‘Taboo to Mainstream: An Industrial Design Solution to Sex Toy Production’ is the name of Judith Glover’s PHD thesis. Currently, she is lecturer for the Future Sex Design Studio, which is part of the industrial design course at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology – a course that also deals with the design sex toys among other things. Judith herself has already been fascinated with these products since the mid-1990s, and later, she decided to make that fascination her job. In addition to her work as lecturer, she is also the founder of Goldfrau, a line of ceramic dildos. In our interview, Judith told us about the challenges of sex toy design, and of course, EAN wanted to know how the expert feels about the product range in today’s market.
Judith, can you give us some more information about yourself? When did you first engage in love toy design? Judith Glover: In the mid 90’s, I started wanting to consume sex toys. But I found the quality very bad – both in style and manufacturing/ safety, etc. I thought this was an interesting opportunity. Good design is everywhere – why was it not in this product genre? It was 30 years after the sexual revolution and Sex in the City was on TV- weren’t we all liberated now? I was a metalsmith and metal fabricator and I wanted to move away from the profession as it was becoming too physically demanding so I decided to take myself off to industrial design school and learn product design and maybe start making sex toys at some stage.
I didn’t tell them that when I applied – they found out about it when I got to my honours year. I said I wanted to start a sex toy company. This was the early 2000s and there was a bit of resistance but I argued why industrial design should be heavily in this area – and that ended up becoming the basis for my PHD years later.
Is it right that you have an academic title in sex toy design?
Well technically my PHD is a Doctor of Philosophy – as all PHD’s are but the topic and title is ‘Taboo to Mainstream: An Industrial Design Solution to Sex Toy Production’. My position at RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) in the programme of Industrial Design is an industrial design lecturer. We have to be able to teach all sorts of things but our programme has a studio structure that allows us to try new things all the time. So I was given the ok to trial the Future Sex Design Studio.
You are head of the first industrial design courses that focus on sex toy design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. What exactly happens in these courses and what results do you want to achieve?
So I am trying to develop a research area I call design, sexual health, and wellbeing. sex toys are just a part of this. Some people have certain problems or issues – things like erectile dysfunction or vaginismus for instance – and some people can start out thinking they are ‘normal’ – everything is fine and then as you get older, your body changes or you have a sexual trauma and things become hard for you. I like to see sexual health as a spectrum across somebody’s life and its constantly changing.
You have different needs at different times in your life. And ageing and sexual practice is really important. Research shows that if you keep practising, it can increase your wellbeing but ageing and sex is a huge taboo area. Things like erectile dysfunction or vaginismus are relationship killers – they bring untold misery to people. Yet it gets so little attention from most of the health, design, and engineering world.
So while industrial design has a lot of interaction with the medical device area in the health space, there is a lack of development of solutions for sexual health because the same social taboos that effect sex toys affect sexual health problems. So some very good research goes on in the health and social sciences defining some of these problems, but very little gets taken into the design and engineering space and is developed into solutions.
Also, I find if you can speak to clinicians like physiotherapists or urologist, they have so many things they want worked on but these people rarely have time to make contact outside of their busy practices. They can define the problems really quickly and help with the solutions. I like working with health professionals.
How is sex toy design different from designing other products?
The similarities to good quality product design (like Philips, Samsung, good car companies, Apple, etc.) is that they should be good quality manufacture, safe, fit for purpose, adhere to standards such as ISO, WEEE, and ROHS (global industry benchmarks), be well-developed or thoughtful brands that have brand values and matching product values – and that the consumer/ customer is taken into account in the research and early designing stages. It is an objective to incorporate contemporary view that are based on real people.
However, Philips put some products onto the market around 2008 and they failed terribly. Now, Philips is one of the best product design companies in the world – and we want these companies designing sex toys so what went wrong with all their resources and fantastic processes? Well, they de-sexualised the products too much – they ended up looking like purple computer mice.
Part of the problem was they are a big company with a big reputation and the small and nimble design and research team that put forward the idea had to make it acceptable to the company rather than the market. In their research, they also privileged the idea that they weren’t going to make anything penetrative. And in their pursuit of understanding the couples market, I felt they privileged the man’s view a bit too much. It’s simple: If the woman is having a good time, trust me, the guy will too. So in the couples market, you need to get right what the women want. They are more likely to be the buyer.
The standards and processes of product design should be the same as other product genres. But sex toys – particularly for women – still need to have an edge of something sexy or erotic or beautiful. The ergonomics are obviously different from any other product category and this is the area where the industry falls down the most. There simply is a lack of understanding of contemporary women’s bodies and minds and a lack of research or good product development in regards to this.
A couple of companies do okay, but most fail miserably. Think about how much effort, research, and engineering goes into men’s shavers- if you could have that level of dedication to good sex toys, we’d be getting somewhere.
What unique challenges are there in sex toy design?
So the unique challenge in this market it not to de-sexualise your products. The quality has to be the same as other product genres but you have to find this balance of beauty and erotic-ness. Women in particular want beauty – but don’t forget they want products that fit in with all the other products they consume. When the Hewson Group did detailed consumer surveying about the market, women were asked “Who would you like to make your sex toys?” They said companies like Apple and Prada – they wanted objects that matched their lifestyles and the other products they consume.
The other thing that’s unique is you are designing for very sensitive parts of the body, so do good user testing! Don’t assume anything, and don’t assume cause a product genre exists the previous brands have got it right. I once asked a company director why they were choosing to produce a particular type of g-spot dildo and they said “Well it’s everywhere so it must do something”. I said “It’s crap and ergonomically wrong!”
So things become industry standards and then more companies follow because they can’t be bothered doing their own testing or research and it all starts from a wrong premise. Don’t get me started on Rabbits – the biggest con of all! Okay for a small percentage of women; for the rest, it’s a waste of your hard-earned money. A terrible industry myth that nobody is in a hurry to debunk because they keep selling truckloads of them. Sex in the City is 20 years old and women still walk into sex shops wanting a Rabbit because of that episode.
Would you agree that sex toy design has substantially changed for the better in recent years?
Yes, in my thesis I covered the first decade of the 21st century (after looking at the Victorian era and then the sexual revolution) to document how the design-centric companies that came into the market during that period transformed the industry. It boiled down to a number of key things. Because the companies were set-up by either industrial designers (think Lelo, Je Joue, Goldfrau, Crave) or engineers (Jimmyjane or WeVibe), or owners started using the services of industrial designers, product standards and branding rose immediately.
The literal interpretations of genitalia or other porn iconography got taken out of the product styling and brands. Contemporary and objective assessments were made of consumers, in particular female consumers. If you design or do business outside the adult industry, then you see the way women are marketed to and designed for normally, and it’s not like the adult industry typically does that. Designers are trained to work across all industries so when you come to an industry like the sex toy industry, you have a different perspective on your consumers than you’d have if you were coming from the adult industry. What those new companies bought was competition in the marketplace and it lifted standards in general.
The other thing that happened was the internet enabled more women to run retail environments that increased in number. And these businesses run by women who had left jobs in marketing and other areas of commerce demanded better and safer products and less demeaning brands. They also had a better understanding of what contemporary female consumers were looking for. The best online stores and blogs became focused on community, giving women information and trading the best and the safest products.
For too long, the adult industry hid behind the “This is a novelty” disclaimer. Now historically, some of that is to avoid being arrested for having a sex toy but a lot of it is to do with not bothering to make proper and safe products and stand by them – which is unacceptable. Nobody should ever buy a product with this disclaimer on it again. And now you don’t have to because enough companies make their products proudly to ‘normal’ global standards.
“What’s the deal with every vibrator being PINK? Seriously, trying to find a decent black vibrator these days is almost impossible.”
What do you think is lacking in today’s sex toy design?
Diversity is a problem – what’s the deal with every vibrator being PINK? Seriously, trying to find a decent black vibrator these days is almost impossible. Stop copying each other and innovate. Work out what innovation really means in the rest of the economy – not what you think it means. Companies need to bring in good design-led, user-led processes in both product development and service areas. As the profits from pornography decline due to it being all free on the web, sales from sex toys will become more and more important to the industry.
But this means the industry will need to get better and better at proper product design and development processes. Or you will be taken over by newer companies that do. I’m afraid the adult industry needs to get with the times and get a proper understanding of contemporary females and move away from its traditional depictions of women. As the industry splits away from porn towards these products, this will be inevitable. And lastly, adding layers of new tech is not going to make bad products and bad processes any better. It’s a good product development process, centred around real women and their real bodies that will count.
How important is the ‘female perspective’ when designing sex toys? For a long time, people in charge of big sex toy companies were almost exclusively men… Women are an important consumer group and have been in the sex toy industry’s focus for some time. Why is it not possible to unlock the full potential and what role does the design play?
So the biggest problem the adult industry continues to have in the sex toy market is how to let go and move away from their historical conventions and depictions of women. They still want to largely depict women as strippers, naughty nurses, vixens, sluts, etc. and yet most contemporary women (with the money to buy good quality sex toys) don’t see themselves this way. So those companies which are design-led – if the designers in those companies have been trained well – should be looking at contemporary women as they are; not as the adult industry has historically seen them or depicted them.
There is no reason for the genre of sex toys to sit within the adult industry. I’m not anti-porn or pro-censorship at all, I’m merely being pragmatic and objective. If you do not treat contemporary woman realistically and market and design to them in all the sophisticated ways that the rest of global industry does, you will eventually lose your market share to those companies that do.
I spent 100,000 words in my thesis doing an enormous case study of the sex toy industry from the Victorian era to Raunch Culture (2000’s) after asking a rather simple question: How do you design a better sex toy? It wasn’t a technical problem; it was a socio-cultural issue around the way sex and sexuality, and in particular women’s sexuality, and gender is controlled and viewed as taboo – and has been for a very long time. In general, when it comes to sexual practice, we are still dealing with the leftovers of the Victorian Era and the morality wars that raged across the 20th century and created the modern porn industry. The porn industry was pushed to the side, deemed dirty and banned as much as possible. So it becomes cut-off from the rest of the economy and the potential for entrepreneurship and innovation.
The adult industry has this false view it is innovative because it is always up with the latest trends in technology. Yes, it harnessing new tech but it fills its content with the same stories, scripts, and depictions that the industry has been using for 100 years. The tech changes but the content stays the same. And this is a big problem when society shifts so enormously and radically as it did in the 70s with 2nd wave feminism. The next phase of that is the over 50s market as the cashed-up baby boomers retire. Nobody is treating that market particularly seriously.
People have to get their heads around the idea that innovation and technological advances have a socio-cultural side to them. So for instance: The sexual revolution and 2nd wave feminism unlocked the potential for women to join society finally, in education and in work. This, along with things like more available credit and new technologies, have produced enormous growth in the West. The adult industry got the sexual revolution but it missed 2nd wave feminism completely. To its credit, it was the only industry prepared to make sex toys- as the design field for the whole of the 20th century turned their noses up at it.
So to go back to the question ‘how important is the female perspective?’ – hugely, as the genie is well and truly out of the bottle in regards to women’s rights and the money and wealth they now have in the West. But saying you ‘understand’ women while you keep depicting them only as strippers and porn starts says you don’t really. So take an objective and realistic view of your market. If you are a part of the adult industry, then get out more and be prepared to diversify your brand lines. I saw some big companies in the early 2000s get really confused about how to design and market to contemporary women.
“The biggest market opportunities reside in the market of women over 50.”
If you want some stuff for your traditional male customers, then don’t put it together with trying to market and sell to your contemporary female customers. Tenga were smart when they developed the brand for women Iroha. They could have done Tenga for Women and tried to match the product values and styling but they split them and they are very different looking product lines. And good quality and inventive products, too – good on them. If you are trying to sell expensive vibrators to women next to gangbang videos, then forget it. There are still some seriously dumb and basic marketing mistakes being made. Just thinking you can make your website pink or purple and its ‘female-friendly’ won’t cut-it and it’s obvious to women. In design, we call it the ‘shrink and pink-it’ strategy companies use as a superficial way of saying they understand their female customers. Smart women spot it a mile away.
So there are enormous opportunities in sex toys and sex tech if you understand the market and its segments and stop designing like you are teenage boys and grow up a bit. The biggest market opportunities reside in the market of women over 50. That’s were all the money is and that’s where the population growth is going. Who is designing specifically for that? Nobody really yet. And if you think your ideal customer is a woman in her 20s who likes to dress like a stripper then you’re probably going to blow your venture capital. The role that design plays is this: Your design and brand team should be able to tell you objectively who your customers are and how they like their product. I suspect not too many companies actually understand and use a proper product development process.
The adult industry is rapidly moving towards the mainstream – an argument brought forth quite often. Do you think a ‘new’ design could reinforce this change?
So the last part of my thesis documents the design-heavy and engineering-led companies such as Lelo, Jimmyjane, Wevibe, Je jou, etc. coming into the market in the 2000s, bringing competition and raising standards. Lelo becomes the default high quality vibrator brand across the industry and some manufacturing and safety benchmarks get set that the adult industry companies have to make sure they start reaching (and some notable exceptions do, like Topco in the US). The design-led companies pretty much take the aesthetic of fake-genitalia out of their products and packaging and porn depictions out of their branding. In one decade, they took about 10% of the market share. Some started out with all the best intentions and then sort of ended up default high-end adult industry brands firmly embedded in that global industry and some that started out adult industry brands become pretty good design brands – like Fun Factory.
However, it’s evolution not revolution and in terms of mainstream, it’s not a quick process. We really need a company like Apple to blow the market apart. Somebody big and powerful enough to control their own ecosystem of products and branding and sales. Somebody with such a design reputation who puts the idea of sex toy entrepreneurship firmly in the mainstream. (But they won’t do it – there too busy with their car!). Somebody could cross over from fashion – Agent Provocature could easily do it – but they would probably want to keep an edginess to it. H&M would be interesting! The other area which is promising is lubricants and getting traditional cosmetics brands into this space. It’s a natural fit, but they need to stop being so stuffy and move with the times. Older women need to face moisturise and they need lube downstairs!
There could be some interesting crossovers into sports and health brands with pelvic floor fitness devices. Imagine Nike doing a pelvic floor trainer and then moving on to a cute little vibe!
I’m not against sex toys being made by the adult industry but they need to start doing an excellent job or they will continue to gradually lose market share once bigger brands get over some of these taboos and jump in. I’m waiting for the tipping point…
Is scientific data on anatomy, ergonomics, and sexuality incorporated in the design and production process of sex toys? What about customers’ feedback?
Yes, it should be, but I’m sure it rarely is going by the number of bad products I continue to see on the market. There are a number of reasons for why so many bad sex toys are made: Good product development can be expensive and people don’t want to pay good people to do it; business people don’t always understand how much is involved in getting a good product and brand to market; so very few companies do proper process and get anything like a good understanding of their consumers or their consumers’ bodies.
“If you don’t have a clitoris or a vagina, then ask a bunch of people who do!”
And very few female designers get involved in sex toy design when we need more and more. There are so many poor vibrators I come across that have great manufacturing – i.e. are safe – and good quality, but did they test it on women before they released it? Too many simple mistakes are made. If you don’t have a clitoris or a vagina, then ask a bunch of people who do! A lot more effort needs to be put into haptics. Too many assumptions are made about the way somebody might experience a product rather than testing something.
How would you explain the large quantities of flesh-coloured dildos with phallic shape that are still being sold today?
I can’t. The Industry is fairly un-transparent as most companies are private and economic information is hard to get. Hewson Group calculated that the design-led companies had taken approx. 10% of the market in about a decade. The biggest companies are still the traditional adult industry type companies so somebody is still buying all their stuff. What I think is important is choice, which is now starting to be available. Go back 20 years and there was no choice. No choice on quality, no choice on style. Provide people with choice and a competitive market and the customers will decide. My job as a design educator is to make students aware this is a really interesting area to be in with lots of opportunities.
When it comes to sex toys, is functionality not more important than design?
So design can be a misunderstood term and profession. A lot of people equate design with just making a pretty package – prettifying something. Yet an area like industrial design takes a very broad and holistic approach to product development. It’s the whole process that concerns us: from understanding your client, market, customers, potential customers to ergonomics, technology, branding, manufacturing processes, and materials – we may specialise in specific things but we are used to working with supply chains, manufacturers, marketing, and engineering and we need to know everything to make a good product.
So a proper definition of product design should incorporate both functionality and aesthetics. The design team should have a good understanding of the user and include potential users somewhere in the process to get good quality information and feedback. They should direct a level of quality and safety. Holistically, the product should match the brand. So design is about function, ergonomics, manufacturing, materials, safety, the market, the user, the brand … it is a complex process and not very well understood by anybody outside of design, engineering, and manufacturing unfortunately. If you want to throw something new or innovative in there, it adds new layers.
So new technology is throwing new options in there all the time. But new tech doesn’t necessarily make a better product or a better company. If you have a bad process lacking in a good understanding of your users, then no amount of tech will make it better.
The first vibrators were introduced to the market in the 19th century. Since then, their design has changed drastically: We have had phallus-shaped vibrators, followed by a wave of vibrators that looked like cute animals, before rather peculiar-looking products took over that looked like something out of an old science fiction movie. What does the future of sex toy design look like?
Well, we’ve got the possibilities of everything from simple applications to robots. Personally, I’d like to see research done on new vibration technologies or new ways of creating sensory devices. However, I recently had a sex and technology mag interview me and they were rather excited about all the possibilities the new tech brings in this area. And it’s going to be a lot.
But my answer to their questions which may have not been what they wanted to hear was- ‘… the biggest problem with sex toy design is the lack of designers being involved in the process and a user-centred (UCD) approach to the products and services – whatever the level of technology involved. Too much innovation is an application looking for a problem or market, rather than defining what the problem or need is and then working out the best level of technology later.
At the moment, I see the same poorly designed products and services with just more tech bells and whistles. More tech or a more complicated products don’t make it better. The sex toy industry as a whole (and there is a small amount of exceptions where companies get the odd product right) has been guilty of producing some of the worst examples of product design the 20th century ever saw. The industry has not addressed the lack of good product design fundamentals and adding layers of new technology is not going to help what is fundamentally a flawed design process – and when I say design, most companies don’t even follow what could be considered to be a basic design process as taught to the first years at university.
The sex toy industry is barely able to deliver a half decent safe dildo or vibrator using technology that has been available since the 1970s. And this is simply because most producers don’t have a design process that understands who their customers are and how to get that information and feed it into the process.’ You can quote me on that!