Mithula Naik has designed helmets for women that care as much for their safety, as for their self-expression

It was while on an exchange programme at a university in Michigan, making clay helmets for women for a college course that the then design student, now design consultant Mithula Naik struck upon the idea of making helmets for women two-wheeler riders.

“I knew I had to come back to Srishti (Srishti School of Art Design, her college in Bangalore) for my graduation thesis project. Through my design journey, most of my work has been focused on gender and design. I feel there is a lacuna in products for women, especially in India. I did a little bit of market research and found that women comprise 12 to 14 per cent of total two-wheeler riders in the country and 35 per cent of market of the two-wheeler market,” says Mithula who brought out prototypes of the helmets for her graduation thesis project.

“I did some research on whether there are exclusive helmets for women and I realized that there aren’t. Given the market need, especially when there are two wheelers designed exclusively for women. So it was a no brainer that I wanted to design this helmet.”

She then took her proposal to Vega (a company that also manufactures helmets), showing them her research and they readily agreed.

“They told me that their dealers have been asking for this product for years. But they didn’t have someone to break the pattern of male helmets.”

Mithula explains how a male helmet has a masculine, geometric design that gives off an action-hero look.

“So a woman wears the helmet out of compulsion. I wanted to create an organic, fluid design that women could use as a fashion accessory. I was looking at the helmet-need in the market not only in terms of safety, but also to understand safety and self-expression.”

Mithula’s prototype of a women’s helmet, which is asymmetrically designed, has customized features for women: with removable multi-coloured plastic peaks that be matched with clothes and accessories; sweat absorbent, removable and washable inner padding and a high neckline to accommodate ponytails. But one of its most important features is its anthropometric or ergonomic design.

“An essential part of my research focused on studying the differences between the male and female head structure, to see if that difference is significant enough for design. So I worked with orthopaedic surgeons, and went through medical research on the form of the skull. I found that the there are differences in the skull shapes of a man and a woman. A male head is broader at the top whereas the female head tapers in — this is noticeable during impact.”

Some of the biggest challenges Mithula faced along the way, was to break the mindset that women don’t need customized helmets and convincing people that there is a need for such a product when hardly any research exists on the subject.

“Today the bigger challenge is seeing the helmet on the road and that’s always been my goal.” The helmet is awaiting industrial design registration, and she hopes it will be out in markets later this year. “The costing has not been laid out since it’s still a prototype. At this point I see it as an accessible product for girls. But I am looking at moving this product from a compulsory safety headgear to an accessory, something they’ll want to wear, carry around and feel good about.”

For Mithula, the helmet is part of her vision as a designer in understanding the relationship between gender, society and the tangible world.

“There is a lot of potential for designing functional products for women, and I don’t think women need to compromise. I’m interested in understanding the influence of gender on the way we live and how it relates to our tangible world.”

This column features those who choose to veer off the beaten track.