Design that Lasts - Eyeshadow

By Alison Hu, Youngryun Cho, Rachel Legg, and Ann Li


Eyeshadow is a staple cosmetic used to emphasize the eyes. Although common, its lifecycle rarely follows a linear path of purchase, use, and disposal. As a product that varies in form and presentation, the use of eyeshadow is connected to many functional, social, and artistic contexts that impact lifespan and value.

This analysis pairs research with observations from personal experiences to conduct an overview of the complex nature of eyeshadow.

Initial exploration of themes and topics

Meaning of Makeup

The significance of eyeshadow extends beyond surface functionality–often essential to a look, it also reveals personalities and preferences. Eyeshadow originated in Ancient Egypt, where kohl was used to darken and accentuate the eyes. Once a medicinal remedy to reduce infections and glare, it became an indicator of status and religious dedication, worn during ceremonies to emulate the gods. In Greece and Rome, eyeshadow was only accessible to the upper class, portraying wealth and status.

As this practice evolved, the 1920’s fashion revolution began to introduce modern cosmetics as a form of artistic creativity. Eyeshadow became a cornerstone for expression, enabling bold experimentation in appearance. In recent years, makeup culture has erupted across digital platforms, spawning novel professions, media representations, and innovative, unconventional applications. The notion of makeup artistry has popularized the role of makeup in self-expression. Originally rooted in functionality, eyeshadow connects to a rich history of identity, personality, and culture.

A brief history of modern eyeshadow

Product Lifecycle

Cosmetic life-expectancies are complex and undefined, with vague disposal guidelines. Preliminary research presents three options, all centered around container disposal:

  • Seal products tightly and throw them away
  • Clean containers and disassemble them for pick-up recycling
  • Send empty containers to third-party recycling programs.

The destination and environmental impact of unused product is unclear.

Defining and improving means of disposal is moot, however, if that point is never reached. Most individuals avoid discarding cosmetics, but product possession doesn’t necessitate use. It’s common for people to only wear 2–3 shades in a palette, holding on to the rest even if they’re never used.

A beloved three-year-old palette…only a quarter used

Despite expiration dates, people stockpile cosmetics for much longer than recommended– changes in quality are often imperceptible, and discarding unused product feels wasteful. Without definitive resolutions to this life-cycle, efforts to promote sustainable disposal practices are premature.

When should you toss it? Never–in extreme cases, people hold on to their cosmetics for 50+ years (Reddit)

One for All

Upon comparing our own palettes and experiences, we were able to uncover that everyone’s makeup collection is different, capturing a uniqueness that reflects physical attributes and stylistic preferences. Eyeshadow is used to highlight features of the face, creating a form of self-expression through different colors and textures.

Left: this NYX campaign celebrates the LGBTQIA+ community and ballroom culture. Right: Fenty Beauty is a model brand that aims to embrace all skin tones, as seen by these eyeshadow swatches

Over the years, makeup has grown increasingly inclusive, giving more people the ability to explore and express themselves. Product expansions consider wider ranges of skin tones, along with increasing gender fluidity and acceptance. With offerings ranging from inexpensive children’s makeup to high-end, luxury palettes, audience preferences affect price, style, and quality, in turn shaping everyone’s makeup journey differently.

Reflection of Self

When first entering a space, we rely on anecdotal knowledge, lacking the primary experience otherwise referenced in decision-making. But hand-me-downs and recommendations only go so far. The iterative process of experimenting, discarding, and committing to the ideal product, routine, and application method for you– this cycle of trial and error facilitates intimate bonds between user and object, creating loyal attachments that often subvert rationale.

In partaking in this intimate and introspective practice, we fully immerse in the act of care– often the closest we can get to self-indulgence, while remaining just within bounds of socially acceptable “vanity” and “superficiality”. In “making up” one’s appearance, individuals are allowed space to do something entirely for themselves; something that emphasizes individuality or brings them closer to the median standard, satisfying both paradoxical urges to blend in and stand out.

The results are deeply unique, reflective of personal choice and mindset– color, formula, packaging, application– the physicality of each product manifests the near history, current priorities, and distant desires of its owner. Showcasing this connection between ownership, attachment, and experimentation are four distinct “palettes” representing unique journeys, preferences, habits, physiologies, and philosophies.

Anecdotal research derived from the authors’ personal experiences

In this manner, makeup takes on a deeply intimate role in one’s life, both as a practice and as an object. Colored by imposed values and personal ontogenies, this intimacy is expressed in high levels of variation across individual preferences and usage mindsets. Makeup becomes a protective mask, open canvas, perfecting filter, or meditative ritual. As this centuries-old practice evolves, we begin to look past makeup as a form of concealment or signaling for others– instead, we lean into natural instincts to self-adorn; to apply cosmetics for ourselves; to experiment, to adapt, and to feel good.

Design that Lasts | Spring 2022
School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University




Design @ Carnegie Mellon

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Ann Li

Ann Li

Design @ Carnegie Mellon

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