I was recently thinking back to a discussion about innovation and design that I had with an acquaintance of mine. His being an Apple admirer dominated the conversation, stating that Steve Jobs had figuratively changed the world. I didn’t disagree. However, when I went to compare him to entrepreneurs such as Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein, I was deeply surprised by the unenthusiastic reaction I received. Steve Jobs, apparently, has had a much more powerful impact on the world. If the other women were as innovative, he would have heard of them.
After a point, we stopped debating as I did not want to pursue it further. What I did end up realising is that a lot of engineers tend to be very dismissive of non-electronic and or non-architectural design.
Let me start by going back to Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. Both were born in the 19th century and built their empires during a time in which they were not allowed to vote and Jews were not allowed to own land. Yet the two of them are entirely credited with commercializing makeup; before either brands were created, makeup was something only worn by prostitutes. The marketing techniques they used then would rival those that are used by Apple now. I can only imagine how difficult it was to sell makeup in an age where it was shameful to wear it. During the early years of their companies they had to deliver makeup to clients in unmarked paper bags via their back-doors.
But that isn’t all. These two women, although rivals, invented and popularized many, many things that are actually used in other industries today. Examples? Twist lipstick and mascara wands, which were the original sparks of inspiration for glue sticks and a tonne of other applicators used in engineering. Elizabeth Arden was also the first American makeup manufacturer to add scents to creams and lotions. They popularized compact makeup, eyeshadow, and deodorant by marketing them cleverly in well designed packages. They revolutionized packaging with an emphasis on making it appealing; everything was in brown cardboard before this time. They also contributed to dermatology and made known the importance of skin care regimes, for women as well as for men. I could go on.
All in all, makeup is consumed globally at a much higher rate than electronics. The design decisions these women made with their applicators and their bottling techniques have impacted generations of people across the world.
Perhaps it is a question of personal relevance. I want to give my peers the benefit of the doubt in saying it isn’t because these two are women that their stories were dismissed; I do not want to believe my friends are prone to that sort of thinking. And sure, makeup isn’t a life-saving creation, but what person would enjoy a world without makeup, directly or indirectly? There are many people, people with scars and disfigurations - or people who just want to look their best, that use makeup to give themselves confidence in a way that electronics and the services they provide cannot. This is something deeply psychological and far more impactful than my engineer peers want to lend credit to. And no one can deny that these innovations were still great for their time. So I'm left with two things- unconscious bias, or tech blinders.
Steve Jobs is still a visionary. But, unfortunately, more people in the world use lipstick, mascara, glue, stick concealer, non-spoiling moisturizing lotions, stick deodorant, etc. than they purchase any computers or phones with sleek design. And this is obviously only an example; there are many other inventions, whose inventors are lesser known, that have made greater impact.
Sorry, engineers. As much as we like to think that all that matters are volts and bolts, they’re not.
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