Design - The implications

Why Men Like Straight Lines and Women Like Polka Dots: Gender and Visual Psychology - Gloria Moss 2014

The implications

Your products run for election every day and good design is critical to winning the campaign.

AG Lafley, Procter & Gamble CEO, 2005

Choosing garden furniture

It was a freak hot summer and the garden was the obvious place to have our meals. Only problem was that the table and chairs were on their last legs and would not survive the next few months. “No problem,” I can remember saying, “I’ll pop down to the local store and get a new set.”

My house is a traditional one in a leafy area and I was picturing some pretty garden furniture, white with curves but not too ornate. Incidentally, the local store is part of a huge supermarket chain, one of the biggest in the country, and most towns and cities have two or three of these hardware stores, so they have quite a big product range, from paints, to wood, to garden plants to garden furniture. My mood was definitely upbeat when I arrived since I expected to make a quick purchase and return home for a pleasant meal al fresco.

This was not to be. All that was on display was wooden furniture or dark brown or grey furniture, all very square in appearance. My vision of a dainty white table and chairs with curvy sides might just as well have been from another planet. These were monstrous, heavy pieces of furniture with no hint of summer about them. As if to complement this dour, wintery feel, the outsized barbecues displayed endless dark and chrome surfaces leaving one wondering who on earth could dream up so many configurations of barbecue — “pedestal barbecues”, “square barbecues”, “4 burner barbecue” “kettle trolley barbecue” — and who could possibly be buying them? The blurb for a Swiss 4 burner barbecue, a snippet at 1.5 metres long (4.5 feet) of grey steel was: “The perfect barbecue for those seeking simple sophistication in the garden. Great to look at.” Short of a mix-up in the catalogue, one had to assume that this was someone’s idea of heaven. Whose?

The catalogue went on to describe the infrared rear and side burners known as grizzlers, “the microwave of the outdoor kitchen”. More details followed: “The Grizzler is an infrared searing station that is designed to seal the juice into meats as well as being used for normal grilling or cooking. The Grizzler produces phenomenal instant heat enabling efficient burning.”

Could these be aimed at the hunter of the species?

More clues followed from a jokes website giving the chain of events for preparing a barbecue:

1. The woman buys the food.

2. The woman makes a salad, prepares vegetables, and makes dessert.

3. The woman prepares the meat for cooking, places it on a tray along with the necessary cooking utensils and sauces, and takes it to the man who is lounging beside the grill — beer in hand.


5. The woman goes inside to organize the plates and cutlery.

6. The woman comes out to tell the man that the meat is burning. He thanks her and asks if she will bring another beer while he deals with the situation.


8. The woman prepares the plates, salad, bread, utensils, napkins, sauces and brings them to the table.

9. After eating, the woman clears the table and does the dishes.

10. Everyone PRAISES THE MAN and THANKS HIM for his cooking efforts.

The clues were getting warm when a thought piece by Guardian journalist Mike Power appeared:

All over the UK, probably the world, the barbecue is now one of the last places where even normal blokes become sexist. What we have here is … a biologically deterministic blizzard … that sees women as salad-spinners and men as the keepers of the grill, the tenders of the flame, lords and masters of the meat!

An Australian experiment provided the final, definitive clue. A man asks a group of men at a barbecue who is going to prepare the salad: “Is that you, mate?” he asks one of the blokes. “Certainly not, that’s the lady’s job,” comes the answer. The Australians should know since more than 70 per cent of Australian homes have a barbecue with half a million new ones sold every year. The concluding remarks of Professor Colin Groves, at the Australian National University, clinch the evidence. According to him, control of the food and the fire was all about power. “Because the possessor of the meat, the source of the prestige food, is the one who’s going to impress females,” says Professor Groves.

So much for the barbecue. I returned home in pursuit of perfect table furniture and imagined that it was to be found minutes away with an Internet search. Two hours later, I was still looking and beginning to wonder if I would ever find what I wanted. The next day, the search was resumed in earnest and after another two and a half hours, the perfect white set was found. I had been halfway round the world and back before I found this — had seen some wonderful things in South Africa but delivery to Europe was not offered — so it was all the more appreciated once tracked down. It now sits in my garden and fills it with elegance and beauty.

Goodness only knows who retailers think that the modernist-brutalist furniture is aimed at. In actual fact, a survey of 2000 people by the Arthritis Society found that women are largely responsible for sourcing garden furniture and so the predominance — in the UK at least — of the hunter look would seem to be way out of kilter with the customer demographics.

When you consider that few retailers have anything approaching a gender balance on their boards, this is perhaps not so surprising. The Huffington Post conducted some research in 2013 regarding the gender balance on retail boards and discovered that fewer than 15% have achieved the target of having women make up 30% of their board, with companies in this category including Tesco (at 30.8%), John Lewis (at 30.8%) and Asda’s parent company Walmart with a massive 55.6% female representation at the top. Of the rest, a massive 20 per cent had no women on their board — a group that included Matalan and the giant Arcadia Group (Top Shop, Dorothy Perkins, Wallis and others are part of this group) and 30 per cent had just one woman on their boards — these companies included Alliance Boots (the owner of Boots), Next, Amazon, Aldi, Primark and Ikea.

The absence of women is just mind-boggling since women will be the majority consumer for all these retailers. In fact, the Huffington Post asked business analyst Nick Hood at Company Watch to compare and contrast the 50 retailers, and look for trends between those with mixed boards and those with all-male groups at the top. The results were fascinating since the boards of the male dominated companies have had 70% more risks than the mixed ones and a debt ratio of more than 100%. High debt levels were described by Hood as “toxic in a sector which is hugely capital intensive and has fragile profit margins” which are easily driven down to unviable levels by consumer pressure. Probably most striking of all, according to the paper, is that half of the male-only retailers were in Company Watch’s ’warning area’ compared to just 16% of the mixed board companies. No wonder it was difficult to find pretty garden furniture.

Understanding the customer

The irony is that business guru Michael Hammer wrote eloquently back in the 1990s about the importance of shaping products or services around the “unique and particular needs” of their customers. He said that having a clear understanding of who the organisation’s customers are is the first step in a marketing plan, and the second is appreciating the customers’ needs. Had the store buyers factored gender into their calculations as to the best furniture to supply to the market?

In fact, most market research data is focused on socioeconomic and geographical variables and one is hard-pressed to find data on gender in mainstream market research reports. This does not make sense since it is increasingly widely recognised that women make 80% or more of purchasing decisions. Paco Underhill, the retail guru with a client list that reads like a Who’s Who of retailing, writes in his book Why We Buy (1999) that: “Shopping is still and always will be meant mostly for females. Shopping is female.” He goes on to say that:

Men will breeze through the store and pick up the head of lettuce on top of the pile and fail to notice the brown spots and limpid leaves; a woman will palpate, examine and look for lettuce perfection … women demand more of shopping environments than men do and take pride in their ability to select the perfect thing whether it’s a cantaloupe or a horse or a husband.

As a result of this perfectionist streak, he concludes that: “women are capable of consigning species of retailer or product to Darwin’s dustbin if that retailer or product is unable to adapt to what women need and want.” The consequences, portentously evoked by Underhill, are “like watching dinosaurs die out.”

Some other commentators have recognised the fact that most consumers are women. David Ogilvy, for example, founder of the one of the world’s largest advertising agencies, said that: “The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife.” And Michael Silverstein, senior partner of the Boston Consulting group in Chicago, has said that: “Today’s woman is the chief purchasing agent of the family and marketers have to recognize that.” In fact, in 2009, Silverstein vividly painted a picture of the opportunities afforded by the female consumer as: “$5 trillion of incremental spending over the next several years — is larger than the commercial potential represented by the growth of the consumer economics of India and China.” So great, in fact, are these perceived opportunities that Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence and The Circle of Innovation, predicted that women will be the future primary consumer.

Many of these commentators are based in the US but not exclusively. Two leading commentators, authors of Why Women Mean Business, are based in Europe with Avivah Wittenberg-Cox in France and co-author Alison Maitland in the UK. Their book leads with the memorable battle cry that “Gender is a business issue, not a ’women’s issue’,” framing gender as a matter of strategic rather than ethical importance. “The under-use of women’s talent has an impact on the bottom line,” they say and much of my own work on design and marketing bears this out.

The starting point for much of this thinking is the realisation men and women in particular have significant importance as consumers. I discovered this back in the 1990s when I started this research and there was very little data on the gender of consumers, conducting primary research to find answers. Starting with consumption patterns in the UK and analysing data from the Target Group Index and the Family Expenditure Survey (a survey of 7000 households in the UK), I found some fascinating data on sectors to be dominated by female purchasers:

Products in which men are the main purchasers or decision-makers

Alcohol, garden tools, petrol, records and DVDs, sports goods and video cameras, computers, fridges, washing machines and SLR cameras.

Products in which women are the main purchasers or decision-makers

Groceries, homes, books, china and glass, cosmetics, kitchen equipment, furniture, chocolate, jewellery, cameras, small electrical goods, stationery and toys.

There are of course also markets in which men and women play a more equal part in the decision-making and purchasing process, the case for example with telecommunications, online banking, higher education and, as we saw earlier, green electricity.

Moving from the UK to the US, we find women described as the “majority market” and controlling “far more money than they ever have in history — $7 trillion in consumer and business spending combined, to be exact — a number that exceeds Japan’s economy” (Warner, 2005). Women’s financial power spurred the Economist to coin a new phrase, “Womenomics”, and Danish international guru Benja Stig Fagerland in a similar vein refers to the “SHEconomy” and the fact that “more women as leaders means a strengthened bottom line!” Many commentators, Benja included, write about women’s massive purchasing power and the prediction that over the next ten years women will control two-thirds of the consumer wealth in the US.

Data like this is vital. Once companies know who their customers are, they can plan how best to target them, something impossible without a single-minded focus on the customer and the target market. It has been amazing to see in the course of working with big companies how few have an understanding of the demographics of their customers. So, when asked to run a workshop on website design for one of the largest global car manufacturers in 2007, my first question was for a gender breakdown of the target market. Weeks later, a sketchy report arrived from a bijou marketing agency but with little hard data on purchasing patterns. No wonder that this company’s website had a boy’s own look to it, similar to that of many football teams, with photos of gleaming cars set against a square background. During my workshop, I passed on the all-important information that more than half of all new car buyers are female, the company made moves to change the character of its website, showing images of women opening car boots and waiting for roadside assistance. These may always be images of women in their twenties (eye candy for men!) but it is a first step in recognising and reflecting the target market.

So important is the motor industry, in fact, that it is worth spending a few moments considering the products it designs for a changing demographic. From there, we will go on to explore other sectors. In the next chapter, we will put the spotlight on advertising and consider how responsive this sector is to a changing demographic. Meanwhile, back to the motor industry and the attitudes that I encountered. How typical were these?

The motor industry

It turned out that the challenges I encountered with the global motor company were not one-off problems. According to Dr Andy Palmer, executive vice-president of Nissan, half of women are unhappy with their cars as well as the sales process (the sales patter of predominantly male showroom salesmen is the problem area), and he talks of his industry “failing the largest and most influential customer segment in the world.” The vast majority of cars are designed by men and only rarely will you come across the odd (in some people’s estimation, very odd) one designed by a woman.

Andy Palmer is not alone in identifying the “mega trend” of female car buyers. In France, Vincent Dupray of the Automotive Department at TNS Sofres estimated that women had a strong role in car purchases: “One motorist in two in France is female and women account for one-third of the new vehicle market” (Peugeot Citroen Magazine, 2008). Women also make up 40 per cent of the main users of a vehicle in France.

In Britain, according to the Technical Director of the Royal Automobile Club (RAC), David Bizley, the latest report on the changing demographic of drivers shows the number of licensed female drivers rose by 23 per cent in 1995—2010 with the number of young male drivers actually falling. In his words, this is a new situation since “until comparatively recently, there were always more male than female drivers”. He acknowledges that the old situation caused “a level of bias in terms of vehicle design” but how easy can change be?

Ford now has a Women’s Product Panel while Renault’s customer knowledge department and General Motors’ interior design department are headed by women. Despite these efforts, however, Nissan’s Andy Palmer says that: “generally the car industry is not seen as female friendly.” David Ahmad, course leader on the MA in Car Design at London’s prestigious Royal College of Art, concurs when he says that the macho culture in the car industry means that a woman would have to “brave the boys-and-toys world if she wanted to succeed.”

So, apparent signs of change can in fact be misleading. Jane Priestman, for example, the eminent designer who used to advise Jaguar cars on design, told me that she was only ever allowed to offer advise on the inside trim of the car. A similar story relates to Anne Asensio who, in 2000, was appointed Design Director for medium-sized cars at Renault and then moved to General Motors as head of GM’s brand studios’ designers in charge of Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and GMC. However, at the time she left GM, her job had shifted to Executive Director of Interior Design, showing that the company had moved her to a role focusing on the car interior, a fate that echoed that of Jane Priestman in Britain. Reflecting on the position of women in the industry, she told the Automotive News Europe Congress in Prague in 2007 that if the motor industry did not involve more women in its product decisions, it risked becoming irrelevant. “The industry doesn’t need cars designed for women but by women,” she told the gathering.

What would this mean? According to Valerie Nicolas, Colours and Materials designer at Citroen’s styling centre: “Women do not have the same expectations as men. They are more receptive to criteria such as safety — particularly for children — economy, respect for the environment, easy maintenance, compact dimensions, convenience and easy handling. And, of course, women are highly sensitive to styling, often more so than to power and performance.” Statistics prove Nicolas right since, according to, more than 80% of women drivers choose their first car solely on the hue of the paint. “Colour sells cars,” says motoring journalist and broadcaster Quentin Willson, so it makes business sense to pay even greater attention to colour.

With colour we are talking about style and this is the area which is nearly always an all-male preserve. Remember the Women’s Product Panel established by Ford? Well this is concerned largely with practical issues such as the handling of the car and the reachability of the instrument panel. Decisions concerning the ’look’ of the car exterior are rarely shared with women and this is potentially a big mistake given the differences in male and female aesthetics exposed by the new science of perception. So, whilst we know what cars produced by men look like — 99.9% of cars are designed by men — what do cars by women look like? To the best of my knowledge, only one female-designed car has ever gone into commercial production, but two concept cars have been created — one by Volvo and one by a French artist. All offer fascinating glimpses into an automotive world that we rarely see.

Take the commercial car. The exterior of the BMW Z4 2009 sports car was designed by Juliane Blasi who studied transportation design at Germany’s Pforzheim University, one of the oldest design programmes in the world. The car was a great commercial success and is absolutely beautiful. “If the car wants to be emotional and sexy, it needs to speak the language of people and not the language of a product,” she says. “I wanted the car to be balanced and flat all over,” and she speaks eloquently about two lines on the car body: “We have a line from the headlight to the side of the car, and then you have the other line which is very short and which shows the overall proportion: these two lines work perfectly together.” Significantly, the lines are curved and do not form a single straight line but work together in magical counterpoint.

The concept cars predate this by just a few years. In 2004, Volvo went the extra mile and created a car, 80% of which is designed by women. Volvo is no shining light where women’s careers are concerned since only one in ten of its managers are female, compared with twice as many in its parent company Ford. However, a dismal record of sales to women in Europe is what it took to get this project off the ground, showing that poor sales can be a great incentive to change.

What is this new concept car like? Many of the new features are practical ones, often the main focus of manufacturers seeking to draw in the female user. For example, the surface has a dirt-repellent paint finish which behaves like the coating on a nonstick pan. This means that dirt finds it hard to cling to the surface and, if it does, will wash off fairly easily. A simple idea but one that the Volvo team found in New York in the paint used to coat garbage trucks. Other ingenious features include special compartments inside the car’s bodywork for an umbrella, key and coins, and back seats that fold down like cinema seats. There are even gull doors that make it easier to climb in, and an aperture near the nozzle in which you can pour in screen wash.

Not everything that’s new about this car is practical, however. Some of the features that you won’t have seen anywhere else are purely aesthetic in value. Where else, for example, would you find a silvery roof fabric that can shift its colour from green to gold or blue to yellow depending on the interior décor? Where else would you find a selection of carpets and seat covers that you could use on different occasions and weathers?

You may think that this is a one-off, and that we should not infer too much about women’s tastes from this one car, but you might be mistaken. Remember, claims that more than 80% of women drivers choose their first car solely on the hue of the paint. Since there are so few women working in the automotive industry, we have to get our clues as to what they like from elsewhere.

Tucked away in an art gallery in the exclusive Place des Vosges in Paris are some precious clues. The paintings on the walls show flowers painted in vibrant colours, but on the coffee table are scrapbooks describing the life of the artist. Swirling handwriting tells the remarkable story of Céline Chourlet who held her first exhibition at the age of sixteen and went on to open this gallery at just 24 years of age. They also reveal what you are least expecting and that is that she was commissioned by Chrysler cars to paint a Chrysler PT cruiser. The end result is unlike anything that you will have seen in a car showroom. If you are curious, you can see it on her website ( or go to Detroit to the Chrysler Museum to view the real thing. Detroit is the epicentre of the car industry, the place where close to one million cars were produced in the last century. However, even Detroit is unlikely to have seen anything like this before.

For a start, the car is covered in flowers, and why not? Céline describes the car as a “garden on wheels” and the workshop where she (“a dressmaker for the car”) created it, as a “beauty salon” for cars. While some readers may recoil at this, they would at least recognise that this is at least a departure from the techno-obsession and aggressive imagery found in motor magazines. Here, for example, is a description of the same CPT model from Canadian Driver magazine “… this ’gangster’ car, all wrapped in bulging fenders, flared sills, wide wings, bullet-shaped tail-lamps and deliciously brilliant chrome door handles has a lot to offer …”

You can see that the two approaches are worlds apart and we should not sit in judgement as to which is better. Neither approach is better, just worlds apart. These differences in men and women’s tastes came to the forefront when I was chatting to a Russian Market Research expert with a PhD in psychology from Oxford University. “I’ve found that women I know like cars like the Nissan Micra, the Nissan Figaro and the Mini, cars that are small and round,” he went on. “Although these are good from a technical point of view, I wouldn’t want these if you paid me.” His colleague, Anthony, fresh from a Master’s in Human Computer Interaction, nodded approvingly. “These don’t seem like serious cars — more like toys. A real car would be the Lamborghini Countach.” This is a boy’s own car, the sort that Action Man would not be without.

Maybe, with time, the designed world will reflect better these different worlds, and you, as consumer, will have more choice. Meanwhile, the car industry is going through a difficult patch. In 2013, Europe has seen the lowest car sales on record with the statistics making gloomy reading. As the author was putting the final touches to the book in September 2013, the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association announced a drop in new registrations between January and August of 5.2 per cent, corresponding to a drop of 7.8 million cars. Some countries were hit worse than others with sales in Spain slipping 3.6 per cent, German sales dropping by 6.6 per cent, Italian by 9 per cent and French sales by 9.8 per cent. Cumulatively, Fiat, Ford, General Motors and Peugeot are expected to post a combined £5 billion loss in 2013 in Europe. Interestingly, premium brands such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar Land Rover saw sales grow so the downturn is not inevitable.

So much for the world of cars. What of the world of household goods? Are these perfected to their end-users?

Grocery products

Fish finger packaging may seem banal after reflections on that icon of modern life, the motor car, but the story that follows encapsulates the Hunter/Gatherer divide in the design world. It was a spring day, and I had been invited to a graphic design firm in London. You can picture the scene — down a mews, past the beautiful receptionist, and into a cavernous room with brilliant white walls. Chic young designers sit around a table, and two of them produce the graphics they created for fish finger packets. One designer is a man, and the other a woman, and his design is serious, with a three-dimensional feel to it. You can see that it uses contrasting colours — orange and blue — with pink and yellow thrown in for good measure. The typeface is regular, symmetrical and contained within the background shapes around the text. Finally, surprise, surprise, a male figure has been included. The woman’s design, by contrast, is more light-hearted. It has more of a two-dimensional feel to it and the colours are harmonious rather than contrasting. The typeface is wacky, irregular and wanders over the whole available area, rather than being contained. A beaming male figure has not been included.

If you judge them in terms of the market — a massive 80—90% of groceries are bought in-store by women — then hers is likely to have the edge simply because there aren’t that many men buying fish fingers (how many have you come across?) and the wacky design has elements that are likely to have greater appeal. Certainly, in the preference tests described earlier (see Chapter 3), men and women’s reactions to the fish finger packs were sharply polarised with strong evidence of ’own-sex preference’.

Toothpaste is another product worth considering. This product must sit in many an elegant bathroom, and is bought largely by women who do most of the grocery shopping. However, except for children’s toothpaste and non-standard toothpastes, toothpaste tubes tend to have large typography etched right across the surface. Remember Hurlock’s study showing that 30% of boys but only 19% of girls using the printed word in their drawings and you can see this as a manifestation of the male production aesthetic.

Trips to shops can become monotonous, but you can enliven your visits by playing the following game. As you walk around, ask yourself questions about the products you see: “Who is it aimed at? Has the designer got under the skin of the target consumer?” If you are out with your partner, you can use this game to diffuse tension and disagreements. It may salvage a nice shopping expedition and stop it turning into the sort of battle of wills that accompanies such trips. The following story illustrates the dangers.

James and Martha wanted to replace their old saucepans, and the prospect of something better put them in a fine humour. Each was feasting on their own fantasies as to how this was to transform their kitchen. He wanted the orange “Le Creuset” range — “They’re well insulated and will stand the test of time.” This hit the wrong buttons with Martha. “The orange will clash with the blue and mauve tiles,” she said. “And besides, they are much too heavy — I know I’ll think twice before taking them out of the cupboard. No, I really couldn’t live with those saucepans.”

It would have been better if James had anticipated Martha’s reactions and gone for a saucepan that offered technical excellence and also a colour she liked. It may not be easy to find (my last trawl around the saucepan section produced innumerable variations on chrome) but it is worth the trouble of looking. Meanwhile, saucepan manufacturers would be well served designing saucepans that don’t weigh a ton and that come in more than just orange and chrome.


How many of us could live without telephones? Mobile phones took a while to move away from black and chrome; but in Finland, Nokia’s chief designer, Frank Nuovo, was inspired by the need for product designers to meet customer expectations. In doing this, he may have taken his cue from Jorma Ollila, the head of Nokia, who focused the company on the role mobiles played in people’s lives and ease of use, an approach that is all the more remarkable for occurring at a time when rivals like Motorola and Ericsson were concentrating on engineering products that concentrated on technical wizardry.

The results? By 1998, Nokia owned a quarter of the mobile phone market and, by 2000, it was making one in three mobile phones worldwide; by 2007, its share of the market in handsets had increased to 38 per cent, nearly three times that of its nearest rival, Motorola. It was when it failed to maintain its technological edge that its handsets division was taken over by Microsoft in September 2013. How it is faring is open to debate but the Nokia Lumia 1020, launched in the same month, is a good guide. Marketed with the promise of being “reinvented around you”, the handset is divided (like earlier models) into black-framed boxes, has a yellow case and prides itself on the superb quality of its camera. An advert showing a football game playing out on the handset carried the words “41 megapixels puts you pitch-side” and the combined effect is to call into question the gender neutrality of the “you” around whom the product is reinvented. All the signs are that this is male even though unconscious bias on the part of the designers may shield them from this fact.

This is by no means an isolated case. In Britain at the end of the 1980s, the telephone utility British Telecom adopted as its logo the red and blue pan player, and up until 2003 you would see it on everything from vans, to stationery, to product information and telephone directories. It was the work of a well-known, London-based, corporate image consultancy and the designer there, when interviewed, described the brief as being “to design a pan figure that was neither markedly male nor female but hermaphrodite.” He looked up. “You can see this in the finished figure I think.”

The pan player he had designed showed a muscular figure of a youngish male and it was difficult to relate what he had said to this rather masculine figure. To check whether this impression was shared by other people, I asked 37 subjects to describe whether the figure appeared to them to be male, female or hermaphrodite as specified in the designer’s brief. What this survey revealed was that a tiny 13% considered the figure to be hermaphrodite and massive 74% considered it to be male with the remaining 13% undecided. Clearly, the designer’s best intentions of producing a sex-neutral figure had not worked in practice and he had ended up, predictably, designing someone of the same gender as himself. Since roughly half the market for telecommunications is female, and women allegedly spend seven times longer on the phone than men, it might have made more sense to have a figure with more female attributes.


After 72 years of showing a woman on the cover, the British retailer Littlewoods recently made advertising history by putting a man on the cover of its mail order catalogue. Selling everything from clothes, furniture, sports to electricals and appliances, they reckoned that the 47% of men who won’t go high street shopping might pick up a catalogue instead. We will have to wait and see if this strategy pays off but they seem ahead of the game in realising the importance of holding up a mirror to their customers.

At the end of the day, what many of us are looking for — whether in an ideal partner, or in a piece of graphic design — is a reflection of ourselves. So when a pub found that its clientele was dropping off, they placed mirrors on all the walls and, within a short time, the numbers stepped up. However, against this one astute firm are companies, too numerous to mention, who offer to customers products that appeal first and foremost to people within the company rather than to the target market.

Examples? Not long ago, I picked up a brochure advertising a family railcard and found that all the people featured there were males, even though the majority of people buying the product were women. The brochure was designed by a group of male designers and, from what we know about gender preferences, the predominantly female market would be more likely to respond positively were the brochure to illustrate female figures. Another brochure, this time from a Tesco petrol forecourt, featured a man at a petrol pump. Since more than 70% of the people using petrol stations are men, projecting an image of a man is a great way of connecting with the company’s male customers. Well done, Tesco!

In terms of retail interiors, we probably don’t need Paco Underhill to tell us that men and women stay in stores different lengths of time. As many a woman will testify, men’s tolerance level for confusion or time spent in a store is much shorter. Perhaps in recognition of men’s reluctant role as shoppers, the UK high street retailer Marks and Spencer initiated the male crèche, a shopping-free sanctuary complete with sofas, DVDs and toys such as Scalextric sets. So, given all this, what general lessons are there about making a retail environment appeal to men and women?

My own research shows that many women don’t want products placed in uniform rows (for example banks of televisions), don’t want boring signage and want colours interfacing in the right colour combinations. How to appeal to men? More metal, more wood, louder music, and simplify the store so that men would not get too impatient. James Adams, a prominent American store designer, recommends going “narrow and deep” and presenting ready combinations of accessories so that “most of the colour story goes together.” “This is important,” he says, because “guys are always screwing the colors up.” After all, hunters are hunters, not gatherers. But women are happier gathering their own look. US clothes retailer Banana Republic say they would never be so direct as to match women’s scarves to jackets in the store, as women prefer to put their own look together.

Several years ago, Adams was asked to try and increase sales for a flooring company. He found the sales staff selling the product on its functional virtues — it didn’t scuff, it was easy to clean, and it was long-lasting. It was being sold by men to men, as if it was a car or a telephone. “Wrong!” said Adams. “They have got too caught up in the man’s way of thinking. Women are the decision-makers on flooring and it’s not what she’s looking for. Selling it as a wonder product technologically appeals instantly to men, but women are more interested in the fashion, color and design implications.”

Small electrical products

The category of small electrical products covers products such as toasters, kettles, mixers, cameras and computers, and men and women’s share of this market 43 and 57 per cent respectively. In the US, the size of this market had a value in 2003 of $96 billion, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, so it is a market in which men and women’s preferences — and given the consumer demographics, the latter in particular — need to be satisfied. The importance of satisfying women cannot, in fact, be underestimated since women buy these products largely for themselves rather than other people and so may be even more particular about the items purchased. What is more, studies have revealed that even where men are the primary purchasers of products, women can still have a significant influence on the purchase. An example is the fact that women influence 75 per cent of the purchases of high-tech goods such as DVDs, flat-screen televisions and complex stereo systems.

Despite this importance, a meagre one per cent of women surveyed by the Consumer Electronics Association in 2003 thought that manufacturers had them in mind when creating products. This is a dismally low figure but the picture is not entirely bleak since some companies are noticing the demographics and taking appropriate action. At Sharp, for example, the Vice President of Marketing, Bob Scaglione, noticed that the female population was being ignored a bit and redesigned its flat-panel TVs with them in mind — the product line was renamed AQUOS to connote fluidity and a softer touch. It also changed its TV advertising policy by expanding its TV advertisements beyond sports and prime-time slots to Lifetime, the Food Network and The Learning Channel. By 2004, the company claimed to have more than 50 per cent of the market for LCD flat-panel TV screens and these design changes may have been a key factor. Another case relates to Sony’s LIV line, a product range that includes CD players for the kitchen and shower radios. This product range was introduced under the direction of Ellen Glassman, a director of Sony, and was targeted specifically at women. As she says, “The first question we ask is ’Who are we designing it for?’” and, once the target market is determined, the designers can focus their attention on factors such as style, function and technology. The LIV product line was inspired by Ellen’s philosophy that: “The smaller designs should fit better in a home,” and it sounds very much as though she has an awareness of women’s field dependence and the desire for products to blend in with their surroundings.

It remains the case that, like cars, most small electrical goods are designed by women. The kettle, the most used utensil in the UK household, picked up on average fifteen times a day and with a pattern of sales that has remained stable since a high proportion of kettle sales (one in five) are replacements. In terms of their design history, kettles have progressed from the old ’Copper Kettle’, to the whistler and the immersed element kettle of 1907 created by Peter Behrens of AEG Electric. From there they moved on to the automatic kettle that switched itself off when the water reached boiling point, the creation of Russell Hobbs in 1954, to the plastic Kenwood kettle designed by Pentagram’s Kenneth Grange. In another twenty years, there was ’The Rainbow’ kettle of Hoover’s Paul Moss followed, in 1979, by Max Byrd’s jug kettle of 1979. The final changes came with Richard Seymour and Dick Powell’s cordless kettle in 1985, followed by the advent of the ’pistol grip’ handle — now there’s a concept that will really appeal to the female majority buying the kettles.

This is quite a long list of male designers and it put me in mind of the conversation I had with the Design Director at Morphy Richards. “I tried,” he said, “to recruit some female designers but the quality of the girls’ work was not really up to scratch,” he ventured. Could it have been that he simply preferred the boys’ work?

The dearth of female product designers makes it difficult to compare male and female-produced kettles; but to get a better idea of how male and female-produced kettles might compare, I asked three female designers to design an electric kettle. One of these actually went on to work as a designer for the Terence Conran’s “Habitat” chain of furniture stores and the sketch designs that they produced revealed a completely new look to kettles. Instead of bulbous, bulky objects in a single colour, we had compact shapes, closer in style to a rotund teapot, with the body of the kettle in a different colour to the spout and handle. Pink, bright yellow and turquoise were the dominant colours and, in some cases, the handle was decorated with polka dots and the spout with colourful stripes.

These kettle designs were so different from the designs produced commercially that I embarked on an experiment. I set these designs alongside photographs of jug kettles dating from the 1990s — square-shaped objects with square-shaped handles, in a bottle green or navy coloured plastic, and asked 30 male and 30 female users of a university library to indicate which kettle they preferred. Of course, there were methodological weaknesses in this experiment since the images, although similar in size, were not similar in quality (some showed design sketches and some finished kettles). However, despite these weaknesses, the results gave pause for thought since they showed that 62 per cent of the females’ choices were for kettles designed by females, while 52 per cent of the men’s selections were for male-designed kettles. Once again, the results pointed to clear evidence of ’own-sex preference’ and since the majority of purchasers of kettles are female, the results suggest that kettle manufacturers might do well to add elements of the female production aesthetic to their products. How long will it be before we see them resplendent with polka dots?

The DIY market

There are parts of the world where DIY is not the in-thing (Turkey is an example) but it flourishes with thirty-something women spending more than any other age group in the UK on home improvements, outspending all male age groups. Something similar is happening in Australia and America, too.

You can see why, women, when you hear of my friend’s sense of affront that a builder who came to tile her new designer kitchen had chosen white grout for her beige tiles! She eventually took herself off to a DIY shop in order to get the right shade of beige. Even common-or-garden nails can become an issue between men and women as Salli Brand, author of Girls’ Guide to DIY, points out. “Women,” she says, “are more interested in the aesthetics. When she buys screws, she’ll pick out the prettiest ones. He’ll buy the strongest ones.”

Women make eighty per cent of the buying decisions in the home and one store that is responding proactively is DIY store B&Q. According to Nathan Clements, the director of organisation development, the organisation is addressing the gender imbalance in opinion-forming functions, including store, regional and general managers, and a concern to recruit more women into senior roles. As Clements says, this means ensuring that shortlists for recruitment are “reflective and balanced from a gender point of view.” A more gender inclusive approach also meant more emphasis on DFY (’done for you’) and not just the more “blokey” DIY, Clements added.

In the US, similar changes are afoot. The Home Depot company, which until recently used to market its power tools and drywall to men, is now aggressively pursuing women. One of the ways it does this is through teaching women how to do home repairs, and it is also pursuing entertainment partnerships with home improvement TV shows that are widely watched by women.

DIY can become a bit of a passion and, in February one year, I was asked to give a keynote speech on gender and design at a Global Diversity and Inclusion conference in Barcelona. The event had attracted Heads of Diversity from around the world and from top companies including Shell, Unilever, L’Oréal, HSBC and Bayer Pharmaceuticals. Sitting at lunch on the second day, I found myself next to Michael Stuber, a Diversity expert from Germany. His American clients include Ford, Hewlett-Packard, Johnson & Johnson, Kraft Foods, Motorola and his European clients include BP, Credit Suisse, the Sandoz Group, Swiss Post, UBS and Vodafone. With a client list as long as this — and the list excludes the German companies he has worked with — conversation was bound to be interesting.

We were staying in a beautiful hotel and, before long, the conversation turned to home improvements. Michael recounted how back in 2003 Bosch discovered that people like us — sporadic DIY enthusiasts — were a large but neglected group. The firm undertook market research amongst this group which included both men and women, and found that what people wanted was small and simple, easy-to-use tools without many special features. Faced with this information, Bosch decided to set up a gender-mixed development team with international employees in order to create an electric screwdriver that would satisfy a variety of customer needs. The end result is the small cordless screwdriver IXO and subsequent marketing, targeting men and women alike, showed both genders using it in different everyday situations, for example opening a bottle of wine, lighting up the grill or fixing the (shoe) cabinet. The tool became the global no. 1 best-selling electric tool and, according to Bosch, the gender distribution reflects sensitive targeting to a demographic with a fifty:fifty male/female split.

Advising companies

Some companies are quick to see the advantages of understanding men and women’s points of view. I have advised several companies and many stand out. In the late 1990s, I went out to Germany for a meeting of European Marketing Managers at Canon Cameras and showed them images of cameras produced by male and female students. The cameras designed by the men were all rectangular-shaped and without colour but those designed by the women were all rounded in shape, some coloured in pink. The men — for they were all men — were silent as they observed these and slowly realised that the path they had pursued may have been wrong. For the majority of purchasers of non-SLR cameras are women and it dawned on them, at this time of black, rectangular cameras, that there was another way. Shortly afterwards, the IXUS camera was born with its curved and silver sides.

Another enlightened company was Bounty, the people who provide a bag of baby products for all new mums in the UK. We ran a workshop with their web designers — all male as it happened — and they were quick to see the case for change. The original website consisted of boxes of information with a predominant colour of blue, and after the workshop the new site gained new colours and detailing, and immediately attracted more hits.

A brief postscript. Months after running a workshop for a local authority which likewise was quick to perceive the need for change, I returned to their website. Immediately after the workshop, they had been quick to make changes to their website so that it would be less box-like and unicoloured and have greater appeal for their mixed male and female demographic. Several months down the line, the website was reverting to its original form which shows that one-off injections of help may not be sufficient when dealing with an all-male design team. Hunters will be hunters and produce hunter vision, and only regular coaching can steer the impulses in a different direction.