Last week you were introduced to one of our judges for the Sex-tacular 1-Hour Design Challenge, Industrial Designer and Professor Judith Glover. Glover's practice is unique in that it is dedicated to one purpose: to enhance people's sexual pleasure and confidence through the design of sex toys. As she has spent over 10 years on the subject (and even purportedly earned the world's first PhD in sex toy design!), she has gained a deep understanding of the technicalities associated with designing a intimate product and hurdles designers face in this rapidly evolving industry.
We caught up with Glover to learn a little bit more about a class she recently conducted at RMIT in Melbourne on the design of future sex toys, why there is such an unfathomably narrow selection of quality products out there, and how the sex toy industry needs an Apple-esque powerhouse.
Core77: When designing sex toys, what are some of the key considerations for making a product great? How will (or how will it not) change with new technologies?
Glover: What needs to be distinguished is whether a sex toy company is a design-led company or an "old school" adult industry company. It very much goes to the heart of the type of values and practices the people running the company and commissioning the products have. They are vastly different industries.
If you are a designer, you have been taught a certain set of principles and practices. Every project you do tries to get at the most objective understanding of your potential user as possible...You try and map out something objective. The adult industry, on the other hand, takes another approach based on the longstanding belief systems of their industry. They now know women spend more than men on sex toys but are having trouble reconciling their old brand's historical consumer base (men who like pornography)...with the way women actually like to get marketed to. I'm not being moralistic here—I'm just trying to be objective.
So my first suggestion is to become a design-led company and embed design thinking and design strategy at the core of your business if you want highly innovative results...The adult industry needs to stop patting itself on the back about apparently being 'innovative' because they are constantly changing technologies. Yes, they change technologies but [all they do is] saddle the same content and the same beliefs to a new technology...That's not innovation! There is a socio-cultural dimension to innovation that they are just not getting.
A project from Glover's class called Kuma-Kan uses the aesthetic and cultural power of "kawaii" (cute) culture to more easily address the difficulties around the subject of Vaginismus for young girls in Asia. The bear-like handle is a rubber hand pump that increases the width of the vaginal dilator as the user needs it. "It's very difficult for young Asian girls to get information abut sex or sexual issues or talk to anyone about it. Using 'kawaii' places it in a realm they are comfortable consuming," says Glover.
Tell us more about your university course in sex toy design. Why did you want to teach this course and what do you think students can learn from designing a sex toy?
The Future Sex [course] was part of our suite of studio subjects at RMIT that students can choose from. We opened it up to look at all sexual health and well-being issues.
You have to think about your sexual practice across your whole life time. And what may not be an issue in your 20s (like a fully functioning penis) may become one in your 50s. Women don't realize how much their bodies change as they get towards menopause; you become drier and less sensitive. How do you sustain good sexual intimacy in a long term relationship? The goalposts are always changing for us...how we practice sex and how we feel about our sexuality is so integral to our happiness and sustaining our relationships.
Designing a good looking and high quality sex toy is not hard (although it still amazes me how many bad ones are out there) so the students were encouraged to tackle more difficult issues that may result in sex toys or other types of products. The topics included erectile dysfunction, vaginismus, pregnancy and perineums, sexual trauma, porn addiction, condom usage, aging and sex and revitalising sex in long-term relationships amongst others. Some of these problems have the most difficult ergonomic or psychological components to them. Students were sometimes coming up with whole new product genres because nobody had designed into that area.
A lot of the time there were no obvious product design solutions in topics like sexual trauma and porn addiction, so students were really stretched and challenged. If you want to get Industrial Design students to learn product design but really make them think about designing for users then it's a really good area for that.
What were some of the most interesting product ideas that surfaced from your class?
This project from Glover's class, Black Peach, addresses the lack of consumption by young women of condoms.
They were all interesting topics and outcomes, even the ones that were more like traditional sex toys had a twist because of the underlying research into the problem or target market. If you take a vibrator designed for older post-menopausal women it may look like a beautiful vibrator but it has careful considerations around sensation, handleability and interface because you change a lot as you get older. One of the more challenging projects was about sexual trauma. The female student was highly engaged but the topic is difficult because of the things you have to read. And it had no obvious outcomes or precedents. In the end she did this package called the 'wishbone', which has lovely poetic connotations and visual analogies. The package came with guided meditation that the user listened to when attempting private sexual intimacy (i.e. masturbation) and the vibration device looked something like the shape of a wishbone...that sat on the vulva and around the legs and create very gentle sensations. It was a beautiful response to a difficult problem. Don't underestimate the power of beauty to be used for good. It honors someone's sexuality.
Glover on the Black Peach project: "[Women] leave the condom buying to the boys and then when things get hot and heavy sometimes one isn't available, plus the marketing of condoms is to guys so the signs and semiotics are deliberately masculine. So the student wanted to look at getting young women to do the buying and take responsibility for always having a condom. How do you package them and make it easy for girls to always have one? Where can you get women to buy them that's natural for them—like fashion point of sale for instance—and what kind of branding?"
How do you think sex toys can be enhanced in the future for the better?
One of my colleagues in the UK is John Hewson (Hewson Group) and John is the only business analyst of the sex toy industry globally. And we both agree it is an industry like no other. There is no equivalent of Apple, Tesla or Braun. It has been cut off from mainstream commerce for so long and resided mostly in the Adult Industry which means it attracts very little mainstream venture capital, entrepreneurs or designers; [this is] due to on-going and sexual taboos and longstanding morality wars against pornography. Prior to the design companies starting to come into the market in the early-mid 2000s, sex toys were solely made by the adult industry with no competition and nothing resembling normal manufacturing standards common in every other industry.
What we need in the market is a company like Agent Provocateur, Acne Jeans, or dare I say H&M, to bring it into the mainstream—company with deep pockets that can create their own retail and product eco-system. The more smaller design-led companies and studios there are slowly transforming the industry with better products and better values until hopefully one day somebody with a lot of commercial clout will take it on.
The adult industry companies will rush towards the next technological fix and keep the same content and scripts and dubious attitudes towards contemporary women. So for design led companies there are big gaps in the market to capture 'real' female consumers and couples...And anybody that actually wants to focus on the 'older' woman, go nuts, because that's where the money is globally—women over 50.
Even the better companies with higher manufacturing standards still create products that make you shake your head as a woman. I have never heard of a company doing any in depth research into type of sensations woman actually like to feel on their clitorises for instance (correct me if I'm wrong). Interfaces tend to be poorly designed as well. The industry needs much more R&D, much more design-led research and a much more user-centered approach. Finally, the industry needs more industrial designers and more female industrial designers.
How can products enable intimacy in 2050? Enter our 1-Hour Design Challenge before midnight on February 24th! Entries will be judged by Dan Chen, Judith Glover and Jon Winebrenner.
Enter a caption (optional)
This article is part of the Core77 Sex-tacular, an editorial series exploring the myriad ways that technology and design are shaping the future of intimacy and sex.