Going deep: Idealog’s interview with a sex toy designer – Plus: Our favourite sex toys ranked

Image: Ti Chang, founder and VP of design at Crave
Industrial designer Ti Chang is the founder and VP of design at Crave, a luxury sex toy business aiming to change the way women buy and use sex toys.

“The way I see it, sexually satisfied women means happier relationships, which means happier couples, marriages, and children, and eventually… peace on earth,” says Chang. “And I’m only half joking”.

That's more than enough of a noble enough cause for Idealog, so we tracked her down to get the inside skinny on the philosophy, fun and day-to-day of being a designer in the high-end sex toy market.

Idealog: You’ve been an industrial designer for 13 years. How did you get into sex toys? 

Chang: After many years of designing for corporations, I wanted to work on something that would be meaningful from a cultural perspective, not just for a company's bottom line. A lofty goal, I know, but I wanted to make something that contributes to the human condition in some positive way. So when I found myself in a seedy adult shop staring at hideous sex toys, it dawned on me that this was an area where I could possibly make a difference.

At the time, sex toys were either grotesquely anatomical or horrible creations with equally horrible manufacturing. As a woman, it seemed wrong to me that these were the only products I could choose from, and the only way to get them was some sort of dodgy shopping experience in a sketchy adult smoke shop. I wanted to create products that helped to remove the stigma and taboo of sex toys by using design, modern manufacturing, and technology to elevate this genre of neglected products into sophisticated and luxurious consumer objects.



You founded your own start-up, INCOQNITO. What was the impetus behind the move?

Timing is everything. When one door closes on you, it forces you to find other doors to knock on or create your own door. I founded INCOQNITO at the height of 2008 recession. I’d been freelancing for a while and was torn between finding another job or starting my own thing. I couldn't find any interesting work ­– or even decently paid work ­­– so I figured that if I was going to be paid very little for something I care fuck all about, I might as well work on something I actually give a damn about. So I decided on the latter and never looked back.

What would you say is the philosophy behind your designs? Is it something you actively articulate?

I believe pleasure is something one should not be ashamed of, and that sex toys, jewellery and other pleasure objects should support that fully without stigma or taboo. I try to articulate that ethos through my work. When I see people pleasantly surprised by the design of the product who want to interact with it, and even better, to enjoy it, I think I’ve done my job well.

Is there a stigma around this kind of work? 

Unfortunately there is a stigma. I think people tend to lump adult toy designers with the likes of porn stars or strippers, when really, my daily work is a lot less exciting than that. I go to the studio every day; I have a desk like everyone else.

Where do you think that stigma comes from?

The stigma really comes from one’s own upbringing in the context of mainstream religion and cultural stigma of ‘sex’. I grew up with conservative Taiwanese parents who didn't openly talk about sex, though they never condemned it. They always treated it as a natural part of life, which allowed me to approach the topic of sex without social taboo as well.

Are there many other women in the sex toy design industry? It seems insane that the industry would be male-dominated…

I agree with you that it is absolutely ridiculous that this industry is completely dominated by men, particularly when it comes to the design of the products. At the same time, that explains a lot of the nonsense we see in stores now. I mean what woman has ever said “please make me a vibrator that is a penis and a rabbit all mashed up”? I believe that was said by no woman ever. The vast majority of traditional toys were created by men for what they believed women wanted. However, the good news is that more and more women are entering the industry and boldly saying, “that’s enough guys, let’s take a different approach to this”. Only recently, several major brands have launched with women at the helm of the company or as designers creating products that are changing the landscape for adult toys.

As a woman, it seemed wrong to me that these were the only products I could choose from, and the only way to get them was some sort of dodgy shopping experience in a sketchy adult smoke shop. I wanted to create products that helped to remove the stigma and taboo of sex toys by using design, modern manufacturing, and technology to elevate this genre of neglected products into sophisticated and luxurious consumer objects.

There’s been a lot of talk about smart devices or the Internet of Things changing sex toys, but I believe the biggest shift in the industry is the recognition that women don’t want the traditional crap. The old stuff is just not selling next to well-designed products that do not resemble male anatomy. Adult novelties are growing up and becoming modern consumer products as more designers are entering the scene. More and more toy makers are embracing sleeker product aesthetics, removing porn stars from the packaging, demanding better quality and manufacturing and making sure that women are part of their product development process. I was recently at an adult novelty show and several people asked if I know of other female industrial designers. The industry is realizing how much they’ve excluded women and that the old novelties just won’t cut it anymore.

What are the design considerations specific to sex toy design? How is it different from designing, say, a toothbrush?

In both cases, whether you are designing a toothbrush or sex toy – or any product for that matter – the key consideration should always be on the experience. Is the product creating or supporting a remarkable user experience? How does a user store it? Clean it? Is it easy to use? Does it work? Easy to live with? Those are the questions designers should be asking in any product they design.

The design process is universal – to design a sex toy or a toothbrush the process is virtually the same. All ideas or concepts start with sketches and prototypes – these ideas are then refined, debated and user tested – and the process repeats until all the stakeholders agree that the product is finally ready. And that’s exactly the point, these are both everyday consumer products, but a toothbrush has evolved a lot more because there is no social taboo surrounding oral hygiene.

So what’s your creative process? What medium do you use in the earliest stages?

I’m old school. I always start with pen and tracing paper sketching 1:1, then move to Wacom sketches where I start to ‘think’ on paper. I explore my ideas using Wacom because I can generate different concepts more quickly. Using pen and tracing paper helps my hand to initially ‘learn’ the product, if that makes sense, and then, when I move on to digital sketches, the idea flow comes more easily.

Is there a particular design of yours you’re most proud of?

The Vesper vibrator necklace is the product I'm most proud of to date. It has not only won accolades in the design world, but it’s also been very successful commercially. To achieve both of those things in one product is rare for designers. What I love most is that the Vesper makes a powerful public statement that sexuality is part of our identity. Wearing a vibrator necklace is a bold display of owning your sexuality, which I think is empowering and quite frankly, pretty bad-ass.

Image: The Vesper vibrator necklace from Crave

If you could collaborate with anyone on a new sex toy design, who would it be?

There are so many designers I admire from industrial design to the fashion world. It’s so hard to choose, so I’ll pick two: In the fashion world, I would absolutely love to collaborate with Alexander Wang for the ultimate urban chic sex toy. From the product design world, lately I've been obsessed with Nendo, a Japanese design collective whose work exudes minimalist sex appeal.

Do you hope to move on from sex toys at some stage? What would be the logical next step for you?

My hope is that I will always be working on something meaningful. I don't know what my next logical step is after sex toys (is there one?), though recently I have been personally affected by the deaths of loved ones. And in looking at the experience surrounding death, I believe it is an area similar to sex toys – surrounded by taboo – which opens a lot of opportunities for design and innovation. I may work on something there...death after sex...maybe that is a logical next step. Both are a part of life, however only one is certain.

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Different strokes: 5 exotic devices from across the internet

“The world don't move to the beat of just one drum,” goes the opening credits to a certain legendary 80’s sitcom. “What might be right for you, may not be right for some…It takes Diff'rent Strokes to move the world”.

Truer words have never been spoken.  

But stop thinking about Gary Coleman for a moment and check out this collection of weird and wonderful Plastic Johnsons currently making a buzz around the internets.

No matter what your preclusion – bejewelled, budget or otherwise – Idealog’s got you covered.

5. For the budget-conscious

This bullet-sized boomstick is perfect for the financially prudent user with an itch to scratch.

Coming in at a very reasonable $25.99, the Push Button Bullet certainly balances thrust with thrift, and if you’re worried that such a cost-conscious unit might not deliver ‘the goods’, so to speak, rest assured that the Silver Bullet produces “sensational one speed power”.

And one, after all, can be all it takes.

4. For the filthy rich

Australian jeweller Colin Burn and business partner Nicole Gallus have created a million dollar Southern lover guaranteed to stimulate even the most discerning of loins.

Made from solid platinum and encrusted with over a thousand diamonds, sapphires and pearls, the Pearl Royale has the distinction of being one of the world’s most expensive below-belt ditherers ever created.

I like to imagine it’s what the Kardashians use.

3. For the fellas

One size doesn’t always fit all, so this one’s just for the boys.

Taking their vocabulary cues from any number of Gillette commercials, the Cobra Libre II Stimulator for Men promises all the mojo of “hot sports cars and revving motors”, “revving, pulsing, and oscillating sensations” and “11 different vibration intensity levels and patterns”.

Almost certainly the manliest thing you can sit on (other than another man).   

2. For the aesthete

As mentioned above, the Vesper is the definition of non-coital class. Though coming in a minimalist package, the Vesper has a range of speed options, super quiet operation, comes in a range of colours (including 24 kt gold) but still has the convenience of USB chargability.

Elegant and discreet. 

1. For the tech-lover

The Vibease is a clever pocket rocket that focuses on the biggest sex organ, the brain.

[Pause to accommodate thoughtful nodding]

Vibease is a super-smart wearable widow’s comforter/app combo that syncs its motions to downloadable erotic audiobooks. Think literature for your loins.  

If that’s not enough ‘zzzz’ to make you go ‘mmmm’, you can even task a partner with sending you custom vibrations over a wireless (thank god) connection.