Design for older people sucks. Here are four ways to fix it

Image: Getty

Stefan Sagmeister and Don Norman on designing for sixty-somethings.

Alive Ventures is a venture studio catalysing a new generation of design-led companies to help create an aspirational design culture anchored by the beauty of later life. This movement aims to elevate consciousness of what older adults already know as truth: experiences of love, work, vitality and friendship become deeper and richer with age. The studio believes this truth should be reflected in beautifully designed products and services for older adults.

Beginning in May, Alive Ventures launched a series of ongoing panels titled “Old People are Cool, Design for Them Sucks”, aiming to open up a discussion with the design community on how to better design for older adults. John Zapolski, founder of Alive Ventures, and design thought leader Ayse Birsel of Birsel + Seck, hosted the series of discussions, with guests including design luminaries such as Stefan Sagmeister and Don Norman.

We’ve boiled their conversations down into a quick-reference guide on how to think differently about designing for adults aged over 65. 

1. Older people have the most experience living, and we can learn a lot from them

The life experiences we gain as we age teach us about what we truly value, and how to be more successful in nourishing these values and outcomes in our lives. Those of us who have lived the longest have built skills for editing out the 'have to’s' and concentrating more on the 'want to’s', focusing on maintaining friendships, discovering and nurturing love and intimacy, working for purpose and meaning and empowering ourselves in our daily lives. If we draw from this wisdom, we can build products and services that recognise and support these wants and needs. 

John Zapolski, founder of Alive Ventures, explained: “I’ll admit that I started off thinking how the older people that we talk with will probably have a lot of complaints about how products are hard to use and how environments aren’t really built for them. And that when you get older you encounter a particular set of challenges. And I think most of us who don’t bother to think about life when we’re older too often, just imagine the experience of getting older as becoming increasingly sick, and increasingly frail, and increasing alone.

“And yet what we saw from talking to older people from across the country is that there’s such incredible vibrancy. That there’s a wisdom about life. Not just in a sage stroke-your-beard kind of way but in everyday ways, too.”

“People have gotten better at editing out the kinds of friendships that aren’t real friendships 
and just spending time with those who are important to them,” continues Zapolski. “They’ve gotten better at knowing what to say 'yes' to. Something that they really care about rather than just accepting the pressure to say 'yes' to the things that many of us do early in our lives because we feel like we’re supposed to (for somebody else).

“And that was such a beautiful experience to have. It made me look forward to that time in life, where you’re maybe the most yourself. And I thought what an amazing opportunity to design products and services that help people celebrate that they are the most 'themselves'. And how they are in relationship to their work, and how they are in relationship to their families, and how they are in relationship to their purpose.”

2. Older adults want beautiful design, too

Throughout the “Old People are Cool, Design for Them Sucks” series, panelists shared their insights on how getting older doesn’t suddenly mean losing your sense of taste. If we all want to use beautiful things, can ‘ugly’ design mean the total rejection of a product by its intended user?

Stefan Sagmeister, renowned graphic designer, shared, “If you look at [design for] cruise ships, I mean it could not be worse. And so clearly somebody thinks, somehow magically that when people hit 60 they lose all taste, and they lose all sense of beauty and quality and are now into this ugliness. It’s amazing to me.”

Stefan Sagmeister portrait, Alive Ventures

Don Norman, author of seminal tome The Design of Everyday Things, had a similar perspective. When his 99-yr-old father was moving into a retirement home, he witnessed the way older adults rejected unattractive design.

“When I would visit him in retirement homes, I would see people who needed walkers and wouldn’t use them because it was a stigma,” said Norman. “They were so ugly and it sort of shouts out to the world, ‘Hey I’m old and crippled and therefore probably feeble minded as well,’ right? Well no, it’s wrong. And so I noticed that, but I didn’t pay much attention until I myself reached my eighties and started looking at my friends and other things and realised that, yes, people shunned a lot of things that are being made to help them because they don’t like to admit publicly they have problems.”

Unfortunately, older adults receive the brunt of bad design, with product designers seemingly forgetting that older adults want beautiful products and services, too. This bad design tends to start with the narrative that older adults are sick, frail and alone, so designers solve for these things. Recognising older adults as full, three-dimensional human beings who want the same things we want, can help to start framing how to draw on high quality design techniques everyone looks for in the products and services they purchase.

3. Inviting older adults into the design process produces products and services that can better serve them

Older people actually have many of the same desires as younger people. But to truly understand how to apply these into great products and services for them, we must design with them.

“So much of how we design for older people is about someone else's notion of what an older person wants, and we don’t spend a lot of time asking older people what it is that they want for themselves,” said Zapolski.

It’s this non-inclusive approach that produces products like poorly designed walkers, for instance. Most products and services created for older adults are created by someone who has direct experience with an older adult's challenge. Innovation tends to be led by the child or grandchild of an older adult, who develops a solution for a perceived problem experienced through caregiving. The problem with this is that the solution primarily  benefits the caregiver. If the product is a 'success,' it's often sold into the healthcare system. Products developed in this way aren’t solving the actual needs or wants of the older adults themselves. 

To answer how to design products that older adults actually want, we must invite them into the design process. Alive Ventures has done the research and has developed a system of co-designing with older adults to better understand what types of things they need to live full, three-dimensional lives. You can read the full research report here, but Ayse Birsel, who participated in leading this research, summarised the findings as:

“They basically told us, ‘if you want to understand what we want, just think about your own life. We want the same things, but how we can get to them is different.’ And that really changed our thinking, our perspective on products for older people.

“We realised, there's a whole kind of category of products around those four themes of love, work, vitality and friendship, that [older people] are hungry for... except, nobody has provided an answer.”

4. Inclusive design benefits everyone

When designing a product, starting with a particular set of challenges in mind for one group can actually benefit everyone. If this approach is applied by starting with the set of challenges affecting older adults, we can create a better product experience inclusive to them.

Don Norman zeroed in on how this applies to older adults with kitchenware brand OXO: “Sam Farber, who I used to know because we were both on the board of the Institute of Design in Chicago, his wife had arthritis, so he tried to help her. He said you can’t use a vegetable peeler, so he tried to design a better vegetable peeler.

“He spent a year or two working on it, making a bigger handle, and he worried a lot about the materials used.

“When he finished it was a wonderful vegetable peeler. It was a lot more expensive than the existing ones, but he was very clever and I learned a lesson from him. He said he did not advertise it for people with arthritis because if he did that, all the people with arthritis would say, ‘I don’t need anything special just for me.’ And all the people who didn’t have it would say, ‘well I don’t have arthritis.’

“Instead, he advertised it as a better vegetable peeler. And so, lots of people tried it and discovered it was. And so the word of mouth took it to great success. And the people with arthritis, they soon discovered this and they told each other.” 

“Don’t say we’re going to design for the old, feeble people. We’re going to design for everybody,” said Norman. “We need to make sure that all people fit in the world, not just the young and able.”

All illustrations courtesy of Alive Ventures.

Related: The Best Design Books, with Don Norman and more

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn't affect our editorial independence. Learn more.

Read Next...