24 May 2022 -

Hidden Histories: Gender in Design interview: Sofia Fernández

Our final Hidden Histories: Gender in Design seminar examines pedagogic histories and practices. Ahead of the event, our Ambassador Alexandra Banister asked Sofia Fernández, Research Associate in the Industrial Design Programme at the University of Applied Sciences, Berlin, more about her research into gender studies in university design programmes in Germany.

To attend the seminar on Thursday 26th May, please register for free via Eventbrite:

Alexandra Banister: What is your background and how did you develop an interest in design history?

Sofia Fernández: I trained as a designer with a focus on product/industrial design in different universities in Germany and abroad. My interest in feminist design history was sparked during an exchange semester at the Parsons New School of Design in New York. This experience opened my eyes to the ignorant and insensitive ways in which female designers in the male-dominated field of product and industrial design are “pushed aside” – not only in design history, but also in the workplace, in marketing, juries and awards, as well as in design education. There is a strong stigmatisation of design associated with “femininity”, which – as with everything else – is rooted in our cultural history. In my current position as an academic lecturer and researcher, I look at several ways – in research and practice – of fighting gender discrimination within my field. Besides my academic work, I follow my independent design projects at my studio in Berlin.

AB: What does your research focus on?

SF: In my research I am interested in how not only humans but also objects are “doing gender”. From large to small-scale – from a city to a door handle – we find “gender codes” inscribed in every design. Whether it is a city optimised for cars, or a door handle to a study allowing privacy from the family, every object can be read and analysed in its gendered context. This perspective is important to understand and integrate when it comes to product design. As design practitioners we not only design products, but we design people (and their gendered roles) as well!

AB: Your talk is part of a wider seminar series on Hidden Histories: Gender in Design, how does this apply to your work?

SF: I use my research as preparation and inspiration for my teaching at the university, because I think it is important knowledge for future design practitioners. I am interested in translating this knowledge into a research-informed design practice, both for myself and for my students. In my teaching I share my research with my students, as well as inviting them to become researchers in turn. My teaching is more of a co-learning experience than a top-down relationship. The same could be said of my own research and practice – both grow along with each other.

AB: Please tell us about an interesting piece of design you have discovered as part of your research.

SF: I want to share the Fiat 500 Pink, a limited edition produced on the occasion of Barbie’s 50th birthday in 2009. It was mentioned by a student in my class as an example of “good gender design” and then became a subject of discussion. These are often the most exciting discussions, when the whole class is forced to reflect on their own preconceptions of feminine/masculine design, and whether it even exists. Here, the student argued that the pink colour opens up a typically male object like the car to a female user group, therefore making this technology more inclusive. In response, other voices claimed that the design was low quality and superficial, following the banal rule “shrink it and pink it”, which represents the unserious ways of thinking and designing for female costumers. My design proposal to the Fiat designers with a similar level of absurdity would be the “Fiat 500 Grey”: a limited edition of 500 cars for Batman’s 100s anniversary aimed at Fiat’s male customers, using the design principle “grey it, scale it”.


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