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Putting the Female Perspective on the Forefront of Product Design

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Within the Industrial Design community, Ti Chang needs little introduction. She is the co-founder of CRAVE and the current chair of IDSAsf. Upon entering the workforce, Chang noticed that there were very few women in Industrial Design, so she sought to incorporate the female perspective into product design and to help build a community for women to share their experiences. She began to host regular meetups for women in Industrial Design, which led to IDSA asking her to be the chair of the local chapter.  

Chang’s experience in school and professional practice has led her to question her role in design activism.  As a designer, she searches for a purpose and tries to unwind that purpose for the good of the world. She decided that she wanted to design products for those underrepresented or ignored, especially for women. That ultimately led her toward female sexuality — a tabooed topic that is part of life. She hopes that by engaging it, she can help move the cultural needle in a positive way.

 

Ti & Mac at Crave. Photo credit: George X. Lin

 

 Airgora: Tell us a bit about your background and how you got into Industrial Design?

 Chang: I was born in Taiwan and my family moved to the US when I was six years old, and I grew up in Duluth, Georgia. It's not very diverse — we were one out of three Asian families in the entire town.  I had a scholarship to Georgia Tech, but I didn't want to be an engineer, so I just went down the list and found two majors that were not engineering: architecture and industrial design. I took one class in architecture and decided that wasn’t for me. I saw some of the work from the Industrial Design department, enrolled in industrial design and never looked back.

 

Photo credit: George X. Lin

 

What made you want to design for women?

 I’ve been very lucky. Throughout my career, I've done nothing but Industrial Design. Throughout my 20s, I worked on designing different products from hair brushes to track bikes to furniture, and they were all very interesting work for that time. I gained a lot of knowledge and experience but I was just never really fulfilled with what I was doing.

My first job out of college, I designed hair brushes for women. That really resonated with me because I was designing products for women in a category that hadn’t seen a lot of innovation in a long time. Companies would often go to hair brush factories in China, copy each other and change colors. I found it very fulfilling to be able to go there and lead a project from research to design and also to help oversee production. That was a project that really stayed with me.

As I started to look into what else I wanted to do, designing for women kept coming up. I was always on a team of men, and had never worked with other female industrial designers. It made me realized that women in industrial design are very rare, and if that's the case, then there are a lot of products that are designed for women with no female perspective given. That to me was kind of profound and I was like, "Wow, this is an area I think I could really do something in." That ignited my interest in designing products for women.

 

Crave Duet Injection Molds. Photo credit: George X. Lin

 

How was your educational experience at Royal College of the Arts (2005 to 2007)?

 The Royal College of Art in London had a department called Design Products Programme, headed by Ron Arad. The tutors came from all different backgrounds with only a few from Industrial Design. The school pushed students out of their comfort zone to design products that were excessive, frivolous, extravagant, and overly conceptual; products that weren't really designed to serve the masses. Ron Arad used to say "we make employable people unemployable."

When I joined, I told my tutor I was interested in designing products for women. He basically looked at me and said, "If that's what you want to do then you probably should leave because I don't think we're the best place to support you on that. We don't even have a single full-time female faculty member.” I guess this is where I wish I would have stood my ground a little bit. I don’t think I needed a whole staff of female professors or tutors, but rather tutors that were open-minded about it.

 

Crave Bullet charging / test center. Photo credit: George X. Lin 

 

When/how did you start your first company?

 After graduating from RCA, I was at a point of my life where I could maybe start something crazy for myself. The 2008 recession provided an interesting opportunity. I wasn’t married and didn't have a mortgage, which allowed me to chase after something not so secure. I had nothing to lose.

One day, I went to an adult toy store in Boston looking for a product for myself. It wasn't my first time looking for a toy, but I remember being really surprised at how awful all these products were. They were all big penis replicas, weird dolphins and bunny rabbits; they had crazy colors and were not very well-designed or thought-through. The designs came from a very basic point of view. But sex and female sexuality are hugely important to women and the human experience. So why is it that sex toys for women have to look and be so awful? That's when I realized maybe I can do something here.

 

Photo credit: George X. Lin

 

That same year, I started my first company called INCOQNITO; I brought together the idea of jewelry and sex toys. I bootstrapped it. I went over to China to oversee the production; the whole nine yards. It did well enough. It wasn't profitable but I got it to a point where when I told people I wanted to combine sex toys and jewelry, they're just like, "What the hell are you talking about? What does that even look like?" That’s when I knew I had stumbled onto something that had never been done before.

 How did CRAVE come into the picture?

 After establishing and creating the first line for INCOQNITO, I started selling worldwide. Initially, I really wanted to just focus on creating the next collection and was not thinking about selling the company. I bumped into Michael Topolovac at a trade show where I was showing some products. At the time, he was doing market research and didn't have any designs or products for his company, CRAVE.

He knew he wanted to design sex toys for women because he also recognized it was an area that was underserved, and he has enough sensibility to recognize that he’s not a woman so maybe he should ask some women, and do a lot of research. I was quite impressed by the way he approached it thoughtfully. When we met, he was at a point where he was looking to hire an industrial designer, and I completely fit the bill: a female industrial designer passionate about designing sex toys. Unfortunately, I already had a company that was already in operation. What ended up happening was he bought my company to bring me on board, so I've been a co-founder and have designed all of the products from CRAVE since then. That's how INCOQNITO and CRAVE merged.

 

Photo credit: George X. Lin

 

You've revived IDSA’s San Francisco chapter. We noticed all the officers in the infrastructure are all women. How did this all come about?

 One day I was researching contemporary women in Industrial Design and found only two listed in Wikipedia— the number dropped significantly after the 60s.  It was shocking, because there are clearly more women in the workforce now. I realized that industrial design, like most design professions, is a predominately a boys’ club and women are not being recognized.

To give women in Industrial Design a voice, I started a monthly local meetup in San Francisco called Women in Industrial Design that brought together local female industrial designers. We talked about their career and journey, and we have social happy hours. It grew to about 300 people. People love it because a lot of the women who design feel very isolated. They don't see other women at their work.

In 2004, I put on Women in Industrial Design show, and it went really well. IDSA SF, a nonprofit that was really quiet at the time, asked me if I would be interested in being the chapter chair.  I figured why not? I was already doing stuff for women design and it's just kind of my thing.

Because of my involvement with Women in Industrial Design, when I did an open call for officers, a lot of women were interested. I asked men too but no one responded. It’s very rare to have a cabinet of six women and unlike any other IDSA chapter in the country. We’re organized, we get shit done, so it's been great. I really enjoy it because not only is it fun, it has helped to grow the industrial design community that was once only just men.  

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