How Do We Design Products That Are Truly Made for All?

Ushering in a new wave of inclusive design

Brands are investing billions in creating products and services to solve everyday problems. But too often it's questionable whether these products are really made with the end user in mind. Thankfully, some brands are inching away from exclusionary design practices, and ushering in a new wave of inclusive innovation. For instance, calls for greater gender representation and a rapidly growing female audience have spurred major sports brands to rethink the way they do business.

Take Adidas, which recently announced a major investment both in women's sports and in female designers. The company's own research findings confirm what most women already know to be true: that bra shopping is a nightmare. In fact, research shows 90 percent of women own ill-fitting sports bras. To tackle this, Adidas is launching a range of sports bras in 72 sizes, created by female designers and product developers. Finally, the mainstream market will have a product that is truly designed "for women, by women."

The performance-wear sector has historically excluded women from the design process. And unfortunately, brands with the greatest platforms are the slowest to adapt to market changes. As a college intern on a limited budget, my own fitness gear was a sea of purple, as this was the "neutral" option amid the pinks and neons on the racks of Kohl's and Gap outlet stores.

This unwillingness of mainstream brands to invest in inclusive design shows up in everyday purchases. Products as varied as cellphones, lifejackets and even trigger sprays disregard non-male users. Even though women buy 85 percent of household products, only 5 percent of designers creating these products identify as female, according to the research by the Design Council.

In addition to exclusionary design practices, female consumers are often asked to pay more for products marketed to their gender—with everything from razors to painkillers being put through a "shrink it and pink it" process, where products designed for men are clumsily redesigned for women and the price is hiked. Amid rising inequality, stagnated wages and the ongoing fight for equal pay, this pink-tax issue is more urgent than ever.

There is a responsibility on brands to, first of all, stop discriminatory pricing, but also to seriously invest in a more diverse design perspective. This doesn't just stop at gender identity but should be fully encompassing of sexual orientations, gender identifications, disabilities and racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. In order to successfully design for a vast global audience, those voices need to be present from the start.

This responsibility doesn't just fall on corporations, it applies to the broader design industry as well. The industry needs to better support and spotlight movements such as the Design for Diversity pledge, which aims to get companies to commit to making the design industry more diverse and inclusive and seek out more diverse candidates for recruitment.

The design industry has a gender gap across the board. As a graphic designer, I've noticed the gender balance starting to shift oh-so-slightly at the educational level, but that is still not reflected at leadership levels. That lack of female representation is even more disparate in product design, engineering and architecture, which happen to offer the highest paying careers, according to the Design Council.

Female-led brands are starting to usher in a change in product design. Brands founded by women, such as the period underwear Thinx, beauty brand Glossier, and fitness-wear Outdoor Voices, saw a unique opportunity in the 2010s. The new direct-to-consumer model of the internet has allowed them to effectively reach an underserved female audience. Although the "Girl Boss"-ification of these brands has shown serious blind spots in inclusivity and accessibility, they have certainly helped open the door for the next wave of female-led design.

A new wave of female-led startups are connecting underrepresented communities with much-needed innovation. Tala, founded by Shivani Siroya, is a fintech company that uses smartphone data to extend loans to those who are unbanked across Mexico, the Philippines, Kenya and India. Ellevest is an online investing tool that uses a gender-specific algorithm geared toward women's unique financial needs, and was founded by Sallie Krawcheck. In beauty, Uoma Beauty, launched by Nigerian-born former beauty executive Sharon Chuter, and Kulfi Beauty, launched by Indian-born former beauty executive Priyanka Ganjoo, both offer makeup that is uniquely crafted for women of African and South Asian heritage, respectively. The health tech company Bloomer, founded by Alicia Chong Rodriguez, Aceil Halaby and Monica Abarca, is tackling heart disease in women with the world's first electrocardiogram device embedded into a bra.

All products would be well-served by a more inclusive and thoughtful design process. Think of the innovative products and design solutions we are missing out on simply because wider perspectives are being excluded from the process. We need a design industry with much better representation, that is more welcoming for women designers as well as those from diverse backgrounds. This will lead to products which are designed to suit the people actually using them. Companies are potentially missing out on 50 percent of the world market by failing to understand women's design needs. Quite simply, in today's world, those failing to consider their design and innovation practices from a more inclusive lens will surely get left behind.

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Melissa Chavez
Melissa Chavez is associate creative director at Wolff Olins.

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