"Lipstick Pocket Knife": Work in the project "Gender Performed" by Dr. Uta Brandes with design students from the Köln International School of Design (KISD)

The Subtle Difference

Professor emeritus Dr. Uta Brandes is a design expert, theorist and author as well as the founder and chairwoman of iGDN – the international Gender Design Network e.V. As a pioneer, she has brought the topic of gender and design out of its academic niche. In an interview, she tells us what she feels is still lacking today.

Anna Moldenhauer: From 1995 to 2015, you were a professor of Gender and Design / Design Research at the Köln International School of Design. Your research began at a time when the term “gender” wasn't commonly used, with people tending to talk more about “women's issues”. What attracted you to the subject?

Dr. Uta Brandes: Let me answer your question with a short anecdote – when I started studying in Hanover, I also took part in student protest activities. There was only one woman among the speakers. She held the megaphone and spoke freely, without notes, without fear. I wanted to be like her; she was my first role model. In the psychology department at the Leibniz University in Hanover, our professor Regina Becker-Schmidt, a former assistant to the philosopher and sociologist Theodor W. Adorno, also regularly presented new research ideas. At that time, one of the German Research Foundation's (DFG) main projects was entitled Integration of Women in the Working World. Today that's only good enough for a joke, but back then it was the first time that any kind of “women's programme” was offered at all. We then submitted a research proposal – the thematic focus was on female industrial workers. This was approved along with about eight other projects. The jury consisted mainly of conservative people who were sceptical about any approach to feminism. We applicants, however, didn't allow ourselves to be played off against one another, but instead developed a solidarity that helped us move forward together. Later, during a lecture as a research assistant, I was approached by Rita Süssmuth, the Federal Minister for Youth, Family, Women and Health at that time, because she was to head an institute in Hanover called Women and Society. Shortly afterwards, she made it possible for me to become a head of one of the institute's divisions. So the topic of gender was on my agenda from the very beginning and has stayed with me over the years.

As a pioneer, you've created many platforms for the discussion of gender and design that didn't exist before, or if so, only rarely. You've introduced terms like "non-intentional design" into design research. Why are there still such voids in the field?

Dr. Uta Brandes: I was also very surprised, because when I was appointed professor in 1995, there were already gender chairs in many other subjects, such as literature, Romance studies or biology. The subject was already academically anchored there, but not at all when it came to design. I didn't understand that, because design has a lot to do with our gender relations. We're surrounded by design, live in and with design, whether we like it or not. The “old white men”, all renowned, successful designers, said at the time that design had nothing to do with gender. Instead, it was about functionality and the way it made you feel, which was objective and neutral. When students had questions about gender, they were referred to me, and told that I was doing something “with women”. But as we all know, gender doesn't mean “woman”. I also got requests from companies that wanted to offer things “for women”. The main part of my work then consisted of explaining to them that it isn't about simply choosing rounder product shapes or pastel colours to appeal to women customers. Fortunately, a lot has changed in the meantime, even though it's still not easy.

When you advise companies today about gender and design, do they now understand that they can benefit from diversity in design?

Dr. Uta Brandes: Many of the companies found the results that we worked out together with the students to be very original, but a corresponding adaptation of the production process often didn't occur. The changes we see today are more likely to find their way into companies as a result of marketing and advertising campaigns, because the people there have more quickly understood the need to deal with the issue of gender.

Perhaps these departments also understood that a commitment to gender and design could be financially rewarding.

Dr. Uta Brandes: Yes, absolutely!

"Women's Rooms in Hotels – What Businesswomen want hotels to Be Like": Research by students of the Cologne International School of Design (KISD) on how a hotel culture appropriate for women could be designed.

I find your book "Frauenzimmer im Hotel – Wie Geschäftsfrauen sich Hotels wünschen (Women's Rooms in Hotels – What Businesswomen want hotels to Be Like)" very interesting, because although many business travellers are now female, their needs are not usually taken into account when it comes to furnishing hotel rooms.

Dr. Uta Brandes: In talking to hotel operators, misunderstandings quickly emerged about what it would take in terms of investment to offer gender-appropriate design, à la “We can't afford to cater to women's sophisticated demands”. I don't know if they thought women wanted gold fittings – instead it's about an open, smarter type of design so that rooms are easily adaptable to each person. When we asked men what was important to them when staying in a hotel room, they usually mentioned three things, whereas the women mentioned up to 37. Some of these were quite practical things that men probably don't find perfect either – like a neon light in combination with magnifying mirrors in the bathroom. The men didn't consciously notice this, but I think a change in lighting would be just as pleasant for them. Gender and design is not about extra treatment for women, but about flexible design that can be individualised according to the needs of the guests. And then if a colour like pink was requested alongside many other colours, that would be OK – it's just that if the design is associated with a certain stereotype, you have to fight against it.

”Gender and design is not about extra treatment for women, but about flexible design“

Prof. em. Dr. Uta Brandes

If, after centuries of having a limited perspective, we're now slowly learning to see the whole picture concerning design – what is most needed in the field of gender and design?

Dr. Uta Brandes: Globally there are still not enough professorships that deal with the topic of gender and design, that have this aspect as a main component. We need a kind of umbrella discipline that extends to the product as well as to the service and the digital aspects. Designers also need to have the courage to clearly express their ideas when working together with companies. In return, the companies should provide a solid foundation that allows designers to experiment more, instead of being predominantly concerned with developing new products to replace the ones already being manufactured. In the end, an open dialogue with designers and the courage to take risks would also save companies money.

You say there is no such thing as gender neutrality in design.

Dr. Uta Brandes: Yes, I feel very strongly about this. The term “gender neutral” exists, but I never use it.

What I often encounter in the public relations work of companies in the industry is the separation of products into “feminine” and “masculine” forms, as a contrast to a supposedly “neutral” type of design. Are we making the categorisations too easy for ourselves?

Dr. Uta Brandes: Yes, we're definitely making it too easy for ourselves. These gender issues run deep, because we've all grown up with things that are considered either male or female. There are shapes and colours that societies automatically perceive as being more typically male or female. And getting that out of our heads is quite difficult, even for me. We've been collectively educated by society as a whole over centuries to divide everything into "male" and "female". With this in mind, we influence the type of projects and products, the choice of colours and shapes, the materials, etcetera. We have to rid our minds of this, so that we don't automatically say that a lighter colour is “quite feminine”. Fritz Heidenreich, for example, designed a small vase with a bulge for Rosenthal in 1950, which the company then named the “Pregnant Luise”. When you think of a bulbous figure, you probably first think of pregnancy and not of a man with a beer belly. Our interpretations, our perception of the world should change. Even I have to reflect on this again and again, because there are so many details on which we base gender, including biological gender. It's hard to break away from that, and of course companies don't fare any better. But I have hope with regard to the young generation, because they approach the question of identity in a performative and playful way. They are brave enough to try out different identities, to get away from bipolar gender identity. The more this happens among the younger generation, the more likely it is that the overall picture will change. This gives me a feeling of optimism.

Gender comparison between many cultures: What do people have on their desks in the office that is not necessary to get the job done?

You've travelled to New York, Shanghai and Switzerland, among other places, as part of your training and teaching – have you encountered a different approach to the topic of gender and design in these places?

Dr. Uta Brandes: I've definitely noticed differences. At the Parson School of Design in New York City, for example, students were already much more advanced, both in the theory and practice of gender issues. The self-evident articulation of feminism was also more common. In this country, feminism is a word that even designers often still don't dare to use. So I experienced a different acceptance of more radical positions in gender studies. And this was despite the fact that my approach in the workshops was mostly different from the teaching the students had been used to so far, because I sent them out “into the field” instead of having them work out solutions at their desks. The students in China, for example, had great, experimental ideas even though they had never been confronted with the topic of gender and design before. In Japan, on the other hand, many young people are very shrill in their expression of fashion, very radical, much more so than in Europe. But a good education is of no use if, as a designer, you can't put your knowledge and awareness into practice when working with companies. Sometimes I scold the younger ones and tell them they have to dare to want to be more than just workers or producers.

In your career you've successfully proven how much you can achieve something if you're courageous and sometimes make radical decisions, and take responsibility. What I currently perceive in the industry is great insecurity regarding the topic of gender and design. Do we not have enough courage to find answers together?

Dr. Uta Brandes: I think the insecurity is definitely there, especially since it's not only about women's equality, but also about different identities, about many genders, some of them self-chosen. We're an example of this, i.e. the non-profit association international Gender Design Network/iGDN, in that we present the iphiGenia Gender Design Award. One person who's won this award is Gabriel Maher, who identifies himself as “non”, i.e. neither female nor male. Addressing him in German caused me difficulties because in English there is the neutral singular “they”, whereas in German “sie” is plural and feminine. If I'm already insecure and fall into old clichés because I lack the language, how should it be for other people who are less concerned with the subject? I think it's wrong to divide people into too many slices, because I really want openness. What I often miss in discussions is an ability to argue about things, to put up with other opinions, to deal with criticism. There are also many nonsensical and damaging arguments within the “scene”.

You like to observe people and their habits to learn what's missing in design – which group are you observing right now?

Dr. Uta Brandes: When I want to observe people's behaviour in everyday life, I end up dividing them into groups like “male” and “female” anyway – and that's a problem of observational research when it comes to gender. So I'm currently working on two other big topics: Body and Voice. What will happen to our bodies in the future, especially concerning technological and bio-chemical changes? From technological implants to the definition of beauty, to the demarcation of when something is considered a bodily injury – could this one day be, for example, the theft of a smartphone if we store our most important bodily data on it? In this context, I'm focusing on gender while carrying out research as to whether increased democratisation might happen or whether the stereotypes we have will remain. In the context of voice, I find it interesting that women's voices are predominantly used for voice control. In addition, women's voices have generally become several tones lower in recent years. The cause doesn't seem to be biological, but rather that women are now more present in the public realm and we generally find very high voices unpleasant. A masculine, low voice, on the other hand, is perceived as trustworthy and the person as being competent.

"One Dollar (Marie Curie): Work in the project "Gender performed" by Dr. Uta Brandes with design students of the Cologne International School of Design (KISD)

I'd also be interested to know at what point a deep female voice is considered negative.

Dr. Uta Brandes: Exactly. It works the other way round too; if men have a high voice, they tend not to be hired for certain professional positions. With this example alone, we can see just how much a person's voice can influence an outcome.

Is there anything in the field of gender and design that you would like to have been aware about at an earlier stage?

Dr. Uta Brandes: That's a good question. I've don't think I've ever been asked that before. I think in general it would have been good if an expansion of the concept of “man” and “woman” had happened earlier. That would simply have opened up a wider horizon. Other than that, it's hard question to answer spontaneously, because my professional experience has varied greatly and has continued to evolve, as have I in the process. That's why I'm reasonably satisfied with my professional biography and don't think “Too bad, I should have done this or that”.

Juliana Lumban Tobing: I am Me – The "garment" consists of detachable parts that can be clicked together again and again in different ways.
Fashion (inspiration: Frank Gehry buildings): Work in the project "Gender performs" by Uta Brandes with design students of the Cologne International School of Design

In my opinion, design, in contrast to art or architecture, is still understood too narrowly by a large part of society. In mediation, there's often parallel talk of “style”, although the term doesn't do justice to the great role design plays in our lives. Why is that?

Dr. Uta Brandes: This really is a phenomenon. Art and architecture are generally seen in a very different light, whereas rather crazy and expensive objects are considered to be design. Maybe it's because design is so commonplace, from mugs to laptops to sanitary equipment. There's a feeling that it's “always been there”, so you don't have to consciously look at it. It only gets attention if it's very expensive or particularly unusual; then it's thought of as a “designer object”. Everything else is just too normal. Fashion, on the other hand, is also considered to be design, but more experimentation is allowed here than in other fields. It therefore often serves as inspiration for other disciplines.

That's why I find it all the more important that there are people like you, who've been teaching others that a quick categorisation is not enough. How do you see the future of the topic of gender and design?

Dr. Uta Brandes: My former students carry on the theme – like Dr. Gesche Joost, who is now Professor of Design Research at the Berlin University of the Arts and heads the Design Research Lab, or Dr. Tom Bieling, design researcher and Professor of Design Theory at the HfG Offenbach. It's a hard and long road, but looking at my alumni, I'm optimistic.

Prof. em. Dr. Uta Brandes