There is something powerful and durable about decorated nails. When painted, they can hold a color for days or weeks. Unlike makeup, they can withstand showers, sleep, rain, and work. When affixed, fake nails are a plastic power-play. Everyone else now knows you are more skilled because even reaching into a purse for keys requires some level of dexterity.
Joselyn McDonald, creator of press-on nail company Digits Nails, has always loved the specific sound that comes with fake nails.
"A woman typing with long nails on a keyboard is the best, most powerful sound in the world," says McDonald. There is something retro-glamour-working-woman about them, like Dolly Parton clacking away on a typewriter with her long pink talons in 9 to 5.
McDonald has a master's degree from Carnegie Mellon University’s Human Computer Interactions Institute. She works as a technology researcher and designer, but created Digits Nails last November as a way to make a product that she could control from start to finish.
The result is a collection of fruit-colored jelly-style nails, so named for their translucent resemblance to jelly sandals. Unlike acrylic nails, which are usually done in a salon and combine a monomer liquid with a polymer powder to form a paste sculpted onto the nails, press-on nails can easily and affordably be done at home.
Currently, she designs the nails herself and sends them out to a manufacturer, but the ultimate goal is to open a manufacturing studio in Pittsburgh and use recycled materials for the nails.
In addition to selling moderately-priced, reusable nails, McDonald experiments with Digits Nail Technologies, the research and development side of the project. She affixes various RFID tags (small tags that hold data) to nails, including a bus pass, credit card, and Giant Eagle Advantage card, each with Digits Nails colored to coordinate with the hue of its accessory.
McDonald felt there was a gap in the “stuck in time” press-on nail market, which largely consists of squared French tips sold at drugstores. But she also felt a lack of feminine design in the tech world.
When she recently presented her nail technologies at Community Processing Day, an event at CMU, McDonald loaded the presentation onto a USB drive attached to her nail. The others have been tested too; the Advantage Card scanned by a surprised cashier, the bus pass swiped in front of a confused driver.
"I'm trying to explore playful, humorous, femme-forward interactions with technology, but I really do think from a usability standpoint, the concept of having interactions embedded in your nails are also useful,” says McDonald.
Nail technology might seem zany in contrast to the sleek, serious, and masculine technological advances that we're used to. McDonald notes that much of technology has evolved to make people work faster and make life more efficient (smart phones, smart refrigerators, smart buttons that order toilet paper). Not coincidentally, technology is a field notoriously dominated by men, where it is difficult for women to even enter the room, let alone get a seat at the table. Technological innovations often reflect the sexism of its creators and are designed without consideration as to how women might interact with them.
McDonald offers the example of VR products, which are often designed without consideration for the size or spatial reasoning of women. Consequently, tools like the Oculus Rift fit worse and cause more nausea when used by women. Amazon recently threw out an employee recruiting algorithm because it showed a bias against women candidates. Twitter co-founder/CEO Jack Dorsey recently said he and his team "weren’t expecting any of the abuse and harassment” that has become common on the site (the company’s leadership is 70 percent men).
"I think nails are one interesting place, but there's a ton of other things we could potentially be leveraging that are seen as being associated with groups that don't necessarily get to control the development of technology," says McDonald.
Her creations are the antithesis in a field dominated by men, focused on seriousness and efficiency. After getting enraged at the tech world's latest goblin Billy McFarland while watching a Fyre Festival documentary, McDonald decided to rename the translucent orange nails she was about to launch as FYRE_FEST Orange, with 10 percent of sales going to the GoFundMe set up for the Bahamian workers who lost the most in the debacle. "I feel like that Billy fellow's energy and Digits Nails are like, exact opposite energies," she jokes.
McDonald's past projects have included co-founding Blink Blink, a company that designs creative STEM toolkits for young girls, researching how to laser-cut reusable pads, and designing an alarm necklace that goes off when touched with a corresponding ring.
These are the kind of inventions reminiscent of the early-2000s cartoon Totally Spies!, which featured three high school girls who doubled as international spies. Their weapons were always a modified version of teen girl staples: titanium drill heel boots, a data-processor pendant, laser lipstick. McDonald remembered she loved the show so much she wrote the network a letter when it stopped airing.
“I love this idea of thinking about how beauty and technology are this underexplored space that might afford really interesting, fruitful, inclusive opportunities to engage in the world,” says McDonald.
The ideas have always been there, they just need to be taken seriously.