • Be relentless in your pursuit of excellence.
  • Let your moral compass guide you.
  • Curate the kind of company you want to work for.
  • Believe in yourself and your ambitions.
  • Embrace your unique femininity—and the uniqueness of others.
  • Don’t let the success of others detract from your success—it’s not pie!
  • Support and empower women in your workplace.
  • Leverage women-centric organizations.
  • Maintain a healthy work-life balance and advocate for your needs.
  • Use your platform to help others and amplify women’s voices.
  • Open discourse and transparency within the workplace is key.