The Gendered Design Thinker

Women and design have a complex history – Or perhaps more appropriately, “a complex herstory”.

In learning more about design herstory, I have found myself reading literature that I was first introduced to in my undergraduate women’s studies classes about feminist critiques of design.  Much of this critical discussion (see Design and Feminism) focuses on the relationship between women and the built environment: How built spaces have and continue to be the embodiment of a patriarchal agenda, spatially (mentally, emotionally, and physically) segregating women and men into their respective private and public domains. Within this context, “pink ghettos”, the “feminization of poverty”, and urban design as monuments to male domination, money and power are common points of analysis. Moreover, a feminist perspective on design highlights the need for women to be fully integrated into the mainstream design agenda and better represented within the profession itself.  As a predominantly male-dominated field, there have been calls for better documentation and heightened visibility of female designers and their rich contributions to the field.

This of course is just a sliver of insight into design herstory, but hopefully gives you a sense of what I’ve been reading and the type of content that I have found to be predominant in the literature. Generally speaking though, it has been a challenge to find discussion around the overall female experience in design, and how gender and identity play into design process and design thinking.

What does it mean to be a gendered designer, and in particular, what does it mean to be a gendered design thinker?

…It’s a question that has been on mind a lot lately. While I do not have much literature to cite when it comes to the question above, it has nonetheless fueled a lot of further questions and thinking. For the most part, I have become curious about the way in which the socialization of women and gender roles contribute — for better or worse — to the way in which women experience and navigate the design process.

Below I pose three questions that I think are helpful in unpacking design thinking and advancing the dialogue around women in design. I don’t necessarily have answers rather, I offer explanations that I hope provide a snapshot into some of the connections I am drawing between women, gender and design.


Question: Are women socialized to be design thinkers?

Explanation: Let us think about the qualities of a design thinker. For argument’s sake, we will assume that design thinking is a creative process for creating something with intent. Design thinking can embody and privilege many different concepts, for instance, empathy, relationship building, collaboration, sensing, health, and aesthetics. So as a design thinker, it would be critical to have or develop an understanding of the concepts and be able to apply them to design practice. But, could it be that the qualities and concepts associated with design thinking are more aligned with the feminine and gendered qualities assigned to women? Central concepts like empathy, relationships, and sensing can arguably be regarded as feminine in nature and akin to the qualities that women are taught to embody as caregivers, mothers, and companions. Perhaps then, women are socialized in such a way that they have a high potential to be formidable design thinkers.


Question: Do women and men design (think) their way through a problem differently?

Explanation: Let’s take the example of failing in design thinking. I have read multiple articles about failing – that it is okay and encouraged to fail often and fail early in design. I agree, failing can be very healthy and a helpful and normal part of the learning process. However for the female design thinker, could failure be problematic? Given the disadvantage of women in design and the subsequent challenges gaining visibility and traction in the industry, perhaps failure is a more threatening concept for women than men? And perhaps, even if distally, this may suggest and reinforce historical perceptions of women as weak, irrational, and fragile. Finally, might this notion of failure be complicated and heightened by her diversity (e.g., she is a single mother, woman of colour, or a woman with a disability)? One might be risk averse if she generally has less social power or privilege to spare.


Question: What might a female-led approach to design thinking look like?

Explanation: If we think about the thought leaders, movers, and shakers in design thinking (Tim Brown, David Kelley, Bruce Mau, Roger Martin and John Thackara, to name a few), it is quite clear that it is a male-dominated school of thought. However, imagine taking a female-centered approach to the design process: Would this look different than mainstream design thinking as it exists today? Well, when it comes to women’s way of thinking, knowing, and doing, I think that a feminist approach to design thinking offers a helpful and refreshing way of challenging, critiquing, and leading a design process; this an approach that problematizes power dynamics, identity, hierarchy and equity and pushes for greater engagement in social activism, research and practice on the part of the designer. Not surprisingly, this is also how I envision a health promotion approach to design. In Design and Feminism, Leslie Kanes Weisman outlines ways in which feminist pedagogy can be useful for constructing a new model of architectural education — I would extend this further to say that this is a worthwhile approach for design in general — where students are taught to be “effective practitioners, problem solvers and leaders”. I will mention briefly here four feminist educational principles she discusses (p. 160):

1. Employ collaborative learning methods in which interdependent, team problem solving and cocreativity are practiced and rewarded over competitive, solitary problem solving and individual creativity.

2. Share authority and knowledge so that students are empowered to direct their own learning and so that people in other disciplines and with different life experiences can join in the discourse. In the future, the boundaries of the problem to be solved — not the boundaries of a single academic discipline — will determine what knowledge is needed and where it can best be found.

3. Emphasize ethical values, a respect for human diversity, and interconnectedness among all of humanity, the natural world, and the products of human design.

4. Eliminate false dichotomies by creating learning situations that connect academic theory with “hands-on” practice and by establishing collaborative relationships among designers, clients and user groups.

Adopting these principles could be a first step to a more inclusive, humanizing and woman-centered approach to design thinking and doing. However, we may have to starting taking a closer look at the community level before we are able to see who is practicing this approach and how within the greater design thinking landscape.

While I may not be able to offer answers, I think opening up a space to have a critical dialogue about gender, identity politics, and feminism is an important and worthwhile pursuit that can help continue to document and advance design and the women in this field. I realize I have also made a number of generalizations about women and design in this post but did so in order to play with the notion of the gendered design thinker.


InDesign Note: I’ve resisted using the pen tool for the “Dana the Designer” image, and tried to use the handy pencil tool in an attempt to create a less polished look.