A recent article at New York magazine proclaimed that American Apparel only wants to dress 3 types of women. Wait. Excuse me, not women – girls.
Like many large brands, American Apparel has distilled its customers down to just a few archetypal individuals. The idea is to take data about a company’s target customers and create fictional “characters” that embody their lifestyles, needs, and demographics.
The pitfalls of the persona
The ideals behind this practice are actually quite thoughtful. The point is that people relate better to an individual than a demographic, and so creating someone who can embody your customer helps people see that they are designing for real humans with complex lives, desires, and circumstances.
At least, that’s the general idea.
In practice, what’s often created is not a more nuanced and human portrait, but little more than a vacuuous stereotype rooted in preconceived notions.
Women seem to bear the brunt of these inept marketing exercises. We are “chatty texting teens” or “concerned moms” or “busy career women.”
In other words, we are so often reduced to just one or two convenient characteristics. It isn’t based on real conversations with real people. It’s just shorthand for a stereotype.
The New York article takes issue with the fact that American Apparel “only” want to dress these 3 women: the very young, the slightly less young, and the (also young) party girl.
I see two glaring issues here. First, there is the aforementioned issue of women being reduced to their most obvious and superficial characteristics.
But then there is the second issue: why do so many companies only want to design for these particular, specific kinds of women?
Design for all?
It’s a common truism in the design world that designing for everybody means designing for nobody. There’s nothing inherently wrong with limiting the scope of who you design for.
A company does need to make focused choices about the particular kinds of people their product will serve. Otherwise, the product is bland. It won’t stand out in the sea of other similar designs, and eventually it’ll be forgotten.
Even mega-brands need to decide who they want to create products for. Look at even a ubiquitous mass market product like Coca-cola. It seems like it’s designed for anyone, but do they spend time trying to convince health-conscious hippies to drink coke with their kale salad? Not really.
So no, I don’t think companies have a moral obligation to design for everyone, or even for most people. In fact, it’s a recipe for making lousy stuff that no one wants.
But there is still a problem here.
Creating the status quo
The problem is that specific categories of women are consistently left out. In the case of American Apparel, the problem is not that they’ve defined 3 rather similar kinds of women they want to dress. The problem isn’t even that these 3 women are all young. Young women need clothes too.
The problem is why so many companies only care to dress women under a certain age, or to showcase their wares on extremely thin women, or women with a particular body type, the list goes on.
Sure, they can make the case that the decision is purely one of economics. When you’re in the cheap clothing business for example, undoubtedly your customers do skew young.
And yet, something tells us that is not the whole story. When we look at advertising or runways, what do we see? Thin, white (usually), young. It does not match reality, or reflect the diversity of women out there. It doesn’t even reflect who has the most disposable income, or who is the largest group.
It’s simply the status quo. It is a self-perpetuating beauty ideal.
Yes, it makes sense for particular companies to focus on particular women. But when you zoom out to a macro level: does it make sense for all companies to choose the same groups?
It’s safe. It’s safe to align yourself with what is already considered “beautiful” than to attempt to influence the culture.
In the end, you get a double whammy. First, companies cherry pick only the safest and most glamorized women to serve (“youth sells! thinness sells!”)
Then, even those groups are reduced to dull stereotypes (“party girl!”)
Small businesses can lead the way
I believe that small companies – independent designers, boutiques, and tiny businesses – can lead the change in serving more women, and serving them in a deeper way.
Even though big companies have the most cushion of capital, they rarely take real risks. Small businesses are frequently motivated by factors other than profit, and they’re usually much closer to their customers.
No business is perfect, and small ones are under even more pressure to make ends meet, that’s for sure. But I think small businesses have a superpower, and that superpower is caring.
Are there any businesses (large or small) that you think do a great job of being inclusive, or connecting to their customers?