Several years ago, Glen Hougan, an industrial designer by trade and design instructor at NSCAD University (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) (Canada), taught a class called Design for an Ageing Population. It was in teaching this class that he began to recognize how the language and methods used to design for the aging demographic (typically those 65 years of age and older) were rife with stereotypes and prejudices.

In looking at how ageism manifests in design, Hougan also found that information and research in this area was sparse. “Most of the common design frameworks used today involve adhering to universal design principles in which physical and cognitive accessibility issues are still mainly addressed. The problem is that the designed outcomes can still reflect and reinforce an ageist narrative.” 

Indeed, when we talk about designing for diversity, age is often not a primary consideration. “When we think about inclusivity, we imagine someone in a visual and physical way such as genders, races, ethnicities, or disabilities. Age is not necessarily high on our radar.” Thus, it becomes a sort of invisible demographic most of the time.

In order to better understand and convey the lived experiences of the aging population, Glen designed a full body suit that would simulate some of the physical conditions of getting older. He worked with fashion designers to develop a set of body restrictors that would limit one’s range of motion and movement. “Unfortunately, in using it as a tool in education and in workshops, it mainly reinforced every negative stereotype one fears about getting older – hunched over, shuffling and in pain.” He now refers to it as his ‘ageist suit’ and uses it in workshops to foster conversation about the perceptions and fears of ageing and how they can influence how one designs for this age group.

Through his work, Hougan strives to challenge ageist stereotypes and shift the design narrative away from one of frailty and senility – a narrative that has only been reinforced by the pandemic. He does so by focusing on designing with dignity, which addresses a larger context related to the person’s experiences, relationships and environments. “There needs to be a more holistic view of design language and intent when designing for this age group. There needs to be a greater understanding of the diversity and needs of this age group and there also needs to be a greater focus away from designing around facilitating their disabilities and decline and more on facilitating their abilities and growth.”

“We tend to view this older age group as monolithic. When in fact we are talking about a group that could be sixty-five or ninety-five years old. That thirty-year span is like viewing someone who is twenty the same as someone who is fifty.”

Outside of donning an ageist suit, Glen notes that to better understand the experiences of older individuals, designers can start by acknowledging their own biases, to look beyond mere functionality and usability and incorporate a sense of humility, curiosity and attention to end-user interactions with this age group.

So while “ageism is just one part of this now larger discussion designers are having about widening the design lens to include more diversity”, it is unlike other forms of discrimination in that it is more of a “prejudice against our feared future self.” Aging however, is universal, it’s something that most will experience – making it more important that the products and services designed for this demographic are done so from a place of empathy, understanding and dignity.

Interesting in learning more about ageism in design? Don’t miss Glen’s session on the topic as part of WDO’s upcoming 24-hour virtual event ‘let’s talk: diversity’ on 28-29 June 2021. To register for the event, visit  

Glen Hougan is Associate Professor in Design at NSCAD University in Halifax (Canada), and Principal of Wellspan Research and Design – a design consultancy focusing on healthcare and design for an ageing population. He has spent more than 10 years working on products and designs focused on supporting older adults to age with dignity. His work in this area has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and on PBS.

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