The very recent Adobe Photoshop smile debacle — if you want to know what I’m taking about, see here — has got me thinking about tone deafness. Adobe is accused of being tone deaf for making a woman smile in their presentation of some new tech (that will totally be used for exactly that purpose all the time). They could have chosen anyone or anything, and they apparently didn’t consult a single person who said “Hey, this is problematic.”

What’s funny is the second I read the op-ed in The Verge I completely understood the issue, and yet... as a woman who works for a living in the design field, who uses Photoshop daily and is an archetypical Adobe customer... I totally wouldn’t have realized. I wouldn’t have warned them had I been in the room. Even watching the video clip in the context of The Verge article I was thinking about the tech. Thinking about how I’d use it, wondering about its real life limitations (Adobe definitely chose a highly contrasting lipstick-laden smile for a reason, and that reason is because it’s easier for their product to select, I guarantee).

This is likely in part because I’m someone very similar to Adobe’s “imagined” core audience. To me they don’t come across as tone deaf — at least initially and not without some prodding — because I don’t notice the woman in the example as a representation of a woman; instead I see a representation of work. I put “imagined” in quotes because I’m referring to a marketing archetype of a user, not real people.


As a person who has had some tone deaf moments — understatement — I sometimes think about what makes them happen. It’s privilege and assumption, but it’s also something else. A perfect storm of mistakes. It feels like, on the surface, it’s in large part about knowing one’s audience: what are they looking for? What are the challenges they face and the assumptions they make?

Important interlude: Of course this is only coming through my personal lens of privilege as a white, cishet woman. I’m admittedly less likely to notice the cracks in the paint than pretty much every other woman out there. I can’t speak for other designers who may be offended, and I am 100% positive those people exist and their feelings and criticisms are valid (I think The Verge writer does a good job). I’m not saying my initial take is “right,” merely representative of what was probably Adobe’s headspace. I’m copping to being as privilege blind as they are (or at least their presentation team).

Sometimes I think privilege is like an armor that makes a person assume everyone else is wearing armor.

When I see a woman with bright red lipstick’s face turned upward into a smile, I assume the software works better with high contrast areas of color and that Adobe was pointedly aiming its new product at the beauty/fashion photo retouching industry. But it also makes complete sense for a woman who’s been told over and over in a patriarchal society to “smile, you’ll be prettier,” to read it another way. I’m even fascinated by my own reaction here, because I worked as a waitress and host for years and in that time I heard that bullshit with hateful persistency. It just didn’t occur to me in this context.


I think what I’m coming around to is that with the increase of social media and people’s access to everything (literally a world of information), companies and people can’t assume they have a small, granular audience. Adobe made a dumb mistake assuming its core audience of users would focus first on tech, second on their myriad lived experiences. I could — and some people probably will — accuse Adobe of assuming they didn’t have feminist (or hell, women) users... or not enough to matter. I honestly don’t think it’s that, but it doesn’t matter what I think or even if it’s true, because the net effect is the same.

Companies and people (public figures, for sure) are coming to a place where assuming any kind of granular audience reaction is a huge oversight. With the ease of social sharing and the speed at which information travels, a small user segment simply does not exist. It doesn’t matter if the people criticizing Adobe are its primary user group in any way, because they are still affected by Adobe’s marketing choices when they’re confronted with them. And from a business perspective, Adobe is regardless effected by irate non-consumers as much as consumers.


Not to mention that even if a small audience does happen exist, that doesn’t guarantee the audience isn’t more diverse than a person or company might expect.


Just to be clear: this isn’t meant to be a thesis or prescriptive in any way, really.