Throughout the month of January, Icsid is exploring the relationship between design and ageing – the way products age and become obsolete, the way people rely on design as they grow up and grow older.

Icsid approached IDEO’s Associate Partner Gretchen Addi, who is currently leading the company’s efforts to build a domain of work in the ageing space; and Partner Blaise Bertrand, an industrial designer. Together they shared their thoughts on designing for different life stages and some of the largest myths and stereotypes in the industry when it comes to designing for the elderly.

Q: How do you define design for ageing? Are there certain criteria that outline an aged person for whom you are designing?

We don’t think of it as designing for “ageing” as we are all ageing, just at various stages of the experience, so it is too broad of a question to design to. We do design for life stages – for the needs that a child, mother or an older adult have – and for context – for older adults living in a senior community or a shopping centre to serve a multigenerational clientele.

How one defines “aged” is also challenging. Is it everyone 60+? That is a broad demographic of several generations; each with their own values and needs. We have lots of stereotypes and misconceptions about what it means to age, to get older, that we need to put aside so we can focus on the real needs of real people.

Q: How do you differentiate designing for an ageing population and designing for a disabled population. Are there commonalities?

“Ageing” is a continuum we are all experiencing, an arc over time, ever changing, so you approach it as moments or stages.

“Disabled” can mean many things and it might be better to use a more specific language. “Universal Design” is a very abstract concept that designers use but it is ultimately about being inclusive, designing in a way that is barrier-free, accessible for all.

Yes, there are commonalities. You often here the phrase, “if you design for children and older people, you design for everyone” which is essentially universal design and a true statement. We are all challenged in some way, momentarily or permanently and design needs to respond to these challenges. Design continues to celebrate a medical necessity like eyeglasses, so why not a lot of other challenges that people face every day.

Q: Should all products be designed to be more empathetic and universally usable by a large audience? Or is there still an argument to create and market different products to different sectors of the population?

This depends on whether you are designing for a system, which is broad and universal, versus a specific product. How it scales tells us how to design.

For example, we are in the process of working with LA County to design a voting system that must be universally designed in order to be inclusive and accessible for all citizens. At the same time, designing a pair of eyeglasses by incorporating a new technology that solves some of the stigmas and challenges of bifocals is specific to people with presbyopia.

Q: Have any trends in designs for an ageing population emerged? Certain preferable materials or colours or technologies?

Through our research we have found that no one wants to buy something designed for older people.

Technology must be intuitive, easy to use and the more it functions in the background, the better. Many older adults did not grow up with technology so the value proposition to adopt it has to be strong because, unlike many younger people, they don’t desire it just because it is the latest and greatest thing. This will eventually go away from a generational perspective but one can argue that not everyone embraces technology with the same fervour. Product examples here are the iPad or the Nest energy efficient thermostats and smoke/CO detectors.

People who have over 40 years of experience buying products and services, understand quality and service so as a result their expectations are high. The experience also matters and when it doesn’t live up to its promise there is an issue. A myth about older people having brand loyalty – some companies think it’s better to target the youth market who is at the early phase of brand discovery – it is exactly that, a myth.

Personality matters – your are no longer buying to fit in, to find a partner, for family – now it’s finally just for you again and you are ready to customise and express yourself, but with a conscience. Examples here from the automotive sector are Toyota’s Scion XB, the Mini Cooper and Volkswagen Beetle, which appeal to both first time buyers and over 50 buyers.

Q: Throughout your professional experience working and speaking on design and ageing, have you noticed parallel changes in other industries?

The ageing population is a timely topic in the developing world but it is ultimately a theme that touches us all and is highly predictable. Sustainability and environmental challenges also impact us all. Currently, there is momentum in the developing world to raise consciousness and respond. We see a similar momentum building around taboo topics like death and end of life, but in a much earlier stage of development.

Q: Finally, can you tell us a bit about the DesignsOn-Ageing programme? How do you recruit designers or designs? What is the process in terms of production and bringing these solutions to market?

Designs On is an internal initiative at IDEO that encourages designers to explore outside their everyday client project constraints, to push and question the edges of a topic through tangible outcomes. The concepts are not for production but to provoke a dialogue and to advance a conversation around a particular topic. Any designer within the company can participate – we support their efforts through inspirations, experts, and brainstorms but intent is that work is done in the spaces between project work. There have been a few cases of that passion continuing and a concept coming to life but it is not the intention of the initiative.

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