Designs for Women: GirlApproved Adds Balance to a Man-Made World

By Steven Heller

Put a female computer scientist with female high school students who are told they can alter female identity paradigms through design and what you get is GirlApproved, an invention and design firm, which proposes to create new products, brands, and technologies. "We base our inventions on finding mass scale unfulfilled needs," explains Heidi Dangelmaier, founder and inventor, who developed GirlApproved Theory, "a fundamental shift in the way we think of design," which "introduces a balance that has been missing in our modern man-made world," she says. "We are now just launching the Theory after years of intensive research."

Dangelmaier argues that female intelligence has not been leveraged in design, engineering, or science.

Dangelmaier believes that science -- particularly her field of computer science -- plays a strong role in defining art, design, and culture. By the time she was accepted into the Ph.D. program at Princeton (Comp. Sci./Electrical Engineering), where she spent seven years but did not finish writing her thesis, a couple of the most renowned computer graphics experts had started teaching there. Their advancements in computer graphics accelerated a visual intensity that she noted was shaping gaming and film in an unsettling way: "Speed, gore, and destruction were elevated, making entertainment increasingly violent," she recalls.

"Where was I, a girl, in all of this? I didn't like killing things. I liked stories, not sensationalism. I wanted to be a science professor, but I saw that science was creating a culture that I didn't want to be part of," Dangelmaier says. "I also realized that science had a masculine bias, not in the absolute laws of math and physics, but in the subjectivity with which the dimensions of science were being pursued and funded. Princeton wasn't as pure as I had once believed."

Instead of completing her doctorate, Dangelmaier launched a digital company named Hi-D, which invented digital applications to help people create and collaborate ("not destroy and isolate, as with masculine entertainment"); she claims it was a forerunner of social media. Hi-D attracted clients from advertising, entertainment, television, and industrial design, including CBS, MetLife, and Comedy Central. And as Dangelmaier's business developed she found that "what people were making (and deeming to be good enough) didn't mesh with what I thought was important." There was something inherent in every field that made her feel like a misfit. "As a scientist, I am always looking for patterns, something deeper at play, and this design tension was too dominant and important to ignore. I folded Hi-D and started GirlApproved."

Dangelmaier started working with high school girls (she insists on using the term girls) about 5 1/2 years ago. "I did everything with them, name the company, build the messaging and brand identity, solicit clients, and recruit. Even though we picked up clients (Playtex, Unilever, Rubbermaid, Nokia) and rapidly demonstrated our abilities for mass-market hits, we kept bumping against disturbing prejudices," she says. So she took about 20 months off from full-time work to focus on research. "We are now just releasing the results of that research -- our new science of innovation and design."

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GA recognizes the commercial and social power of feminine thinking when applied to invention and design. "Being female is as much about the construction of our minds, as it is with our bodies," Dangelmaier says. "Neuroscientists have reams of research on this, but our culture doesn't really acknowledge this in a practical way. Evolution is a great designer. It knows and preserves those things that have use for survival, and gets rid of things that have no inherent purpose. From a biological viewpoint, the male and female minds were engineered differently for a common purpose: survival."

Dangelmaier argues that female intelligence has not been leveraged in design, engineering, or science. "Because from the moment we arrive on Earth, we are raised on a cultural diet that is dominantly masculine," she says. "We start out as females, but by the time we graduate from university, we pretty much have been turned into masculine thinkers." This conversion from the feminine to the masculine mindset points out a big flaw in human thinking processes. "We can't discern the truth, so eventually females get conditioned into accepting masculine values and beliefs as absolute fact," Dangelmaier says. "It is important to remember that by 'feminine,' I do not mean female. Men also have a feminine dimension." So to rectify the imbalance, she is bringing these feminine dimensions into design and hopes, as a result, to trigger profound innovation.

GA recognizes the commercial and social power of feminine thinking when applied to invention and design.

Dangelmaier's team of high school and college "girls" are what she describes as the first females to be raised on a diet of social media, "which gave them a heightened sense of self and feminine consciousness." She refers to them as POST88s -- all born after 1988. The POST88's question traditional design conventions in terms of the useful, intelligent, and social, as well as concepts like rapid prototyping. Their reactions are not driven by insecurity and anger, but self-respect. "When something doesn't feel right, these Post88s have the courage to challenge the system instead of falling into the trap of self-blame and repressing their feelings," Dangelmaier says. "POST88 boys are also applying to GA because they recognize the importance of a balanced design system."

The first group came from New York's High School of Art and Design and LaGuardia High School. But Dangelmaier had to recruit on the sly: "The folks in education thought I was insane to have so much belief in the talents of young females," she says. "They saw us as a charity, not a business game changer." Eventually, through conversations with classmates at school and online, girls were attracted from top design schools (including Stanford, Yale, and RISD). "As the word got out, thousands of girls have reached out to us, not just from the U.S., but from countries around the world," Dangelmaier says.

What I've seen of GA's design work -- an identity campaign for Varsity, the leading American high school athletic distributor -- was done at an admirably high level. So what are the components? One is a high school mascot project exposing that most, if not all, mascots are male-oriented. "Many of our projects are about going to the root of a problem," says Dangelmaier regarding these seemingly innocent mascots. "Is it just art?" she asks, "or is it a symbol of power, the visualization of leadership and strength? Is our culture such that physical might determines the winner? Should leadership be modeled after physical domination? Representing leadership with qualities such as determination and focus can impact what young people respect and strive to acquire. Even seeing the duality of male and female cooperating as an advanced form of leadership can have massive psychological impact on the beliefs and values of young people."

This project further highlights, she says, the cultural dangers of "deterministic technology" like Google. "If you Google phrases like 'tiger mascot' or 'Indian mascot' you see only one paradigm of mascots: big aggressive hulks. When this is all a young person sees, it suggests this is what is, this is the world of mascots."

Male paradigms are so deeply codified into culture, Dangelmaier insists, that we are not aware of them. "They are programmed into our world through design," she says. "This masculine imbalance is coded into our language, values, customs, reward systems, relationship with the material world, and even spiritual selves. This imbalance undermines the feminine self because females accept bias conventions as 'the way,' allowing them to become absolute truths females have spent much of our modern years denying and repressing our innate intelligence. We have often felt ashamed of these inherent beliefs, and replaced them with compensatory behaviors, masculine conventions, and -- unfortunately -- unhappiness."

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GirlApproved relies on discoveries across many disciplines: neurobiology, dynamical systems theory, sociology, psychoanalytics, evolutionary theory, just to name a few. But can design cause the shifts in perception that Dangelmaier wants to attain? "Everything that isn't organic was designed," she says about the environment, citing education, politics, and products as all part of a larger design context. "When society consumes this 'made up' world, there is a kind of built-in feedback system," Dangelmaier says. "The things society consumes eventually impact and start to define society and the people in it.... 'Made up' objects communicate beliefs and values that alter our thinking (through habit, convention, and repetition) and the way we see ourselves in the world. (Do I belong? Am I good enough? Am I important?) Even our perception of life itself has been affected: Is it delicious? Spontaneous? Mechanistic? Cold?"

With her background in engineering and science, why is this design issue Dangelmaier's mission? "I reached a point where my ability to contribute was no longer restricted by my skills, but by a bias that permeated the entire system. Personally, I couldn't belong in a field where my own instincts and truths had no value," she says. "There was no formal language or framework to discuss my concerns regarding products, media, or science. Professionally, I wanted to be able to invent things that could help people, but there were no metrics I could use to prove the importance of the projects. If I was to grow, as an individual and contributor, I had to extend the traditional paradigm of creative thought."

If designers and inventors wake up to a new consciousness of design, she posits, "we will be able to not just advance, and invigorate culture, but also backpedal society from harm." Today, GA has moved beyond why females do not resonate with many ads and products in the marketplace. Instead "we spend our time focusing on what business and social opportunities our system allows us to see, things people and the planet need that cannot be understood or accessed using classic research and design techniques," Dangelmaier says.

Dangelmaier's investment goes deep and her frenetic, missionary enthusiasm is infectious. "I wanted to make sure that we are focusing on what good things can be invented and solved, not just what is wrong with what exists today," she says. "GA is not angry feminists, we are hopeful inventors, and rich with possibility."

Images: GirlApproved.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/12/designs-for-women-girlapproved-adds-balance-to-a-man-made-world/248647/