Product design’s gender crisis: “If businesses don’t adapt they’ll become obsolete”

Kinneir Dufort CEO Merle Hall talks inequality in industrial design, untapped business potential and the studio’s new female-centred department.

“I realised at some point nothing was changing in product design,” Kinneir Dufort (KD) CEO Merle Hall recalls. “I’m still hearing the same stories and having the same conversations.”

Those stories are of widespread gender imbalance and its implications for the industry. One example Hall mentions is a trigger spray designed for the Chinese market that had to be pulled as the handle was too big. Others include how phones and cars are designed by predominantly male teams. The statistics support these stories: women buy 85% of household products but only 5% of the product and industrial design industry in the UK is female.


Hall, who led a management buy-out of the Bristol design engineering firm in 2016, has set up an initiative in an attempt to change this. XXEquals is a female-led innovation and product design unit – the first of its kind in the UK, according to the team – that sits within KD.

While the department has just launched, Hall says that the team is already working on products in relevant areas such as femcare and femtech. She says that the reactions from clients have been overwhelming. “It’s a game changer for them,” she adds. “They’ve had to work with predominantly male teams and it just doesn’t make sense not to have that diversity.”

“We want to make sure we’re designing with allyship at the heart”

Merle Hall

Hall says that this kind of inclusive thinking has been part of the studio’s culture for a while. Past women-centred products have included a breast scanning bed. XXEquals formalises this interest. Employees were asked who wanted to be front-and-centre of the new operation, Hall says, and the result is a multi-disciplinary mix of 25% men and 75% women. “We want to make sure we’re designing with allyship at the heart,” she adds. While clients can work directly with XXEquals, Hall says that the department’s lessons will be shared throughout the agency.

While XXEquals will explore sectors such as femcare solutions and sustainable period products, its work will be broader than issues that are stereotypically seen as feminine. Hall points to research by the British Heart Foundation which shows that coronary heart disease kill twice as many women as breast cancer in the UK. Outside of healthcare, wellbeing and lifestyle products are due a rethink. Hall mentions smart watches, which haven’t been designed with female users in mind. “And if they have, they’re just turned pink or made in a piece of jewellery,” she adds.

KD works with Women of Wearables, a non-profit organisation that aims to connect and support women in emerging technologies such as health tech and wearables. The studio has been working on an ostomy bag that’s focused on female forms and clothing, for instance. This particular sector is full of challenges that would likely only seem obvious to a gender-balanced team. Hall points out technology that clips into belt loops or trouser pockets isn’t very helpful when you’re wearing a dress or skirt that doesn’t have those features.

Another less obvious area for the team is voice software technology, an area plagued by gender and race inequality. Design Week previously explored how engineering teams – primarily made up of white men – had produced voice assistants that are less likely to understand women of colours’ voices.

“If businesses don’t adapt they’ll become obsolete”

RNIB’s pregnanyc test concept

Stories of products being pulled highlight how a lack of diversity can have real business impact. And from a client’s perspective, an all-male design team might not be an appealing concept either. Hall mentions how a female employee at a blue chip FMCG company wanted a female structural team to design a shampoo bottle but couldn’t find anyone. “We’ll end up in a situation where if businesses don’t adapt they’ll become obsolete,” she says. As far as untapped potential goes, the femtech industry is expected to be worth almost £40 billion by 2025.

The problem of diversity runs deep, not just in product design but the wider industry. “We need to represent the diverse population we’re designing for,” Hall says. That includes diversity across gender, race, neurodiversity and disabilities. In the last year, Design Week has looked at studios creating glasses specifically for black people, a pregnancy test that could be used by people with sight loss and an female-focused sextech company. Outside of product design, last year’s Black Lives Matter protests prompted discussions of race in graphic design and branding.

Hall hopes that XXEquals will start conversations within the industry about the lack of diversity. One of KD’s longstanding partnerships is with design initiative Kerning the Gap, which promotes diversity in leadership roles. While the lack of gender balance has many causes, one issue is the working environment, Hall says.

“Women are going to interview at companies where they’re not represented and they can’t see anyone who looks or sounds like them,” she says. “That’s quite a disheartening scenario to find yourself in.” She adds that some of the recruitment policies have had unintentional bias built-in or else people have been “recruiting in their own image”.

“Ultimately our success would be to make XXEquals obsolete,” Hall says. But a fully inclusive design industry is likely some way off. She points out that KD only comprises 43% female employees, though the management and executive team are balanced in terms of gender. The studio is also set to launch a diversity initiative for ethnic minorities later this year. “We don’t have all the answers,” Hall explains, adding that the studio will share its learnings in an attempt to help the wider industry. “But we’ve got to start something, and we all need to improve.”

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  • Neil Littman April 6, 2021 at 8:58 am

    Interesting read and some good initiatives and just wanted to respond to the comment about survival rates among women with coronary heart disease. As far as I understand it, this specifically relates to responses to heart attacks (I am a heart attack survivor myself so have some knowledge of the subject) and would recommend that Merle Hall and others read this article from Harvard Medical School to shed more light on the factors responsible for this situation.

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