Gender Neutral Design With Karina Kotval

Karina Kotval is a queer, woman-of-color working as a product designer in San Francisco. Being from India presented Karina with limited opportunities, especially for a queer women. Her goal is to share her experiences and have discussion with people who are looking to transition into design, struggling with being brown & queer, or anyone who's having a hard time assimilating in American culture. Design is a common language shared amongst many cultures and countries; and Karina would love to help expand that.

AIGA SF:How can we advance the design community with gender-neutral design?

KK:Design is about balance. As designers, it’s our responsibility to find the right balance, whether it’s with typography or color. In this case, the balance is about gender, and recognizing our own biases is the first step to achieving that. Gender fluidity is playing an increasingly larger role in mainstream society. Designers work hard to create immersive, elegant experiences for their users – so why not take a more inclusive approach? That’s the beauty of being a product designer, we’re essentially able to set standards for people to unconsciously follow; we just need to make sure we’re doing it responsibly.

AIGA SF: What are the most critical changes that we must make to face the future effectively?

KK: I like to think about gender equality in design in comparison to the Disability Act of 1990. Before this, wheelchair access wasn’t a real thing, and our attitudes towards the disabled were far from what we perceive now. We’re seeing similar progress when it comes to breastfeeding in public, as well as genderless signage for bathrooms. I think product design can take a similar approach and implement small but effective changes. These would include genderless or more gender-inclusive products, definitely outside of the binary realm of “woman” and “man.”

AIGA SF:What do you think the best outcome for the design industry would be?

KK: A design utopia is a little scary to think about - if we didn’t have challenges, we wouldn’t push ourselves to improve. But, I would love to see design inclusivity expand past the traditional and often personalized fields such as marketing & fashion. Delving into realms like software, public spaces and even material objects could extremely benefit from the values of inclusive design.

AIGA SF:What are some of the ways people from your field are making a difference in the world?

KK: I’ve had a deep admiration for multimedia designers, especially video games. I believe gender stereotypes are enforced at such a young age when we’re most impressionable. With the boom and surplus of devices, it’s hard to limit a child’s exposure to games. I’ve seen countless times cooking games targeted towards girls and racing games for boys. I admire the work of game designers working to challenge that space and design games that are entirely genderless or gender non-conforming.

AIGA SF: What are common misconceptions people have? How can we combat these misconceptions and communicate more effectively?

KK: It’s a common misconception that gender inclusivity is difficult to achieve. I don’t believe it is. Yes, I identify with a gender. I consider myself a woman. But, it’s entirely about awareness. I’m aware that gender spans past the boundaries that history has set for us, and I’m able to work towards pushing those boundaries. My favorite way to combat these misconceptions is to simply talk to people and expand my network of connections. Understanding the perspectives and stories of people who have lived an entirely different life than you is powerful, but also incredibly rewarding.

AIGA SF: Do you remember a specific experience of where you wished that your organization had done something differently? If you were to do it over, what would you change?

KK: I’ve been fortunate to work in organizations where gender inclusivity hasn’t been a big issue - in fact, it was almost needed. Designing products for industries like healthcare, fitness and now early education essentially require a non-biased approach since your user set is so diverse. Therefore, designing products as gender-neutral as possible always served well for us. Although, I think my past organizations could have been better about promoting gender inclusivity within the company.

AIGA SF: What’s the question you are most tired of hearing on Gender Neutral Design and what would you like to say about it so you never have to answer it again?

KK: I get a lot of questions/concerns around introducing a gender-neutral approach to an organization. I always find myself saying “if you don’t ask, you’ll never know!” I think getting buy-in for an idea like this can actually be quite easy if you’re prepared to talk about how it can impact the business and society at the same time.

AIGA SF: What is the best resource for people who want to dive deeper?

KK: InVision has a great blog and often post articles around design inclusion, so definitely check that out. Muzli has an amazing library of UI patterns to pull inspiration from. Josef Albers’s “Interaction of Color” has been a holy grail for me in terms of understanding color theory principles, and applying that to my work.

With this knowledge, you can make informed decisions about the overall look and feel of your designs and how gender-neutral you want them to be. Learn more about her personal and professional challenges on July 24th at 6PM.

Buy your ticket here.