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Back in the 1960s, good girls didn't use vibrators. They used
washing machines and exercise belts. Remember that scene in Mad
Men when Betty accidentally discovers a supplemental use for
the Maytag? In that same episode ("Indian
Summer," season 1, episode 11, in case you're curious), Peggy
is asked to write an ad campaign for an "exercise belt." This
weight-loss device, a high-tech gizmo during its time by all
measures, came to Sterling Cooper as the PER, or "passive exercise
regime." It was supposed to make fat girls skinny by imitating
calisthenics through muscle stimulation. Peggy, based on her
successful copywriting for Belle Jolie lipsticks, her gender, and
her weight issues, is assigned the account in order to solicit a
feminine perspective. After a little private usability testing, she
discovers that the device does, in fact, stimulate muscles, but not
the ones anticipated. She proposes that the device be renamed and
marketed as: "The Rejuvenator. You'll love the way it makes you
The show unfolds with the awkwardness of her presenting to her
male colleagues what is essentially a masturbation device. Stigma,
taboo and innuendo around female sexuality swirled through the
episode in an attempt to remind us that, wow, these women really
were on the cusp of the sexual revolution. It's just too bad the
tools of this revolution were so big, noisy, bulky and ugly.
THUMP, THUMP, THUMP…
Jimmyjane's waterproof Form 3 vibrator, designed in
collaboration with Yves Béhar, could almost pass for a mouse.
Had Peggy come of age today, she could have written copy for a
21st-century sex toy, one of the most beautiful pieces of
industrial design I've ever seen. Allow me to introduce the Form 3,
a waterproof, rechargeable vibrator made by a company called
Jimmyjane in San Francisco. It's quite lovely and doesn't even look
like a vibrator. Which is exactly the point, says Ethan Imboden,
the company's founder. His goal is to use cutting-edge technology
(one of the few electronic devices that can be used in the bathtub
without the risk of electrocution), human-centered design and
beautiful aesthetics to change the way we pleasure ourselves.
collaborated with Yves Béhar, one of the most notable
industrial designers in the world to recreate the visual language
of the sex industry—an industry whose products take the dignity
right out of the activities they're supposedly promoting.
For those unfamiliar with Yves Béhar's work, he's the designer
who worked with MIT's Nicholas Negroponte to design One Laptop Per
Child. He brought elegant, human-centered design to a driving
accessories line for BMW's Mini Cooper, and integrated sustainable
Cradle-to-Cradle design methodologies into a line of footwear for
Birkenstock. That line—Footprints: The Architect
Collection—was part of a design exhibit at SFMOMA, where
Béhar's work is in the permanent collection. When asked about his
design philosophy, Béhar simply states, "I'm trying to make
technology disappear." Precisely why Imboden wanted to work with
Upon researching sex-based products, Imboden, an industrial
designer himself after an uninspiring early career as an engineer,
was intrigued by the fact that sex products, part of the retail
landscape for decades, have largely been ignored by the design
community. "Sex is so tied to our self-esteem," says Imboden. "Any
product designed around sex should be beautiful." It was in this
design neglect that Imboden saw a unique design opportunity. Key
concepts in product design are the "quiet interface" and
human-centered design. Interfaces, whether physical or digital,
should be designed so intuitively that we don't even know they're
there. The interface is "quiet," invisible. And human-centered
refers to products designed to adapt to human physical and
cognitive needs, rather than humans having to adapt to the physical
constraints of a product or machine. The way these principles are
applied is through immersive, participatory design and lots of
usability testing. Jimmyjane has a "very happy group" of
participants who test their products on a regular basis, providing
valuable feedback. As a result of this user-centered focus,
Jimmyjane's products are designed to be an invisible, quiet
facilitator of the sexual experience. The experience the device
enhances is the focal point, not the sex toy itself. A formal
indicator of this ergonomic approach is that the Form 3 looks like
a computer mouse—it was designed to fit the human hand. Simple.
In the end, Imboden is out to change the power dynamic between
the makers of sex toys and those who use them by soliciting user
feedback and interaction, both in the design phase and after the
products are sold. He believes that sex toys should be subject to
the same "natural selection" market forces influence on other tech
products: Good products rise to the top. "We're all innately
sexual," says Imboden. He uses design and technology to eliminate
the stigma and negative stereotypes around human sexuality. And who
wouldn't agree that that's an inherently good thing? To be
completely candid, I have never owned a vibrator for the simple
fact that, eeew!—they're ugly. I mean, what woman really
wants to carry a disembodied plastic penis around in her purse? But
now that I've seen the Form 3, I would consider getting one. And
even carrying it in my purse. Or, displaying it right on my desk!
Because honestly, who wouldn't think it isn't just a beautiful neck
massager? Or a stress reliever that I can pet to calm myself when
frustrated at the office. The medical-grade silicone this device is
made of feels amazing.
Essentially, the Form 3 is kind of like the iPod of dildos. In
the same way that the iPod changed the way we listen to music,
design and technology are changing the way we view and experience
human sexuality. Well, sexuality here in the wealthy western world,
anyway. As is often the case with high design, it can easily become
an expensive, elitist, exclusive thing. What of the thousands of
women in the Middle East, castrated to prevent sexual pleasure? At
$145 a pop ($45 more than the initial cost of Negroponte and
Béhar's famous laptop), this device is out of the reach of those
women—women who need to experience pleasure, of any sort, the
A recurring critique in design circles of late is that designers
and technologists use the majority of their talents to design for
the wants of a moneyed, privileged few, while the majority of the
world's populace struggles to meet their most basic needs, let
alone sexual desires.
Would One Vibrator Per Woman be of any use to them?
Is it OK to be superficial? Cook argues that while aesthetics might not be considered a valid metric for measuring design’s success, beauty matters.
Section: Inspiration -
Voice, graphic design, packaging, product design, metrics of effectiveness
What do we want? Even if we don’t know, it doesn’t stop us from acquiring more. Barringer expresses his desire for self-awareness and restraint.
Section: Inspiration -
Voice, social issues, sustainability
Practicing safe sex should be fun, a message that these “balloon animals” so perfectly conveyed.
Section: Why Design -
What makes some products delightful to use while others are an absolute struggle? Voice talks with Dan Saffer about the field of interaction design, robots, and the importance of seams.
Section: Inspiration -
interview, Voice, experience design
While in school, design students learn many things, from design concepts like gestalt, processes from brainstorming to production, and even the technical aspects of software and code. All of that is essential to becoming a designer, but there’s one thing the typical curriculum may not cover: How to give—and receive—a good design critique.
I’ve been an AIGA member since I moved to Raleigh in 2009, and in that time I have gained so much through what I have given to the chapter. As a chapter, our mission is to create a place where design thrives. What I found through my involvement with AIGA Raleigh is a place where I thrive, too.
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