A Case for More Pleasing Design

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 feel."

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 Form 3 waterproof vibrator in black and bright pink

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. Imboden 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 him.

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. Elegant.

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 most.

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?