When I was editor of Creative Review in the mid-1980s, writes Jeremy Myerson, I skipped around London adland under a thick bush of black hair. Thirty years later, my hair is silver, my step is heavier and as someone keenly interested in design and communication for older people, I am gradually becoming my own case study…
This summer I step down as director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design after 16 years leading the Royal College of Art’s largest research centre – a unit dedicated to exploring the design implications of an ageing society. When I co-founded the centre with my colleague Roger Coleman in the late 1990s, the old and infirm were not really on the radar of the design industry. Ageing was not something that creatives wanted to contemplate.
A sector predicated on youth, speed, desire, freshness and novelty hardly had time for such marginal – and let’s face it, unsexy – interests. As a result, unattractive and ill-conceived aids and appliances for the aged proliferated in a special needs design ghetto; the only older person to appear in a car ad (although the over-50s buy most new cars) was Papa in the classic Papa and Nicole campaign for the Renault Clio, and Papa was of course chasing a younger woman.
Today the landscape has changed. Attitudes to ageing in design and communication have shifted perceptibly. What was marginal is now mainstream. It’s not just the demographic picture, which means that we now have more pensioners than teenagers in the UK. And it’s not just the inescapable fact that older generations retain the real spending power – all part of the inter-generational financial unfairness about which the priced-out young feel so aggrieved.
No, it has more to do with finding a much-needed replacement for the traditional medical model of ageing, which sees growing older as all about dependency, disease, decrepitude and death rather than as a natural and inevitable part of the life course. Designers and marketers have started to get a clearer sight of a social model of ageing in which the ‘third age’ is a productive and connected time, and worthy of attention. Some communication and brand outliers have even begun to grasp a cultural model of ageing in which there is something uniquely compelling and special about the culture of ageing. In this respect it has helped that so many of our cultural icons (from Mick Jagger to Joni Mitchell) are now well into pensionable age.
Back in the late 90s at the RCA, our challenge was to encourage the College’s brightest young students and graduates to actively engage with the design needs of older people, and to make the necessary creative investment. Our approach was based on three big ideas. The first was to recast design for ageing within the RCA as ‘design for our future selves’ – the underlying message: ‘hey guys, it’s going to happen to all of us’. The second big idea was to define and advance the principles of inclusive design – not design for a special needs group, but design for all, including the needs of older and disabled people in the general mix. We were much taken with 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”. We resolved that the needs of people who are ageing should set the inclusive standard by which all design should be judged.
The third big idea became the ‘engine’ that drove the centre – every year we gave jobs to around 10 new RCA graduates as Helen Hamlyn Research Associates, teaming them with partners in business and industry to explore new ideas titled at the demographic curve. At a time when there was general consensus around getting engineers and social scientists to think and act like designers, our modus operandi was to do exactly the opposite. We took highly skilled designers in a range of disciplines and showed them how to think and act like social scientists – our belief was that they should learn just enough about ethnographic research to capture user requirements and then take those insights into a creative design process.
In our very first year, we had RCA graduates working on the development of Heathrow Terminal 5 to explore how older travellers would find their way around Europe’s largest airport terminal, collaborating with Dyson to make vacuum cleaners easier to use, and investigating ways to make pharmaceutical packaging easier to read.
The early years saw some familiar targets for innovation and improvement – better kitchens and bathrooms for older people, better furniture and wheelchairs. We had an early market success with a set of low-cost, lightweight power tools for the home commissioned by B&Q, which became bestsellers in the UK and China. But as the digital revolution took shape, so our collaborations increasingly focused on digital inclusion for older people. We were amazed to discover that digital service providers were making exactly the same mistakes with older customers as kitchen and bathroom manufacturers had done many years before. Systems and interfaces designed by young computer nerds were hardly welcoming to ‘digital immigrants’ from the analogue era.
Healthcare was another growing area of interest. We became involved in several landmark NHS projects – to redesign the emergency ambulance, to reduce violence and aggression in A&E, to reduce medical error on surgical wards. Design for the workplace also swam into view as the pensions crisis forced up the retirement age.
At the same time we set up and ran for 10 years the DBA Inclusive Design Challenge with the Design Business Association – an initiative aimed at making the design industry more aware of how an ageing society changes everything.
Today it is clear that no self-respecting design team will dismiss inclusive design just as no self-respecting design team will ignore the needs of sustainability. But there is still some way to go. Stereotypes are hard to shift in the communication industry. Ethnographic research is more sophisticated than it was, but is still too often a superficial tick-box exercise or a placebo. There is still too much emphasis on need and disability and not enough on aspiration and ability. And the so-called ‘silver market’ is treated as a single homogenous grouping when it has just as many ‘tribes’ and different segments as the youth market.
There is also a fundamental misunderstanding by marketers that ageing is a constant – a slow and steady ‘fade to grey’. The opposite is true. 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.
However, as I move into a part-time research professor role at the RCA, I’m confident that the smoke will clear quickly around innovation and creativity for older cohorts. I’m encouraged too that the 150 or so design graduates from our centre are already generating great ideas in the marketplace. Demographic change is one of the very few things we can predict with any certainty – it’s time for the creative sector to respond.
A postscript: During our Terminal 5 project I once entertained a meeting of senior managers at the British Airports Authority with the simple observation that older people go to the toilet a lot in airport terminals. Tell us something we don’t know, they laughed. Well, I said, do you want to know why they go so often? They go in the loo to hear flight announcements. They have trouble listening to and reading information in large, busy, open concourses – ceramic-clad toilets have perfect sound and close-up graphics.
That insight led to a proposal for ‘acoustic arches’ in T5 – small, sealed spaces within the concourse. These information booths are today common in many of Europe’s airports, branded by advertisers and popular with passengers of all ages. It just goes to show that the study of our elders can be an alternative route to innovation.
Jeremy Myerson is the Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art. A writer, researcher and activist in inclusive design, he was editor of Creative Review from 1984-86