Women in design: 8 ways your origin story can make you a better designer

Women make up just 20% of professional industrial designers in the United States, according to an industry survey by Core77.

When women are still the minority by a long shot, it can be difficult to openly admit to failures and disappointments. Instead, we usually hear about the success at the end of the story, rather than the journey and setbacks that got us there.

While positivity can inspire others, constant positivity can paralyze. That’s why this year’s Women in Design Deep Dive was so reassuring.

Nearly every speaker shared their origin story about how they made it to where they are today—their wins and, refreshingly, their stumbles and lessons learned along the way.

8 ways your origin story can make you a better designer

Rather than being something that limits your potential, your origin story should be the source of your design superpowers.

1. Not fitting in makes you a natural non-conformist.

Both Ti Chang and Jo Barnard talked about their upbringings and how they didn’t fit in: Ti an as Asian woman growing up in Atlanta and Jo as an extreme introvert. These experiences, though difficult, helped Jo and Ti forge their own paths in the design industry and change standards.

When Jo failed to see a place for herself among male-centric firms, she created a unique approach and started her own design firm focused around storytelling through products.

Ti, through her passion for design advocacy, started her own company to fill a gap in the market with a new category of product—sex jewelry—for intimate accessories that double as fashionable jewelry.

2. Not having products made for you means there are more products to make.

Many product designs skew toward male characteristics, in part because men make up the majority of designers. You’ve heard that before, I’m sure.

But Jacquelyn DeJesu Center turned this into an opportunity.

She had needs not being met by existing products and knew that other women had the same needs as her; when she couldn’t find an attractive, age-appropriate shower car, she problem-solved and designed one herself.

3. Lack of representation can push you to advocate for the underrepresented.

Although Dominique Mueller did not necessarily want to be an outspoken member of the design community, she recognized that other folks need to see someone that look like them in leadership roles.

It ultimately pushed her out of her comfort zone to have a more prominent voice in her community and advocate for diversity through her career.

4. Being left out of the design process can make you more empathetic in your own process.

As designers, it’s critical that we have empathy for the people we are designing for.

As people who have been left out of the design process, women and other marginalized groups are uniquely sensitive to the fact that diverse people need to be part of the conversation.

5. Lack of opportunity forces you create your own.

Cheresse Thornhill spoke about leading SEED, an alternative footwear design education program aimed at providing opportunities for women and designers of color.

In an industry where it is difficult to get diverse representation, creating programs like these are changing the game for young designers.

6. Facing complicated problems can make you more comfortable with ambiguity.

Many of the problems we solve as designers are wicked, and they force designers to get comfortable living in the ambiguity of the problem. Facing complicated problems as a person can make you better at facing complicated problems as a designer as well.

7. Failures can make you more innovative.

During the financial crash of 2008, Ayse Birsel took it as an opportunity to try something new; in the midst of a struggle, she developed her own design process which eventually turned into a book and created new types of opportunities for her business.

8. Your origin story gives you drive and passion.

As a designer coming up in this industry, I was frustrated by the lack of women in leadership roles. I took this as an opportunity to start my own organization, Women in Industrial Design Chicago, that helps grow the community of female industrial designers and empower women in their careers.

We as designers have to be adaptable, innovative, and resilient.

Overcoming the adversity we face as women is not easy, nor is talking openly about how we’ve stumbled in our careers. But our challenges make us better people, and sharing openly empowers other designers like us.

Rather than trying to remove our origin stories from the equation for fear of appearing different or vulnerable, our stories are the roots of our superpowers.

Own your origins.

Let’s talk about how we can help move your business forward.

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