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IDSA’s Women & Design Summit inspires more diversity in creativity

| Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Diane Park

Attendees laughed in agreement as the women on the “Women in Entrepreneurship” panel at the recent IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America) Women & Design Summit asked if the few men in the room have ever had to consider if their skirt, shoes or shirts implicated the “wrong vibe.” The pressure of personal presentation in a male-dominated field is just one of the reasons mentioned at the summit for the disconnect between the percentage of female students studying industrial design and the percentage of females in the actual profession.

This Chicago IDSA summit, held on Oct. 20, featured current females in head creative positions who shared their own insights on women in industrial design.

Audra Norvilas, the Associate Creative Director at Kaleidoscope who previously ran her own design consultancy called Studio Murmur, referenced resources like the Three Percent Movement, seeking to change ratio of women in lead creative positions. Though women made 85 percent of consumer spending decisions at the movement’s genesis, females constituted only 3 percent of creative directors. Women drive the market, and there is untapped potential in employing more women to lead the supply. With women now in 11 percent of creative positions, more diversity has proven for better solutions, but there is still a long way to go.

Betsy Barnhart, an Industrial Design professor at Iowa State University, and Kellie Walters, CMF Designer at Newell Brands, showed their frustration in their inability to find data on the significant gap between the amount of women who study industrial design and those who actually progress in the field. In researching this gap themselves, they found substantial studies on women in architecture and STEM fields, but struggled to find such studies for female industrial designers. Especially as many schools now claim that the male to female ratio of students studying industrial design is an even 50-50, Barnhart and Walter’s analysis shows why this isn’t always the case. Studying non-verbal communication in the industrial design culture through proxemics, territoriality and kinesics, they find women that “feel behind” or “seem disinterested.” Walter’s research under Barnhart’s mentorship in “Addressing Gender Inequality and Inequity in Industrial Design has given greater insight into defining and combating this gap.

Adilah Muhammad, Julia Burke and Marianne Grisdale are all female industrial designers who have successfully lead projects and created their own brands. They spoke on how critical it is for aspiring designers to build their design voice and identity. While women often feel the need to conform to a “bro”environment, these professionals are particularly inspiring in that they are unapologetically female. Of course, they don’t necessarily encourage designers to be solely feminine, but rather, they want women to be themselves — to bring their personal experiences and visions as females to the table. Their voices are much more valuable than they expect.

Lastly, Nichole Rouillac and Ti Chang, both leading industrial designers in San Francisco, addressed their challenges of fighting for a spot at the table, particularly in the fast paced innovation-driven Bay Area. Rouillac has designed for many complex technologies throughout her 14 years of experience — in hardwares and other renowned products like the Fitbit. Chang passionately designs for women. As the co-founder and Vice President of Design for CRAVE, she specializes in discreet sex toys. Rouillac and Chang advocate for women in design to combat discouraging environments and limited career mobility. They embody the much underestimated power that women have to pursue whatever they may want, all while balancing their personal and professional lives.

These accomplished women in design exemplify Nichole Rouillac’s belief that “nothing should stop you from doing what you love.” Regardless of gender, in order to design the future we want to be part of, it is essential to understand the current disparities in gender. Industrial design plays a pivotal role in day-to-day functions and interactions. A field as important as it requires equal input from both male and female designers. As brought up by the women at the summit, one must consider what is driving women out of this industry and seek action to reconcile this.

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