Exactly 20 years ago, I was involved in a landmark project at the Royal College of Art with retail giant B&Q to develop a range of low-cost, lightweight, easy-to-use power tools that would make it easier for older people to carry out basic home improvements.
The project, which entailed ethnographic research with people with fading eyesight and reduced grip, resulted in the launch of two best-selling products: a pebble-shaped cordless screwdriver that was easier to hold and a palm sander with an innovative hand strap. The innovations were the work of a young RCA industrial design engineering graduate, Matthew White, who had never previously worked with an industry partner.
The branding and packaging for these new B&Q power tools was modern and mainstream, with no hint that they might be assistive devices. Their commercial success in the UK and in China was heralded at the time as a potent symbol of inclusive design, echoing the words of the gerontologist Bernard Isaacs who said: ‘Design for the young and you exclude the old; design for the old and you include everyone.’
Looking back at the project - one of several discussed in a new book I have written on the history of inclusive design as seen through the lens of the work of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the RCA – I am struck by how much the parameters of inclusive design have changed in recent times.
The B&Q power tools were, on balance, a reflection of a simpler age in which designing standalone aids and appliances to address the physical frailties of ageing could have market cut-through. Today the landscape of inclusive design has changed significantly.
Designers addressing the challenge of heathy ageing are required to design complex systems and services, not just single artefacts. They must take desirability, and not just usability, into account. They must consider not just access to the built environment but also access to the digital realm; they must prioritise mental health, and not just physical support and wellbeing. And current thinking is to build resilience in older people through therapeutic inclusive design which encourages positive activity, and not simply reduce friction and remove barriers.
Critically, the focus in design today is not just on physical access to everyday life for older and disabled people, but on a broader idea of social inclusion in which issues of race, ethnicity, gender and social equity are equally important. Indeed, many projects in inclusive design are now more concerned with taking a cultural 'deep dive' into the problem than with delivering a conclusive technical solution.
Where do all these substantive shifts in design leave today’s innovators, who are searching for a market with breakthrough ideas for healthy ageing? Will we ever again see simple, assistive screwdrivers and sanders designed by a novice researcher make such an impact, backed by the clout of a major DIY retailer? Despite the shifting tectonic plates in the field, I believe it’s still possible: there are some baseline innovation criteria that need to be met – and these haven’t changed over the past 20 years. Is the new design meeting a real, identified need? And have potential users been given sufficient opportunity to try things out?
What gave the B&Q project its edge was the degree of user involvement in the design development – the voice of the older customer was loud and clear, resulting in significant weight reduction of the power tools and a special focus on grip.
Too many projects today start with good intentions regarding the older consumer but then get deflected by other priorities, either political or commercial. Either way, the innovation misses its intended target. We may live in a complex world but, as we age, our desire for simplicity and clarity in the things around us has a tendency to grow rather than diminish.
About the Author
Jeremy Myerson is Professor Emeritus in the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of Art, and an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. Designing A World for Everyone by Jeremy Myerson is published by Lund Humphries.
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