Designed for Life

By Patricia Moore

In 1974, as the only female industrial designer at Raymond Loewy's New York Office, I was accustomed to the more than occasional feeling that the boys yearned for the time when they weren't expected to watch their language or the content of conversation in the shop.

But it was at meetings, when I raised my concern about a concept or solution that would be difficult and even dangerous for some consumers to manage, that I most often sensed their wish that I would simply go away.

"Excuse me," I cautiously interrupted. "Couldn't we design the refrigerator door so that someone with arthritis would find it easy to open?"

Eyes rolled, pencils were slammed on the table, and the typical response filled the room.

"Pattie. We don't design for those people!"

Those people.

Those people?

If one of the largest and most renowned design firms in the world wasn't tending to the needs of "those people," then who was, and more important, why weren't we?

Disabling Design

How was it possible to create a product and not consider all potential consumers? Why would we deliberately design a solution that would preclude efficient, safe and pleasurable use by every person who wanted to purchase the product? What was the rationale of the design community in eliminating people as consumers on the basis of what they couldn't do?

Shouldn't designers be responsible for developing features, for any and every product and place, which consider each consumer's capacity and embrace their individual capabilities as a reasonable context for use?

Universal Design is an approach to the design of products and environments that makes them useable by people with the widest possible range of abilities.  [Center for Universal Design]

You are desperately trying, and failing, to find that elusive place in the airport where you will actually be able to hear the person on your cell phone.

You juggle the grocery bags, a purse and your toddler as you try to unlock the door and turn the knob to enter your home, or you are struggling to open the shampoo bottle with your already wet and soapy hands, as someone flushes a toilet and the scalding water causes you to surf to safety on the tub mat or fall onto the hard and unforgiving bathroom floor. Or you take life and limb in hand as you teeter on a kitchen chair to change the bulb in the ceiling fixture.

When the variables of anomaly of birth, the effects of illness, or the results of injury create a cognitive or physical condition, traditionally described as disability, combine with everyday challenges, our quality of life, our autonomy and independence, hangs in the balance.

We are made unable, by design.

Currently, 31,248,831 Americans are over the age of 65 (13 percent of the U.S. population), and by 2030, these people will number 21 percent of the total population. One in three Americans can be described as coping and living with a cognitive or physical condition which creates a need for compensatory means to achieve the activities of daily life. And the entire population lives and works with family and friends whose lives are defined by issues of age or ability.

"Those people."

Experiencing the Future

And so, in 1979, I undertook an amazing journey into the future. I determined to explore life as it might be for a woman in her 80s, a woman physically changed by the course of time; a woman living in a youth-driven culture.

Through extensive prosthetic alteration of both my physical appearance and abilities, I was able to transform my body from that of a woman of 26 years to a woman of more than 80 years of age.

With variations in dress, I became women of different levels of social status. Hidden prosthetics blurred my vision, reduced my natural level of hearing and altered my posture and range of motion, for the portrayal of a variety of levels of health and personal ability. With the use of canes, walkers and a wheelchair, I was able to approximate reduced mobility and confront physical and emotional inaccessibility.

While I was in character, I traveled to more than 100 cities throughout the United States and Canada. I experienced, firsthand, the reaction of people, younger and weller, who, upon encountering an older woman, a physically challenged woman, chose either to support my presence or look the other way. I was shown kindness, friendship and love. And I experienced rejection, hatred and fear.

Patricia Moore experiencing life as an older woman   [Bruce Byers]

I was attacked by a gang of young boys on an isolated city street, mugged, beaten and left for dead. The injuries I sustained have left me with permanent challenge and constant pain.

When I reemerged, as a woman of 30 years, I was forever changed, both as a person and a professional. The love and respect for my grandparents that had inspired my journey as an elder had been melded with a personal experience with the impact of ageism and the neglect of appropriate design. A passion for inclusive creations for the total human lifespan was born with a dedication to universal solutions, by design.

With all of our good intentions, it would appear that the design community has often done little more than fill student portfolios with the best intentions and then professionally perpetuate myths and misconceptions, failing to meet real consumer needs. The results have been product and environmental design that are little more than pejorative.

"Those people."

The Ultimate Prosthetic

As a force for creation and change, designers need to step back, analyze our mission, and retake our role as responsible providers for the quality of life of consumers. The need for "humanism" in design has never been more critical.

By erroneously asserting that some people, because of their age, body form or functional range, can be disassociated from mainstream product development, we fail to provide the necessary foundation for meeting consumer wishes, needs and dreams.

The false stereotypes shrouding the factors of age and ability have created powerful euphemisms which befuddle the best intentions.

When we insist on describing people as either "young" or "old," "able-bodied" or "disabled," we create conflicting camps for attention and action.

No one is old. We all have an age. No one is disabled. We all have different and distinct abilities.

As long as chronic health conditions, the effects of disease, aging and injury create consumers who might use wheels to walk, eyes to hear and fingers to see, there will always be a place for specific need products and environmental compensations. But these requirements are best considered within the context of the dedicated design process so that even the so-called special situations become commonplace and ordinary.

Unless we change our attitudes and perceptions of the "norm," we will continue to create safe passages for some and roadblocks for others.

As consumers negotiate the hazards of everyday life, they should be able to view designers as the pathfinders in the physical realm.

Design is the ultimate prosthetic and designers the veritable enablers. Ours is an exciting charter. Beyond the confines of the aesthetic, we have the capacity to fashion the quality of life itself.

[Photo by Helen Marcus]

Patricia Moore is President of MOORE Design Associates and is credited as one of the founders of Universal Design methodology.