For this year's Core77 Design Awards, we're conducting in-depth interviews with each of our jury captains to get in a glimpse into their creative minds and to hear more about what they'll be looking for in this year's awards submissions.
This year's Consumer Product Jury Captain, Ti Chang, is Co-founder & VP of Design at Crave, a sex toy company with a mission to provide products with an elevated aesthetic. We spoke with her about her own design journey that led her to a job that she is truly passionate about, helping women and couples feel empowered and in control of their own pleasure.
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I want to start off by asking you, why sex toys? And how did you decide to found Crave?
I've been a designer for pretty much all my career, and I've worked on various products from hairbrushes to bicycles, to furniture, and being a consultant. I never really found anything that I felt I was genuinely passionate about. What I mean is, I wanted to work for a company with a mission, that either helped people or changed lives.
I thought about the time when I worked at Goody Products designing hairbrushes. I know it's very mundane, but I led the design research for a line of hairbrushes. I received an email from a mother, who said every morning she would have to brush her 6-year-old daughter's hair, and it was just always a nightmare, it was always a fight. Because of the brush we designed, it made her morning just a little bit more peaceful.
That has always kind of stuck with me. That was kind of the sentiment that carried with me when I was between jobs, trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. It wasn't until I went to a sex toy shop in downtown Boston, where I was living at the time, that really struck me that vibrators, sex toys—this category of products for women—just completely lacked design consideration. The majority of the products in the landscape are very male-centric. It's all about the penis. Which, I mean, is fine but it's not always about the penis, you know?
One of Chang's most well-known designs: the Vesper vibrator necklace
Those were really the main types of products I saw out there on the market. As a matter of fact, 80% of women require clitoral stimulation to orgasm. So when I saw the lack of kind of quality and even just sensible products, I kinda decided, "look, this is really important. This is pleasure, this is part of how someone feels about themselves and how they get in touch with their body." That's what prompted me to start my first company, which was Incoqnito, that kind of brought together sex toys and jewelry. I basically bootstrapped this on my own with just a few thousand dollars, and off I went and I launched it.
A few years into that, I met my now co-founder, Michael. We bumped into each other at a trade show. I had already launched, I was already selling my products on the market. He just started Crave, and he was looking for a female industrial designer because he too felt that there were too many male voices already. I was the perfect person for the role. So basically, they bought my company to bring me onboard as co-founder. I've been co-founder and designing for Crave ever since.
And what's the thing that you treasure most about your job?
That every morning I'm working towards something I feel can help people in a positive way—it can support them in a way that other products can't. I'm part of a mission to help remove that stigma from pleasure, from sex toys, so that if you wanted to buy a vibrator, you shouldn't just be limited to poorly designed, overly priced, and bad products.
Part of my mission is really just to help provide different options. To me, from the early data points and from what I hear from people, it really makes a difference in their sex lives. This one gentleman wrote to us, saying that sex toys have always been part of their relationship, but when it comes to actually purchasing sex toys [his wife] would never want to have anything to do with it. One day she saw an article and she forwarded the link to her husband because it completely changed her idea of what sex toys could look like. Now, he says that she's leading the conversation. She now knows that sex toys don't have to look a certain traditional way.
That has done a lot for them. That is what excites me when I wake up every morning, that I am helping to move the cultural needle in some way when it comes to female pleasure and empowerment.
"If you see a sex toy that is, like this raggedy thing with weird gears...it's almost as if it's taking sexuality as a joke. It's treating women's pleasure as a non-serious topic. That to me is just not acceptable. You should approach it in a way, just like anything else, because it's about giving respect to the user."
I feel like that speaks perfectly to the idea that some people think, "oh, design is just about making something pretty." But, actually, in a way, that has a functional purpose.
Yeah, just like every product has its own design language, it says something about the maker and the ethos of the company that makes it. If you see something that is, like this raggedy thing with weird gears, and you have to put a C battery in...it's almost as if it's taking sexuality as a joke. It's treating your pleasure as a novelty, and that's what [sex toys] are, they've been categorized as a novelty. It's treating women's pleasure as a non-serious topic. The design, the form says that. That to me is just not acceptable. You should approach it in a way, just like anything else, because it's about giving respect to the user and providing a higher aesthetic for these types of products. It makes someone not be embarrassed about it.
Crave's take on the classic bullet vibrator (once highlighted in our "In the Details" series!)
Shame can be such a huge part of sex that's brought on by culture, by religion, by society. Having a product that looks like it's laughing at you is not really the best thing. Having a dignified, well designed, beautiful product, that treats you with respect makes less likely to feel bad about your pleasure.
Beautifully said. So in terms of product research, in your experience, what do you think is the most effective way to conduct research so that you're making something you know your user will love?
I think the most effective way is to not go in with a bias. Even though, yes you've put in all this work into it, ultimately your tests need to suss out whether or not people actually enjoy using it, if they actually like it, or they're just being nice and just because you're their friend, they're using this thing and they have to tell you nice things. You need to devise the questionnaires in such a way that is not about validation. It is genuinely about, will they actually use this, is there a real need? That oftentimes is really hard, because you have to put your ego aside.
So how do you ensure that happens within your questionnaires? Is it about asking the right questions?
Yeah, it's about asking the right questions. Instead of giving them only multiple choice questions, give them more open-ended questions, that's very helpful. Give them a range, like how to feel, 1 to 10. Give them some that were 1 to 5, give them a range of how they feel about certain things, ask multiple times. Just the tone in which you devise and ask the question shouldn't be leading. That's like basic consumer research, but still, I think when designers are sometimes involved with their own research, they can kind of want it to go a certain way because you spend so much time on this.
I'm at a point where, before we go too far into anything, we always have a checkpoint with users so that it's never too far [into the production process]. We do little checkpoints every now and then several times with every product before it goes to launch, that way we're sure it is satisfying a real need.
That's, I think, one of the problems with a lot of products, is that somebody had a great idea like, "Oh, I think people should have a USB rechargeable vibrator mug."—I don't know, I'm just throwing it out there, it's a horrible idea. But they just go and make it, and then put it in front of people and make them use it. It's just silly. Back that up a little bit, you know? I think oftentimes people just get too carried away with just coming up with ideas and they don't check their egos.
Bringing this conversation to consumer products in general, in what ways should consumer products evolve to fit into our modern age? What do designers need to be thinking about right now, and changing their perspective about in order to succeed?
I think it starts with the user because that's the difference between designers and artists. When you're manufacturing something on a large scale, you have a responsibility of making sure that the things that you make aren't just stuff for landfills. In order to make sure that happens, you need to make sure that there is an actual need and desire for your product. By being in tune with what actual users want and need, as our landscape technology, AI, all these things change. That is what's gonna keep whatever new product you create relevant.
And how did you start pinpointing Crave's specific user? I imagine it's a particular type of person, you know?
Actually no, it's quite the opposite. Every company when you have a new product, marketing wants to know—who are your users? Are they a 23 to 27-year-old who uses Instagram and drives a car? That kind of thing. But for us, for our specific industry, that doesn't apply. Because, what we found is that sex, and pleasure, masturbation, all this, it's not a demographics thing.
It's more about psychographic than it is about demographic. It's about the attitude that you have towards sex. So if someone is curious and want to learn, or eager to explore, or someone who just wants more, that's the type of people that would be drawn to our brand.
Let's zoom out even further—as the Core77 Design Awards Consumer Products jury captain, you're going to evaluating a diverse group of designed products. What are some of the common inherent values and traits of products that you would consider a great design?
I like the notion of form follows function and emotion, and it evokes an emotion. Which means that it has to do what it's supposed to do. However, the form should be in such a way that it's not disruptive to the user's life in a bad way. It's not aesthetically displeasing, you know?
"I think the best products are the ones that you don't know you're in love with. It's just something that you've always gone to because it's always worked."
Then also, the emotion comes from enjoying using this product over and over again. Sometimes, I think the best products are the ones that you don't know you're in love with. It's just something that you've always gone to because it's always there, it's always worked. There's just this familiarity that we kind of take for granted, but it becomes almost like a classic, an icon. It's just something that stays with you, that is very enduring. I think that's really the kind of products I look for, is that they have to have a very good purpose. You kind of fall in love with it a little bit more, through use and just continuing to own this product.
Do you have any advice, maybe for students, or people who are trying to put together a presentation about their product? How do you present something that's impressive and will leave a mark on someone when they see it?
The number one mistake I always see kids do is that they just kind of throw everything in—all the sketches, studies, photos, observations—because the tutor or the professor always says to show your process. "Show your process" does not mean throw everything in including the kitchen sink. "Show your process" means, where are the pivotal points that helped you to make certain decisions that lead to the final product?
Show the sketches that gave you a little bit of like, "Ah-ha, this is interesting. I really enjoyed this curve, or this kind of made sense to solve this problem." Show that. From that, you made this prototype. "This prototype was interesting because I learned that this didn't actually fit this way, so then I changed my mind and I designed it this way, which lead to this." Show those pivotal points, that's your process. If you can walk them through that, and articulate and speak to that in an interview, that's fantastic. But you don't have to do this for every product. Just show one and then I know that you understand the process, that's good.
Secondly, remember you're an industrial designer. You have to realize something that's also beautiful, that the idea is sound and there's a real need. Most of your portfolios should show some really great renderings of final products and have a blurb about what it does. If your form and your idea are good, I can just read that blurb and see what you're trying to do. But, if you create a rendering and take 6 or 8 more drawings, and I'm still like, "What does it do and why?" that's probably not a good thing.
Having some of these beautiful glamour shots—those things are super important. Also, the last thing is only put in things that you really love and you're really proud of. Some things you may not be super proud of, but it shows a specific skill set that can't be seen in other projects show elsewhere, like technical drawings, or doing certain types of renderings, or certain kinds of research. Put that in there, because it highlights a skill set.
And don't show the sketches from your high school, nobody wants to see that.
Yeah, good tip.
It's about the edit. Editing is the hardest but most important.
The Core77 Design Awards Consumer Product Jury
2018 Consumer Products Jury Captain Ti Chang will be joined by these designers for the awards selection process:
Ivy Ross, VP of Design for Hardware, Google
Raja Schaar, Assistant Professor of Product Design, Drexel University