I have a friend, Dot, who is now in her mid-eighties.
I have known Dot for over thirty years.
She is vivacious, generous, funny. Her name suits her perfectly.
Dot is lucky enough to have traveled a lot and loved every part of it.
She has this beautiful bracelet that I have admired (and kind of coveted) for these thirty years. It is a charm bracelet; it is a diary, a memory bank, a conversation starter. It is beautiful, precious, fitting (to her, to her world, and as an object).
Each charm represents a place she has visited: a gold tsarouhi (the traditional Greek moccasin worn nowadays only by the parliament guards in Athens), with a ruby standing in for a pom-pom; the Eiffel Tower for a visit to Paris; a prayer hand for the Vatican and another one for India; and so on. Each charm was crafted by a different artisan, and yet it all fits together perfectly. She has been wearing this bracelet ever since I met her.
On her other wrist, for the past few years, she has been wearing another device/appendage (I cannot bring myself to call it a bracelet)—what is commonly known as a panic button. Dot, like half of women over 75, lives alone but, happily, with her extended family close by.
The contrast between these two artifacts speaks volumes about our culture and the blind spot in designing for the experiences, needs, and increasingly more dynamic lifestyles of today’s older adults. We are taught as designers to engage with our users, exercise empathy, consider notions of dignity, delight, physical and emotional comfort, materiality, and materials.
Where were these considerations when designing this panic button? Newer versions are but a marginal improvement on the theme, with color palettes, overall aesthetics, ergonomics, and social functionality largely ignored. The same can be said for the majority of devices designed for older adults, with well-incorporated, stylish, and preventative solutions all but absent.
There is a design approach—inclusive design—that advocates for the design of products and services that “are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible… without the need for special adaptation or specialized design.1” A truly well-designed pill bottle should be easy to open whether you have arthritis or not. The OXO line of product—designed by Sam Farber after he noticed his wife Betsy, who suffered from mild arthritis, struggling with ordinary kitchen tools—is not used only by people with arthritis. But OXO by and large remains the exception to the rule in product, service, and communication design.
Age is a continuum. We grow older every day from the moment we are born. While our world and the majority of our devices are mostly designed to accommodate young, able bodies, we live in a time where the fastest-growing demographic is the over-sixty-five group, which incidentally holds 70% of the US’s disposable income.
You’re only as old as you feel, we like to say, age is only a number, but sometimes the number counts. Once we pass the milestone age of forty, it becomes more difficult to focus on objects up close because of presbyopia. This is a perfectly normal loss of focusing ability due to hardening of the lens of your eye. Restaurant menus, packaging labels, and promotional brochures all become constant reminders of this loss, and designers of these communication materials remain stubbornly unwilling to accommodate a large segment of their customers and consumers.
Physical strength drops by 60% after age forty, and every year one in four Americans over the age of sixty-five will experience a fall-related injury. We clad our children and athletes with helmets and shoulder- elbow- and knee-pads, made of performance materials with attractive designs and colors. We have countless options for measuring how fast we run and bike, for how long, and our peak performance, and have the ability to share this information with our peers in the spirit of competitive friendship, bragging rights, and collective encouragement. But how many attractive, well-designed garments and devices do we have for those over sixty-five who want to maintain good posture and balance, or prevent falls and injuries? How many engaging, non-condescending, and well-thought-out apps do we have to build community and coach, adapt, and prepare our bodies for their inevitable changes?
We treat aging as a disease, and in doing so we miss the opportunity to celebrate, cherish, and learn from all that comes with time and perspective. Or to quote the formidable Maggie Kuhn, the American activist and founder of the Gray Panthers movement, which she established in 1970 after she was forced to retire from her job at the age of 65, “[t]he first myth is that old age is a disease, a terrible disease that you never admit you’ve got, so you lie about your age. Well, it’s not a disease—it’s a triumph. Because you’ve survived. Failure, disappointment, sickness, loss—you’re still here.2”
For design and designers, the current shift in our demographics, both in terms of numbers and changing attitudes—this “longevity economy,” as it is also called—presents a unique opportunity to approach design as the social force it can be. Design is about planning, arranging, communicating, and enacting possibilities. It’s about structuring environments, presenting and directing messages, mores and attitudes.
As designers, we can do this by understanding the underlying structures of:
- Tools & Toolmaking: Do not give a person a fish, teach them how to fish.
The tools we develop and have access to create the fundamental infrastructure of possibility: creative, social, developmental, evolutionary.
- Ideology: Our designed (and built) environment is a direct reflection of what we value, what we want to protect, and how we see the world.
- Presence and engagement: How we choose to engage with those we design for, how present we are, and what kind of “presence” we want to create for them are important considerations.
What makes us human?
We have defined who we are in terms of what we can do and what we can make, and maybe even in terms of how we make it.
Homo habilis – the skilled human (or handy one): 2.4 to 1.4 million years ago
Homo erectus – the standing (upright) human: 1.89 million to 143,000 years ago
Homo sapiens – the human who knows (the wise human): 200,000 years ago
The wheel, invented around 3,500 BC, originated as a potter’s wheel. It took us humans three hundred more years to take it off the table, change its (and our) perspective, and allow the wheel to transform movement, and consequently industry. It is interesting to consider that the wheel was first put to use on the potter’s table, which made possible the creation of vessels that stored food and water, another significant moment in our human history. First, we store food and water, then we consider transport—a progressive shift from nomadic to agrarian to industrialized with the designing of tools and technology at the center of each shift.
As designers, it is worth pondering the set of circumstances, the context, and the participating forces that gave birth to that moment, in this case three hundred years later, that made someone, or most likely a group of people after many iterations, use something in a novel way and therefore transform the course of human history (and innovation).
As humans, we are fundamentally makers. We leave an imprint compulsively, starting with the original “I have been here” palm print from 35,000 BC at the Chauvet Cave in France.
We have been making ever since. We design and make artifacts in order to celebrate, express, connect, communicate, share symbols, belong, tell stories, and attribute intent.
We design the world around us to accommodate our daily rituals, to inhabit or adapt to inhospitable environments and conditions, and, I think, in order to share, love, and connect.
We do that with what we wear, how we construct our homes, and what we put in our pockets. As designers, we constantly evolve our practices and continuously adapt what is ready at hand. We do that with our portable environments as well as our spatial ones.
How we construct our spaces betrays not only where we are, but also where and who we want to be; they betray our entrenched ideologies and values. Our designed objects betray our relationship to how we want to live, and what and who we value. This became particularly evident when we started to conflate “contemporary” design with contemporary life shortly after WWI. cause and effect, literally constructed ideologies, part of our inexorable material culture,.
The Frankfurt Kitchen, designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in 1926, is a good example. A woman designs a kitchen for women, bringing together new materials, technologies, and devices, framing housework as labor and bringing notions of efficiency and rationalization into the domestic realm. Make no mistake—this was a major shift.
It is with this idea of “contemporary life” in mind that we start to connect categories in unexpected ways and investigate the potential of materials, the intersection of the industrial with the domestic, the manufactured with the “artistic” or “artisanal,” and therefore usher in a new set of possibilities both materially and societally (which of course are intrinsically connected).
Our shifting relationship to space and how it is organized is just one of the dimensions that design makes possible and documents at the same time.
Time is another construct that design can alter. Time creates change, materials change in time, bodies change in time. The temporal is also about the spiritual and the technical.
An artifactual reminder of this is the Naiku and Geku shrines in Japan, which are rebuilt every twenty years. The shrines are taken down and rebuilt in their entirety with new materials and fittings—a pointed reminder of the impermanence of all things, the possibility for renewal, the cyclical ways of nature, and the de-fetishization of the “material.” At the same time, this exercise serves another important and maybe surprising, in this context, function.While the historical provenance of the material (this stone, this bolt) is de-emphasized, the process and techniques embedded in building the shrines become the center of meaning. With each rebuild, the construction style and embodied knowledge are passed from one generation to the next through this brilliant strategy of cultural preservation in a world that struggles to find ways to retain vernacular architecture and technique.
4. Always On
As our world and the number of artifacts we interact with expand at an accelerated pace, so does our vocabulary, the signs and symbols we use—the very language(s) we use. We create new symbols so we can more readily interact with them, acquire control, and know how to turn them on and off. Think of the elegance of the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) Power Symbol, first appearing in 1973 as a graphical representation of ‘standby’ combining an I (closed electrical circuit) and an O (an open circuit) and officially recommended as the symbol for power in 2002 by the IEC after a three-year research project.
But maybe this symbol is already redundant, as we (and our devices) are now always on, and perhaps the next stage of our evolution is us as machines, dreaming of neuro-lacing human brains to machines, the human-cyborg par excellence. Will we need to we add a fourth to the lists of human evolution... homo machines—the human machine, or, the machine human?
We have been asking questions about the relationship between humans and machines since the mid-1950s, and in popular culture since shortly after, as exemplified in the 1957 film Desk Set, where Katherine Hepburn played a brilliant librarian pitted against a mega computer, designed and installed by Spencer Tracy.
In the end, the movie makes clear that the relationship between a human and machine relies on collaboration and in maintaining context that is deeply rooted in meaning, which in turn is inexplicably capricious and, therefore, human.
As we design new devices and interfaces to interact with each other and the world around us, we seem to be reinvigorating the mind-body bifurcation. It is as if the frailty of our bodies and their change over time is still too difficult to accept, and dealing with the mind, bypassing the body altogether, is a more palatable course to take.
5. Designer as Vision Setter
But before we commit to a cyborgian, neuro-interlaced future, maybe we should stop and re-examine the role of technology and its relationship to design today, as well as the opportunity for designers to set forth new ideologies of being and well-being.
Design is often defined as a practice that identifies problems, reframes them, and offers useful (and hopefully delightful) solutions. As the number of designed artifacts grows, so does their role in defining how we live and interact with our sense of self, each other, and our surroundings. With new materials and technologies being developed every day, the role of the designer has expanded to be one of connection-maker, of leveraging the opportunities afforded by each new material and technology, but also one of anthropologist.
And yet, it seems that these skills, this framing and re-framing, has a big blind spot — a 900 million-one, to be precise.
It is now widely acknowledged that by 2050, the global population of people aged sixty and older will rise to two billion, up from 900 million today. Every day in the United States, 10,000 people turn 65. Fifty percent of people born today will live to be a hundred years old.
Urban planners, health professionals, and all of us who are aging (and if we are lucky, we will age) talk of an aging society and of defusing the demographic time-bomb.
We also know that there are concrete changes in sensory and physical abilities that come with age—changes that the world around us, from font sizes on packaging and menus to the way apps, garments, furniture, public spaces, and houses are designed, do not account for.
It was not until 1990 with the passing of The Americans with Disabilities Act—the US’s first comprehensive civil rights law addressing the needs of people with disabilities and prohibiting discrimination in employment, public services, and public accommodations—that public space design started accommodating the needs of those with disabilities. Today, a public space without a ramp for a wheelchair-bound person would not only be against the law, but also considered poorly designed.
Will we look back with incredulity thirty years from now in our collective disregard for the needs of 900 million people? What will it take for the design community to start developing thoughtful solutions for older adults? Design, as Norman Potter reminds us in in the subtitle of his book What Is a Designer, deals with things, places, and messages. We need to start designing “things, places, and messages” that account for the needs and experiences of older adults.
So instead of looking at this growing demographic as a challenge, let’s consider how we can embrace the changing population as an opportunity to rethink, re-envision, and advocate through our material culture on how we want to live and who we value.
What will it take to start designing for Dot? What kind of mental shift do we need to make to collectively change our perspective, and consider the tools that we need to create to accommodate meaningful and well-supported experiences for the largest segment of our population?
Design is manifest ideology, and until we embrace transformation and shifts in time and space, and honor and value the embodied knowledge that comes with time spent as a human, we will always fall short as designers.