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Through a Design Lens: Exploring Eight Key Challenges of Ageing

When it comes to thinking about how successfully we might manage the future of an ageing society in the UK, it quickly becomes apparent that designers have a key role to play in reshaping the products, services, communications and environments that older people encounter everyday.  There is now unprecedented interest within the design industry in responding creatively to demographic change, but there remain major barriers to making progress. Here are some of the key challenges that need to be addressed.  


One: The Challenge of Definition

One of the most basic challenges for designers is to define what a growing demand for products and services for older people might mean. There is a tendency in design to lump all older people into one box called the ‘grey market’, to treat everyone over 55 as one homogenous group. But people in their early 60s are very different in outlook and capability from people in their late 80s. Also, older people are as diverse and complex a population sector as young people. Defining needs and behaviours right across the spectrum of an ageing society is a challenge not fully appreciated yet by the design community.  


Two: The Challenge of Transition

Another misconception among designers is that transitions in later life are generally smooth and calm – ‘a slow fade to grey’. However design research with older people indicates the opposite. Disruption, displacement and dependency – more typically associated with younger people – are also features of later life when you consider such events as cliff’s edge retirement from paid work, moving house from a family home to a small apartment in a different area, loss of a partner or spouse, or sudden dependency through ill health.  Attitudes to transitions in later life need to be rethought by designers.

Three: The Challenge of Digital Inclusion

More than 14 million people in the UK can be termed 'digitally excluded' and the majority of these are older people. Many older people cannot justify the costs of buying new tech devices or the complications of learning to use them. This means that they are missing out on the benefits of being online in terms of information and services. The challenge of technology in an ageing society is one of finding new ways to design for digital inclusion. Designers need to create more intuitive visual interfaces, perhaps based on pre-digital archetypes of communication such as chalkboards or storybooks, to make this happen.  

Design researchers from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design interview an older resident about using a stairlift as part of a project with Stannah  on introducing digital technology to monitor care within the home.


Four: The Challenge of Public Space

Public space has always been a hotly contested area for campaigners on behalf of older and disabled people. This remains the case today – even more so perhaps, given new developments in street design. For example, the trend towards ‘shared space’ in which familiar markers such as kerbs and railings are removed so that people and cars can share the space more freely, makes life extra-difficult for people with sight loss. In the rush to create more convivial street environments that remove the primacy of vehicular traffic, designers should also make sure they are also inclusive. 

Five: The Challenge of Economic Independence

Central to the debate about older people living ‘independent lives’, there is a growing school of thought that argues that independent living starts with economic independence. Keeping older people working – and therefore economically active – for longer is now a key economic priority for governments around the world. But the modern workplace environment, with its brutal focus on management efficiency, is a tough place to age in. More attention must be paid to workspace design for an ageing workforce.

Six: The Challenge of Hospital Care

Older people make more intensive use of hospital services and their stay in hospital is typically longer than young age groups. Designers need to be prominent in rethinking how we can take pressure off primary care centres such as hospitals by introducing more distributed and community based health services for older people, and by making hospital stays safer and more dignified for older people so that they are not exposed to abuse, distress or harm by catching infections or taking the wrong medication. 

Seven: the Challenge of Co-creation

The best way to develop the products, services and environments that ageing populations really need is to involve older people in a co-design process, as is increasingly common with other sections of the population. Innovative co-creation methods are widely used but not enough evidence exists in the design community on how to incentive older people to participate, how to address the ethical issues involved, and how to make the best use of their skills and experience.

Eight: the Challenge of the Unprecedented

The final challenge relates to the sheer scale of demographic change – it is, quite simply, unprecedented. The design implications of living longer are enormous – from more octogenarian drivers on the road to more people getting divorced and having second and third families. For designers, the road to producing better age-friendly design involves a journey into unknown territory. Nobody knows quite what it will look like.


About the author

Jeremy Myerson is the Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art and a Visiting Fellow in the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, University of Oxford. He co-founded the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the RCA in 1999 and was its Director for 16 years.

More on the design for ageing programme at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design can be found here:

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