Dr Judith Glover is a Design academic, practitioner and researcher in the Industrial Design program at RMIT University in Melbourne Australia. An overview of her work can be found at http://dashi.rmitidsites.net.au/. For several years, she has been studying sex toys and their design in relation to sexual health and sexual wellness. EAN had the opportunity to interview Judith about this interesting topic which is more relevant than ever, considering the current trends in the adult market.
Did 2017 mark the beginning of the end for the traditional vibration technology, or are products such as womanizer, Satisfyer, and SONA their own product category, apart from conventional vibrators? Judith Glover: It will come down to cost per unit to produce. If these newer types of sucking or sonic vibration are more expensive per unit than ‘traditional’ off-centric vibration- then there will always be a place for ERM motor vibration. At the moment these companies will be trying to protect their IP but if they are commercially successful then copy-cats will happen. If these new types of products are good examples of trying different technologies that create different sensations (and users love them) they will show the value of bringing something new to market and it might encourage more innovation- which would be a good thing. It’s long overdue.
Would you describe these products, that make use of pressure wave, suction, or sonic wave technologies, as game changers that will leave a lasting impression on the market, the way We-Vibe, Jimmyjane, and some others managed to do in the past? If they provide good quality low noise stimulation then yes – they will become regular fixtures. But will they provide any better types of sensation? The proof is in the response from users and everybody is different so they might suit some users but not others. It’s great that companies are now trying to produce different types of sensation – so very little has ever been done. Of course one bit of technology doesn’t make a Brand or a good product. It’s a holistic approach to the whole company and the products and services you offer.
Of course, there’s also the question why it took so long before producers started to pay more attention to new modes of stimulation. What is your explanation for this? Why do these products appear only now? The sex toy industry is an industry like no other and that’s not a good thing. It has been slowly emerging from the unfortunate commercial and social marginalisation it existed in during the 20th century. The industry being seen as part of the porn Industry was caught up in the Morality Wars that raged across the 20th century. Prior to the new millennium the all products came via porn companies- with all their aesthetic baggage of literal genitalia and outdated views on women- it remained commercially marginalised until the designers and engineers jumped into the market at the beginning of the 21st century lifting standards and safety in a few notable companies. Which forced the industry as a whole to lift standards because some decent competition had finally arrived.
The Adult Industry has constantly kidded itself about its level of Innovation. Yes- every time new technology came along it harnessed it – but it harnessed it to outdated ways of thinking about society and women. Technology is not the only thing that creates innovation. Innovation comes from socio-cultural changes and in that the industry was/is still stuck back in the Victorian times. The sex toy industry does not as a whole (and there are some good exceptions) have a culture of Innovation embedded in every company. What has changed in the last 15 years is that standards are starting to get the industry up to ‘normal’ levels of product design, manufacturing and safety- but the industry is not an exemplar of innovative practices and culture. Every brand needs to be taking its cues from the best standards of the CE industry. The best companies should be embracing the methods of Design Research. They should consider themselves Design-led but really understand what that means.
Will we now see a new phase where the focus of the industry shifts from design details to function, or will we see even more elaborate design in response to this development?
Design has to stop being seen as just about aesthetics or styling. The role of a good Industrial Designer is to mediate between the user and the technology. Function is as much their concern as styling. There are plenty of notable cases of great looking products that fail from a functional point of view. The designer or design team must also take into account the views of the marketing department and the bean-counters (cost), must also understand the service systems and cycles.
I’m heavily involved in Design education and all over the Western world the level of Design education is very high – exceptional and very sophisticated. Our graduates go into the world’s best auto, electronics, tech start-ups and furniture companies to name a few. What I would call good design process doesn’t happen very much in the industry. Most decisions get outsourced to the manufacturing companies in China and these decisions are made on what the company can produce and probably by their in-house engineers and not specifically designers.
There is a lack (with some notable exceptions) of proper design process and a strong design culture within the industry and that’s why innovation is retarded. Design is the discipline of commercialising Innovation. Embedding Design Culture within the industry is the way to mainstreaming it within the economy which will lead to higher growth long term. I’ve got graduate students wanting to go into the Industry after doing Sexual health and sex toy projects with me – so if you want young enthusiastic Industrial Designers- contact me- I’m really happy to create pathways for our graduates into good companies.
“Design has to stop being seen as just about aesthetics or styling.”
Let’s talk about sex tech – a product category fraught with great potential that hasn’t really had its big breakthrough moment thus far. Is the focus on modern technologies a blessing or a curse for the users of sex toys?
Yes Sex Tech is a buzz word but what does it actually mean? I assume it means the increase use of technology into sex toys and that could be everything from Matronics into sex dolls or apps attached to vibrators with sensor feedback or now VR is the next big thing everywhere. Men are obsessed with Technology and the industry via the porn industry is still dominated by men.
This is not just the porn industry – this is across all industries. Companies are thinking they can find an edge on their competitors through new types of technology. Some of this is useful and a lot of it is not and just becomes landfill – just look at the plethora of stuff that comes out of the CE shows in Vegas every year – most of it will end up landfill. I can see Sex Dolls becoming increasingly more active and sophisticated because Male users want this- a literal interpretation of a female. Also VR is interesting because if the porn industry can keep control of the IP- the software side – they can claw back the control of content they lost to the internet. I worry about the implications for sex addicts with VR but on the other side it could have amazing possibilities with teaching people how to have good sex- could be a great therapeutic or teaching tool.
However women just want a good orgasm from a vibrator that doesn’t sound like the Luftwaffe coming! (And why in 2018 can most companies not provide quieter products? Poor product design really.) What I’m suggesting is again the industry is doing its usual thing of jumping on whatever new technology comes along and it hasn’t even got the basics right for women (except for a few notable exceptions). So technology is not a curse if it is used in a holistic design process where it is part of the mix.
“Women just want a good orgasm from a vibrator that doesn’t sound like the Luftwaffe coming!”
Some people criticise sex tech producers for implementing product features simply because they can be implemented, not because they add any real value. Do you share this criticism?
Yes- completely- see the previous answer. I think it happens more this way then harnessing new technology for the right reasons. Understanding what your Users want specifically would help. How much proper research goes into that? As said before Designers mediate between technology and Users- which means a good designer or design team should always be asking questions on behalf of the User group.
The world is becoming more and more complex with software, new types of hardware and interfaces to run things. If you can’t create intuitive, easy to use products (even though the technology behind the product might be complex) you are wasting your time – the customers won’t engage – they don’t have time. Also if your technology accidentally impinges on somebody’s privacy- which apps have the potential to do- they’ll get pretty unhappy about that too.
I’d like to see Innovation and product development happen around the demographics and psychographics of real people – and then look at what technology is the best fit for those Users. For instance- the biggest growth for the Industry is in the female over 50s market – as it is in most other Industries. And the challenges that come with Ageing. But in a youth obsessed world it’s just not sexy to be designing for oldies having sex.
And I’ve meet young people with Cerebral Palsy at Sex and Disability conferences who are desperate to have a decent sex life and pleasure themselves that can’t hold any commercial vibrators – who is helping them? I’d like some of the more progressive Design-led companies to come work with me on ‘real’ world problems and stop thinking all your customers are fit and healthy 20 somethings – they rarely are.
How has sex toy design changed and evolved over the course of the past years? Did notice any major developments? If so, what were/are they?
The biggest change happened in the first decade of the 21st century when the designers and engineers entered the market. This bought better manufacturing standards, new ideas and a new perspective on an industry that was stuck mentally in the post-Victorian era. It was the beginning of the mainstreaming of the industry. It has a way to go – and I’m not adverse to porn companies making toys if they are made well and safely – it’s up to the consumer if they want a big veiny dong or a petite smooth pebble vibrator.
The other thing that happened was on the retail side a lot of women went into bricks-and mortar or on-line retailing that also came from outside the industry (and lingerie stores also started to pick up sex toys). So new brands that were non-adult industry matched up with new retailers looking for more sophisticated and better made products and both sides were female-centric at their core.
The other thing that happened which happened to every other industry – was the internet flourished. Female customers were able to now buy products from the privacy of their home and not have to go down to the local porn shop catering to male pornography and a traditional male customer. This is a huge development we now take for granted. In the second half of the 20th century- the era of the birth of the modern porn industry – the industry was dominated by a few powerful players and the way the supply chains operated was very structured and closed. It was not conducive to Innovation and was not properly servicing the female side of the market.
Now you can be a little-start-up anywhere in the world and jump on-line and get funds to create something and engage your potential customers with social media etc and give it a crack. Look where Lelo started- one little vibrator and an idea for a brand that better serviced contemporary female tastes- and the rest they say is history. My job as a design educator is to say to students all over the world- if you are interested give this a go. We know the story – where did Apple start? – in a garage.
“My job as a design educator is to say to students all over the world- if you are interested give this a go.”
When developing new products, more and more producers incorporate suggestions from consumer feedback, they use data and results from test groups, they collaborate with experts (sexologists, etc.) … are you happy about this development?
Yes- this is great if done in an ethical manner and not impinging on anyone’s privacy. This looks more like ‘normal’ commercial and development practice that goes on in mainstream industries. The more that the sex toy industry behaves like the rest of the commercial world the better. And collaborating with sexologists and health experts is the way to go. You have to create multi-disciplinary teams and a good Industrial Designer or Creative Director needs to be at the centre of that. Health experts don’t understand technology or manufacturing (or marketing) and you need somebody to oversee all facets of the puzzle that creates a product. But the more this happens the better for the industry – so big thumbs up to whatever companies are adding this to their development process.
For a long time, sex toys were marketed along clear-cut categories – there was a boom of female-oriented toys, then, everybody was talking about toys for couples, and next, toys for men had a big comeback. Right now, it feels as if such labels were becoming less important in the industry. Is this type of classification becoming outdated?
Yes and No- depends how you want to use such classifications for marketing. A lot of the bigger brands seem to incorporate a bit of everything as the build and still use such labelling on their websites to help consumers navigate. I think these labels are useful to consumers if the brand has really had a crack at designing for a particular type of user or situation – you need to explain and market that product as such.
Imagine when We-Vibe first introduced their first couples device and didn’t explain or promote how to use it. It would have been a bit perplexing. I think these categories are still useful but more could be looked into. Women for instance come across all age categories and as you age lots of things happen (as do to men) so how about getting more nuanced about those things (and as said before stop designing and marketing sex toys as if everyone was a healthy 20 year old).
In 2016, you said in an EAN interview that there wasn’t enough diversity in the market. Is that still the case? Some people argue that there is too much diversity, and that the market is hopelessly overcrowded with products. How do you assess the situation?
The industry might be overcrowed with products but it’s not that diverse – the problem is most of it is the same stuff- over and over – with small tweaks. A lot of it is copying. So very few companies do proper Innovation and if they do they are copied and cheaper versions come out. Most companies don’t have a proper design process so they are relying on the Chinese manufacturer to tell them what they can and can’t achieve.
People think sex toy manufacturing is an easy pot of gold- but it’s a grind like any industry you manufacture products in. Good product development and process is not cheap- so most people want to short cut the costs and go straight to the manufacturers. Yes, you can say there are the female centric or couples brands, the S&M or gay brands, the lezzo brands, the porn brands – so there is so diversity in the breakdown of the market segments but with those segments how much is just brands copying one another – a lot.
Products, design, functionality, materials – that’s one thing. Marketing the product, that’s a different story, one that has changed a lot throughout the past years. The industry has become more professional and more respectable in that regard, focusing on elements such as health, wellbeing, and a positive message … but is the industry addressing the right target audience when focussing on these elements?
It’s a good start and the first things to change (as the easiest) back in the early 2000s was the packaging and marketing – taking the porn stereotypes of the packaging and branding. Then you had specific brands that developed holistic approaches that never really bought into the Adult Industry aesthetic (like WeVibe or Lelo).
I think the growth area for brands or new brands is in the Sexual Health and Well being area.Sex and Ageing- how is this not going to get a bigger market? You have the biggest and wealthiest demographic of all time- the baby boomers- coming through and they are the generation of the Sexual Revolution and they are not going to go quietly. The have money but like normal human beings they will be having issues- erectile dysfunction or the post-menopausal things that happen to women- or a normal couple’s sexual relationship burn-out after decades or being together. Or simply just ageing – arthritis or eye sight going. If any of the more forward Brands want to work on Innovation in this area- get in contact with me- would love to collaborate. This is a huge area for growth if done properly. But for younger people especially young women- marketing sex toys in the Sexual Health space is also a much more positive way to go than keeping up outdated associations with the porn industry.
“I think the growth area for brands or new brands is in the Sexual Health and Well being area.Sex and Ageing- how is this not going to get a bigger market?”
Whenever a new Fifty Shades of Grey movie is on the horizon, we get back to the questions: Have sex toys become mainstream, or are they in the process of becoming mainstream? What do you think? How much societal acceptance is there really for adult products?
Sex toys will always struggle to be mainstream if they are always seen as part of the porn industry and not just seen as a category of Product Design or Health and Wellbeing. Brands have a choice to align themselves lock-stock and barrel with the Adult Industry or say- yes we make sex toys but we are a Design-led or Sexual Health or Female-centric brand. As said before I don’t have any moral issues with the porn industry making sex toys but if the industry wants to flourish and grow it needs to grow away from the Adult Industry and take its influences, cues, motivations and innovation from outside the porn industry.
The porn industry developed across the 20th century to satisfy a particular type of male consumer (and then it has its niches into gay etc and other sub-cultures which shows some diversity but they remain on the margins) and I can’t see it changing that much- it harnesses new technologies to the same tropes and stereotypes.
Where as the sex toy industry biggest customer base are contemporary Western women- and the capital and money is now in the over 50s market. If you want to follow the money you need to be a female centric brand that caters to contemporary female tastes. You need to take the long view of history. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle in regards to sexual taboos and mores changing and society becoming less hung-up and much more sexually tolerant.
Positioning the sex toy industry as part of overall Health and Wellbeing is the way to go forward. From my side in Academia I’m trying to bring the industry into the Design Industry and the Academy and say this is a valid industry (and believe me I’ve had plenty of flak and snobbery over the years about it) and try and support all those companies doing the right thing and trying to keep up good standards and Innovating.