Designing for an ageing population has become so familiar in recent years that it can be hard to remember a time when it was not a mainstream practice and positioned only at the margins of research into the lives of older people.
The human-centred design principles around using empathy, user research, co-creation and rapid prototyping to address the needs of older people are today well-rehearsed. The rise of design thinking as an innovation process which brings non-designers such as social workers, policymakers, carers and others into the creative frame, has further helped to advance activity in the field.
But despite this, many of the problems around designing for an ageing population remain stubbornly tough to crack, especially at those points where medical care and social care intersect. It is here that challenges become especially complex, problems are wicked, and system design is all-important. Many designers trained to address individual products, communications or environments are left struggling to cope with the bigger interconnected picture.
This leads to a cold reckoning for the design community for whom an ageing world is an important focus. What if the much-vaunted disciplines of human-centred design and design thinking are no longer broad and deep enough to meet the challenge? Ageing, in common with other societal challenges such as climate change, social inequality, mental health and the role of AI and automation, is expanding fast as a problem in terms of speed, scale and impact. So, shouldn’t the repertoire of design be expanding too?
That is the thesis of a short, well-argued and provocative business book Expand: Stretching the Future of Design by Christian Bason, CEO of the Danish Design Center and a political scientist by background, and Jens Martin Skibsted, a designer. In making their argument for an expanded design methodology that stretches beyond ‘toasters and posters’, the authors dissect the limitations of design thinking as a popular, all-pervasive approach and rail against the technological determinism of Silicon Valley for its narrow idea of social innovation.
I had the opportunity to quiz Bason in January 2023 in a Royal College of Art webinar alongside the leading academic and design strategist Mariana Amatullo of Parsons School of Design, New York. We discussed several ‘expansions’ that are proposed in the book and are relevant to designing for an ageing society. These include time (longer timeframes for projects to move beyond the ‘quick fix’); proximity (the authors advocate hyper-local, place-based interventions); value (such as extracting more value from a circular economy); and life (rethinking the boundaries between life and death, and between the digital and the biological – from cloned body parts to robots).
What emerged from our conversation with Christian Bason was the wealth of new opportunities for design research to influence societal challenges at the system scale – to shift ‘from human-centred design to humanity-centred design’. The Danish context and city in which Bason works is instructive. Copenhagen remains a low-rise, cycle-friendly urban environment that regularly tops the charts for happiest citizens. ‘Getting to Denmark’ is a well-known phrase for describing how better health and economic outcomes can be planned and designed.
In the same way that inclusive design has informed us about the physical world in recent years, Bason wants to see a better understanding of how the immateriality of the virtual world and the blurring boundaries between the public, private and civic sectors are set to change things.
In Expand, the authors quote the legendary US industrial designer Charles Eames who, when asked to define the boundaries of design, replied: ‘What are the boundaries of problems?’ It’s clear that as society evolves, design must evolve too. As governments and businesses around the world step up the search for new solutions to support healthy ageing, there’s a feeling that one era of design for ageing is ending and another is yet to become fully formed.
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.
Photograph courtesy of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of Art
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