We are all aging. As much as we don’t like to dwell on this fact, it is one that is becoming increasingly important for our society, and in particular our design profession, to address as much of our population reaches retirement age. The aging of the Baby Boomer generation combined with scientific and technological breakthroughs that continue to extend average life expectancy will have an impact on how we address the needs of the aging. Increasingly designers will be influenced by a number of factors related to our aging population. We must consider changing healthcare delivery systems and new technologies that support the needs of the aging and the environments in which they age. Simultaneously, we must consider how to support those who will spend more active years in retirement.
At the January Design Museum Morning, hosted by the Design Museum Boston and IDEO, Jose Colucci presented six compelling points on the importance of and ways to address design for aging.
We must meet our future selves: empathy on the part of designers is essential to addressing the needs of aging individuals. The easiest way for individual designers to generate empathy for an aging population is to project their own needs and desires as an individual into the future of an older self.
Nobody is defined by their age: while developmentally, infants and children may all have similar needs and experiences, as we age individuals become increasingly unique. Designers must recognize that not all individuals of a certain age have the same needs or desires.
We all like “doing it”: no matter what our age, people all generally have aspirations, desires and needs. Just because a person is over a certain age does not mean that they aspirations that they had at a younger age end or change.
Design stealth: while universal design is something that designers often strive for, design elements that specifically address the needs of people who are aging are more successful if they are incorporated but are not explicit or advertised. Design for the aging can be incorporated simply as good design.
The silver have gold: not only is the Baby Boomer generation one of the largest living generations and rapidly reaching retirement age, they also hold three-quarters of our nation’s wealth. This makes them an important demographic for designs and brands. However, it is important to remember that this wealth is not evenly distributed. We need to support and address the needs of aging individuals with less monetary resources as much as we pay attention to those with buying power.
There is no country for old men (or women): As a society we do not address the transition to end of life well. As a larger percentage of us age and we continue to increase the number of years that we live, we must think about how to make those years fulfilling, engaging and meaningful for all of us.
Each of Jose’s points was accompanied by examples IDEO projects that address design for aging. The points that struck a particular chord with me as they apply to the design work at Payette are those that focused on design empathy and design stealth.
As architects of healthcare and research spaces many of the people who will use our buildings are in situations that we as designers will never experience. Most architects will never know what it is like to stand at a lab bench all day, experience the stress of an emergency room shift, or need to relearn how to walk in a rehabilitation facility. We hope that none of us will have to be treated in an intensive care unit or have a loved one undergo lifesaving surgery, although there are certainly some of us who have had or will have experiences with some of the types of spaces we design. For designers of healthcare and research spaces, developing empathy is particularly important because we are designing for people who are inherently not like ourselves or who work in professions that give them unique experiences that we are not likely to encounter. Because the types of spaces that we design are technically complex it can often be easy to focus on the aspects of design that increase efficiency or reduce cost. While these elements of our projects are certainly important, we must not lose sight of the people for whom we design. The tools we use to discover the technical or programmatic requirements for our projects, such as shadow studies and mock-ups, can also be used to help us as designers develop empathy for the different types of people, who will work, collaborate, heal and be healed in the spaces we design.
Considering all the different kinds of people who will use the spaces that we design was a key element in the idea of stealth design described in Jose’s point number four. In describing what he means by stealth design, Jose referenced the concept of universal design, a movement that evolved from accessibility requirements that champions the incorporation of design elements that go beyond accommodating users with disabilities to making spaces easily usable by anyone. Jose posited that stealth design goes one step beyond universal design by incorporating design elements that service the needs of all, but without being explicit about the incorporation of design elements targeted at supporting the needs of a specific group or user. He used the example of developing a new dashboard design for Ford that incorporated color schemes and displays that are more easily read by people who have reduced eyesight. Particularly because as we age we can often become more sensitive about reduce physical capabilities, advertising special design features for the aging user might actually make them less likely to purchase or use a product with that extra feature. Instead, incorporating features that support all users, regardless of restricted mobility or reduced eyesight or hearing simply becomes good design and all users benefit.
When I consider how this applies to the projects we undertake at Payette, I think of how we design casework for laboratories or public entrances to buildings on sloped sites. Selecting easily adjustable casework for laboratories gives researchers the flexibility to install new equipment over time and creates ergonomic working conditions for all researchers. It does so no matter their height or potential need for a wheelchair, not as a special design feature but as matter of course. Alternately, a design solution that creates a beautiful entry by regrading a sloped site through landscape rather than installing a ramp beside a stair stealthily allows all to access a building without ‘shouting’ about the accessibility features.
While the Design Museum Morning on Design for Aging focused on design ideas, projects and considerations that are specific and important to addressing the needs of an aging population, what inspired me most were the points about making good design for everyone.