How can we encourage better design for older people?
The UK is getting older. Birth rates are declining and people are living longer. Yet the world we inhabit, the products and services which we surround ourselves with, are often not appropriate to our needs. Designers who up till now have been focussed on the youth market need to be persuaded to turn their attentions to life as it now is for many people and deliver products which work for everyone.
The idea of inclusive design is not new. Since the 1990s there has been a move to encourage designers to consider a wider audience but progress has been slow with older adults reporting that many goods and services in the UK are not attractive or easy to use.
However, I think things are set to change. We are at a pivotal moment for this area of design. Older adults not only want better products but for the first time many have the spending power to buy them. Couple this with the changes to the statutory provision of assistive technology and the opportunity for this emerging market becomes apparent.
But whilst many businesses can see the potential commercial benefits, there is still a reluctance to get involved often because of a perceived stigma and negative associations with old age.
So, do we need more regulation or legislation? Certainly energy and telecommunications businesses should be encouraged to innovate and design inclusively. And it makes sense to require inclusive design to be integral to public procurement.
But regulation should not come at the cost of individual creative effort. Many of the good new designs I have seen over the past couple of years have been developed by small businesses, new designers and social enterprises. They have been driven not by the fear or impetus of regulation but in most cases by individual passion and determination to overcome a problem or meet a need.
And therein I think lies the key. Good inclusive design is all about empathy. When I first launched the "Designing for the Future" competition with the University of Brighton three years ago, there was some scepticism about how it would be received amongst the students. Designing for the old was not seen as particularly exciting or glamorous. However as the competition has progressed, perceptions have changed. Whilst we have seen some interesting and innovative gadgets and assistive aids, other designers have sought to engage profoundly with the experiences of ageing and by far the most successful designs have resulted from personal experience of the needs of an older person.
There is something very powerful about a younger person designing for an older person. The student is responding to the older adult's needs and aspirations whilst at the same time the older adult is acknowledging the younger designer's skill and creativity. Intergenerational interaction at its best.
And I believe that partnership is the key. In the UK we are fortunate to have world leading creative industries and Universities, an influential and successful social enterprise and charitable sector and an increasingly entrepreneurial workforce. Together we ought to be able to deliver a new generation of products and services which is fit for purpose as we all get older.
Philippa Aldrich is the founder of The Future Perfect Company (www.thefutureperfectcompany.com), which promotes and sells good design for an ageing population. She runs the "Designing for the Future "competition which encourages student designers to consider the challenges of getting older.