Volvo’s YCC, Your Concept Car. Phot © Volvocars
At the international car show in Geneva in March 2004, Volvo presented a new concept car – Your Concept Car, YCC. It was designed solely by women –
eight of them, including three designers. It was created for “the most demanding customer group of all, professional women”. The initiative created a huge stir, just as the company and design team had hoped it would. ‘At last’, thought some, although they were perhaps disappointed to realize that the differences between the new ‘female’ and the usual ‘male’ car weren’t actually very dramatic. Others wondered what on earth the point was – ‘isn’t industrial design for all human beings?’
In any event, the YCC highlighted a well-known fact. Most industrial designers are still men, even in Sweden, and even though there are now considerably more women working in design studios than there were ten to fifteen years ago. The Society of Swedish Industrial Designers (SID) has just over 330 members, and just under one hundred of these are women. (It is perhaps no surprise to learn that the gender distribution in the Association’s textile designer division is dramatically reversed, with only one man among some 70 women!)
What is female/male in industrial design?
At a seminar in Stockholm this spring, one of the issues discussed was the work situation of female industrial designers. Speakers described how difficult it is for a woman to present radical ideas to a client with an advanced, technically complex production system. In the opinion of some professional designers she won’t really be taken seriously. And in teams, it is often the men who are addressed. Others noted that there were advantages to being a female designer, however. A growing interest in “soft values” means a growing interest in women as industrial designers.
The automotive industry still relies predominantly on male designers, but there are some successful women, such as Aina Nilsson, who is head of the design division of Volvo Trucks. Textile materials and interior colour schemes are often the province of female designers, while men are responsible for the exterior. Good examples are two prize-winning products, the Volvo BM L150 wheel loader (1992) and the Atlet TLL 20 and TLP 20 pallet trucks (1993). Male industrial designers were responsible for the exterior design, while the interior design and colour schemes were the work of two women, Inese Ljunggren and Maria Thunberg. However, Inese Ljunggren is also responsible for designing the Trilobite robot vacuum cleaner for Electrolux (2001).
Robot vacuum cleaner, designed by Inese Ljunggren. Phot © Electrolux
Interaction Design attracts women in Sweden
Would the objects we use in our everyday lives really look any different if there were more women in the industry? Maria Benktzon has had industrial design as her main field of work for many years, usually in collaboration with Sven-Eric Juhlin. Both work for Ergonomidesign, one of Sweden’s best-known design studios with an international reputation. She trained as a textile designer, but has won a number of design awards over the years for appliances and aids of various kinds for children and motor-handicapped people.
– I have never felt discriminated against because I am a woman, she says. We have always worked in teams, where different kinds of experience, that is both male and female, compensate each other. I don’t believe at all that the things we manufacture would automatically look any different or work in a different way if more women had been involved in the development process.
Mall Allpere worked for four years with Nokia in Finland, but has now returned to Sweden and the Myra design studio. Five years ago she completed her Masters in Design at the Umeå College of Design. There, she was the only woman in her class. In her degree thesis, which attracted a lot of attention, she developed a system for monitoring patients in ambulances.
– Sometimes it feels as if I must raise my voice to be heard at all. But I’m not really sure if it’s because I’m a woman, or because I’m still quite young. In recent years it seems as if the gender distribution at design studios has become a bit more even, particularly within my special field, Interaction Design, which is a new and not very established design area in which status hierarchies have not had time to form, she says.
– The most important thing in design is to incorporate every aspect, every user requirement. Actually, I don’t think the objects we make would look different if more industrial designers were women. But they would if we always asked all the important questions before starting production. Men must be able to understand women’s needs in the same way as women must be able to understand men’s special wishes.
Design for different needs
In the view of Stina Nilimaa Wickström, a designer with the Consumer Outdoor division at Electrolux, the most important thing is to have the courage to mix people of different ages, genders and cultures. Always needing to discuss things with people who are different is hard work, but it is necessary for a big company making products for so many different kinds of people.
Automower, the lawnmower that looks like a grazing animal, Electrolux, designed by Stina Nilimaa Wickström. Phot © Electrolux
– I think we are moving in the right direction, in spite of everything, says Stina Nilimaa Wickström. At the student exhibition put on by the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design (Konstfack) in Stockholm this spring, the most interesting industrial design projects were presented by newly graduated women. Emma Ekberg’s cutting extinguisher, for instance, which is a tool designed to cut various materials and to cool combustion gases. With the tool it is possible to fight a fire from outside a space where a fire is burning. Emma Ekberg focuses on safety, efficiency and ergonomics.
Cutting extinguisher, designed by Emma Ekberg, 2004. Phot © Emma Ekberg
And then there is Front, a group of four women – Sofia Lagerkvist, Charlotte von der Lancken, Anna Lindgren and Katja Sävström. The principles behind Front are both interesting and unusual. They are about extending the range of approaches and in particular investigating the psychological mechanisms behind people’s needs in order to be able to make use of new insights in future industrial design.
Glass CD player, 2003, designed by Front, (Sofia Lagerkvist, Charlotte von der Lancken, Anna Lindgren and Katja Sävström). Phot © Front
Convenience appeals to everybody
So how is the YCC doing? When it was presented it was claimed to be produced by women for women. The designers themselves, however, were careful to stress that the car is for everyone. Both women and men.
A typical female wishlist includes such things as easy entry and exit, ease of parking and smart storage solutions. Things that men also benefit from, of course. The best storage space is between the front seats, but that is usually where the gear lever and the handbrake are located.
Volvo’s YCC, Your Concept Car. Interior with matching interchangeable covers
Phot © Volvocars
– So we moved them. You change gear from the steering wheel now, and the handbrake is electronic, says interior designer Cindy Charwick.
Women like variety, too, according the design team. The seat cushions of the concept car come in eight versions, with matching interchangeable mats.
– You don’t have to change cars just because you’ve grown tired of the covers and fittings, says Maria Uggla, a designer working with colour schemes and covers.
The car has gull-wing doors, and when you open the door, the sill is lowered so you don’t have to climb over it to get out.
– The bonnet has been lowered and the front wings raised. Along with the shape of the rear window, this lets you know exactly where the four corners of the car are, explains Anna Rosen, who worked on the exterior.
This gives any driver, woman or man, a good view of the road.
The further fate of the YCC is now under consideration. The various details are being evaluated – “What do customers want?”, “What is right for our product plan?”, “What is technically feasible?”, etc. So it will take up to five years for details or larger chunks of this female concept car to become reality.