Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How do products get meaning?

This week in class I asked you to consider two case studies in design & the construction of gender in order to get at these larger questions/issues:

  • How do products get meaning?
  • To what extent do you believe a designer is able to “design” meaning into a product and determine a user’s behavior?
  • Do you believe design has the power to effect or even control how a person can or cannot act?
  • How do you understand the user’s “agency”?

The two case studies by Maines and Wright on the general topic of constructing female identity imply that the meaning of a product is socially constructed and does not reside “in” the design. Rather, the designer’s intention is mediated first by structures of belief embedded in the society, then by social conventions, and finally by the user as some sort of ultimate mediator of meaning within their own private, subjective, self-created modern self.

These case studies dealing with design and identity also point out yet another critical frame and starting point for a history of industrial design. In the modern period (beginning in the West around 1500) we find a new sense of the private self coming into being. In this scenario, industrial design is a key discipline involved in the performance of the modern self. In a sense, this way of writing a history of industrial design is a complement to the history of branding we looked at earlier. But the focus shifts, and we look from the other end of the telescope.

Please write a 500-word essay responding to the issues raised by these two case studies. Your essay should be posted on your blog by 6pm Sunday November 2nd so that we can have time to read one another’s responses. The final deadline will be the next morning at 6am, before class.

See below for a summary of the Maines and Wright case studies.

Rachel Maines, The Technology of Orgasm (1999).

Lee Wright, “Objectifying Gender: the Stiletto Heel,” A View from the Interior: Women and Design (1995).

Note on Maines:
Sex is a basic human need that has been treated differently by different cultures at different times. From the ancient Greeks to the near present, one historical constant has been the tendency of male-run societies of the last 2500 years to label as pathological or diseased any female sexual requirements that might exist beyond what men thought to offer women. (Would you say today is a moment of historical continuity or of change?)

In the groundbreaking, scholarly book, The Technology of Orgasm, Rachel Maines documents this medical literature, and the surprising finding that for centuries doctors and midwives were assigned the tedious clinical job of manually bringing women to orgasm as a way of relieving female “hysteria”.

Further, Maines brings to the table the fact that the vibrator was invented by doctors in the late-19th c. as a laborsaving device to relieve them of “the job nobody wanted”. It reduced the time it took doctors to get results from one hour to ten minutes. Maines illustrates the technological innovations and vast variations in the design of this prevalent medical device from 1880 to about 1920. Maines concludes her book with a study of how the vibrator moved from being a medical device to being freely advertised to middle-class women in Sears catalogues for private, in-home use around 1900, to the shift again within twenty years to being a taboo appliance after the vibrator founds it way as a prop in the new genre of porn films in the 1920s.

Thus, as one website notes, “the toaster and the vibrator were contemporaneous electrical inventions, both sold directly to consumers through such venues as the Sears Roebuck catalog.” Maines states that the vibrator was the 5th domestic appliance to be electrified, "after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle, and toaster, and about a decade before the vacuum cleaner and electric iron." (Wikipedia citing Maines.)

This important research into design and the construction of female identity is now being presented as a film. Entitled, Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm, it is produced and directed by Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori, and is an independent Wabi Sabi Production. [www.technologyoforgasm.com]

You can view the trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lyvistSxek

You can view some of historical design approaches to this appliance in the collection of the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, in Minneapolis: www.thebakken.org/artifacts/database/query.asp?type=category&category=E4.2

In this Industrial Design History class, I want to focus our attention on the questions raised by Maines’s case study of how a product is given meaning and how cultural norms constrain the information a user group (like women) can report on their own sexuality. How does this work? A male medical establishment determined women were ill with hysteria and should be rushed through a tedious procedure with the help of a laborsaving vibrator. And we have no records of what the women thought. As a case study, it is an example of a “black hole” in history, where we should stop and ask why it is possible to know so much about toasters and so little about vibrators? Product design history can be a powerful window into the very structure of a culture. From this historical analogy, designers today can find openings to design innovations that address basic human needs, a sense of personal freedom and self-determination about one’s own body. It is important to be able to talk about this historically-grounded case study, its meaning in design history, and the implications for designers today.

The vibrator can be seen as a case study of a clandestine product. Designers believed they were designing appliances with one kind of (medical) meaning in the product, but really the questions they were asking and their view of the user’s agency leaves much to be desired. Industrial designers are uniquely sited in society to design products that enable human beings to achieve new kinds of private, subjective freedoms. This includes the opportunity for both sexes to discretely explore their own sexuality and body within, as well as outside, conventions.

Please use this case study to reflect on these questions: To what extent do you believe a designer is able to “design” meaning into a product and determine a user’s behavior? How do you understand human “agency”, or the ability of a self to act in/on the world? How do products get meaning? How can we find a way to voice unspoken personal truths that need design solutions?

How does this case study complicate or reinforce the perspective that a history of industrial design should begin with the modern period and new ideas of the modern self-created self, “freed” from tradition? As I mentioned above, this starting point highlights industrial design as a key discipline involved in the performance of the modern self.

Notes on Wright:

Lee Wright in “Objectifying Gender: the Stiletto Heel” uses the case study of the stiletto heel (1950s-1960s) to ask how and why meaning gets attached to objects & if these meanings are inherent in the design criteria. She argues that the stiletto heel is seen as an emblem of female subordination, but during its first decade of existence, it was a mass phenomenon for women symbolizing assertion, modernity & feminity - all wrapped up. Further, the idea of the heel forced manufacturing advances in plastics technology and chemical engineering.

The high heel is a good product to use as a case study on design and the construction of gender since both men and women have worn high heels at various points in history. For example, around 1700, the short (5’4”) French King Louis XIV established the fashion of elite men wearing heels up to 6 inches; red heels were restricted to those close to the inner court circle. However, since the 19th c. high heels have been seen as part of the construction of female identity.

Wright begins her study with changes in clothing fashion after WWII, when designer Dior replaced the Utility Clothing and chunky heal of wartime with the “New Look” that emphasized the female form. The style combined a new feminity with an imagined active modern role for women. The Stiletto was an extreme development of the pump, and it took 10 years, from the 1950s to early 1960s to perfect the Stiletto. From 1953-7, the heel and toe of the pump slowly elongated and became the 4-7” spike of the Stiletto.

Wright documents how women’s desire for the Stiletto came before the ability to mass manufacture such a heel.

• The original high fashion stiletto had a wooden heel-spike reinforcement that would snap with normal use.
• It took 10 yrs before advances in injection molding perfected the metal spike in a plastic heel. This allowed the Stiletto to be mass-produced in Europe and America.
• With a 1-ton/sq inch heel pressure, the stiletto heel fashion required aircraft, offices, and factories to redesign tougher flooring material.
• During the peak sale years of 1958-62 the Stiletto heel was seen as a progressive form that symbolized dissatisfaction with the traditional female roles. Here was a new modern woman that was going places, who was active, and economically free. The opposite image of these very high heels as shackles on the modern women did not develop until the later 1960s, when women rioted to be free of these heels.

Wright argues that female gendered objects are devalued based on meaning already determined. In her opinion, these are active, aggressive shoes and the women who first adopted them felt that, and embraced it as a new freedom. She asks: If men can buy objects that make them feel assertive and “big”, then why can’t women?

From 1957-1962, the Stiletto was a mass symbol of women’s liberation from traditional roles. The Stiletto is the case study of the design and invention of a progressive product, even if we know see it as the opposite. It is another example of industrial design supporting the performance of the modern self and the agency the original user felt in making her own meaning. These case study examples deserve discussion. If one product can have such different meanings, then how, really, can it be said that the designer controls or designs meaning into a product?

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