In this interview, three of the people at Motiv who have been most intimately involved in our Universal Design initiatives, Tom Feeheley, Matthew Bacon and Eric Nichols, a marketing strategist, graphic designer and industrial designer respectively, discuss the role of Universal Design - including why they expect it to become increasingly important for companies that recognize the value of developing product for people of every age and ability and why they think the term itself needs to be changed.
You're on record as saying you believe the term "Universal Design" has inherent problems. Could you explain what you mean?
Feeheley: It's very simple, really. The term "Universal Design" through no one's fault, has become associated with a design movement that targets only the aged and the handicapped, and while we want to serve those groups as best possible, it's just way too limited a definition for what it's really all about.
Nichols: I happened to be at the Connecting '07 World Design Congress, and I was exposed to a term that comes closer to capturing the full essence of Universal Design. That term was "Transgenerational Design," and it's actually the one we at Motiv prefer. It's broader than Universal Design and has less stigma associated with it.
One of the most vocal proponents of Transgenerational Design is a respected designer named James Pirkl. In fact, he's been called the father of Transgenerational Design. Here's a quote I read from him recently. "Transgenerational Design is design for all ages and for all abilities. If a teenager sprains his ankle, he's disabled for a while. If a woman gets pregnant, her mobility is temporarily affected. We all have some level of disability during our lives. No design will serve 100% of the people 100% of the time, but we're trying to make sure no one group is excessively penalized by the design."
That's pretty much gets to the heart of the matter.
Would any of you care to elaborate further?
Feeheley: Whether it's called Universal or Transgenerational Design, the basic idea is to design products and environments in such a way that people of any age or capability can use them. The ages and physical capabilities of the population are varied; that is to say, people's abilities and physical capabilities are spread across a broad spectrum. There are very few perfect specimens. We all have strengths, weaknesses, abilities and needs concerning our bodies, senses and motor skills.
Bacon: Just to amplify what Tom is saying, Transgenerational Design is an effort to design things that can be used by a broader spectrum of people. Following UD tenets, you don't assume that everyone has 20/20 vision, perfect hearing, natural dexterity or unimpaired mobility. Transgenerational Design is an effort to increase the number of people who can use any products that might get designed and built.
Nichols: It's really about a deficiency in our current design systems. The problem is that we aren't providing a solution that serves a user at any and every point in his or her life. On the other hand, a transgenerational approach to design can provide products without the limitations you see almost across the board in the marketplace today. If more people embraced the approach, we'd be seeing more resilient, more versatile, longer lasting product designs.
Why don't we just call it Transgenerational Design since that seems to be the term you prefer? Why hasn't it been embraced in a broader context than just being for people with disabilities?
Bacon: Because, frankly, it's just damn hard to do it well. It takes effort, it takes thinking, it takes a lot of iterations and it takes real intellectual struggle to solve the kinds of problems that Transgenerational Design represents. That, of course, ultimately means it's not inexpensive. Generally speaking, there hasn't been sufficient demand to make it profitable primarily because people can't easily envision how much better products could be and what they might look like.
Feeheley: To design something that fits a broader range of the population, from a six-year old to an 80-year old and all the people in between, requires the right balance of upfront research work, solid human factors analysis, extensive conceptual design exploration, testing and a lot of thought to get it right.
Nichols: I've read numbers that place the 65 and older age group at around 36 million - and it's growing rapidly as the boomer generation gets older. So the US market is definitely seeing a surge in appreciation of Transgenerational Design. This consumer buying power is why more importance will be placed on Transgenerational Design in the coming future, and why it's so incumbent on us to start adapting our thought processes when we envision what makes a design solution successful.
Are there specific things you learned during the course of your recent projects that would be helpful to other clients?
Bacon: It has been really clear during our work on these projects that there are many camps of people for whom Transgenerational Design is especially appropriate, and in some cases they're almost polar opposites. There are people who have a need for adaptive products - a grab bar in the bathroom, for example - and their mindset is such that it's just a necessary thing. "It's got to be there, I need it. If it looks like a piece of junk hanging on my wall, I don't care. I need it, and I'm fine with that."
Then there's another camp, typically younger, that goes to considerable lengths to hide those products. Not because they're embarrassed about the fact that they or a member of their household has a need or an infirmity, but because many of these products are just so ugly. There hasn't been an aesthetic eye applied to a lot of these products.
What types of companies should be thinking about Transgenerational Design but probably aren't?
Feeheley: Transgenerational Design is really applicable to any consumer products company - from appliance manufacturers to electronics companies, furniture makers, kitchen and bath and mainstream consumer products companies. The kitchen is obviously a very important room to people, yet there have been very, very few if any adaptive products designed for the kitchen. During one of our recent research projects, we had a retiree explain to us that the electric can opener was the most critical tool in her kitchen and that many food packages are extremely difficult for her to open with her arthritis. Think about that, those of you who package food, drugs and health and beauty aids.
Bacon: I think there's also a big untapped potential in the builder market. Why not build in adjustability to more of the products in the home? There are literally dozens of improvements that could be part of standard construction but currently aren't. They may add a little bit of cost, but given the aging of the population, building in adjustability would seem to be a no-brainer. Imagine the 70-year old couple with a six-year old grandchild, the woman is 5'1", the husband is 6' and the six-year old is 3'. Shouldn't the home and the products and features inside accommodate all of them?
If a company wants to embrace Transgenerational Design, what do they have to take into account? Are there stumbling blocks they're likely to encounter?
Feeheley: If a company is thinking about this, what they need to think about is the competitive marketplace. By embracing Transgenerational Design, will it get them a market advantage, a sales and profit advantage? Will it enhance the story of their brand? Transgenerational Design is not only for the betterment of human kind; at the end of the day, it can be a highly profitable position for a company if executed correctly. Quite simply, their products and brands will have a broader market appeal.
Nichols: If a company's current product requires the use of an additional assistive device, just having to use that device can greatly reduce the dignity and self-respect of the person using it. And as if that weren't bad enough, those devices usually have a hospital-like aesthetic that suggests weakness or sickness. So that's another problem. We know that changing the way a company approaches its product development can enhance the user's quality of life, and that in turn makes for a happier customer and a brand loyalist. Aging is universal, our life spans will continue to increase - it just makes sense to provide solutions that take that into account.
What's the future likely to hold for Transgenerational Design?
Bacon: These days, as part of brand development, you see a trend towards environmental friendliness. In the not too distant future, I think it's going to be an equally integral part of a brand position or brand voice to consider that not everyone is a 30-year old perfect physical specimen, six feet tall, with perfect hearing and sight. In other words, they're going to have to pursue Transgenerational Design if they want to maintain what I'll call the "sanctity" of their brands.
Feeheley: Keep in mind that there are not enough assistive living communities for the burgeoning 65+ demographic; we're going to have to live in our homes and get care in our homes. And don't forget that extended families under one roof will also continue to grow with mom, dad, the kids and the grandparents all living together.
Bacon: I think it's what green design or being environmental is now. Everyone's got to do it - you just cannot afford not do it. Transgenerational Design is going to be in the same place five years, 10 years from now.
Nichols: Companies need to be mindful that limitations can happen at any point in life through accidents, arthritis or the irreversible functional deterioration that comes with age. This means we're going to see humanity play a larger role in the product equation, and it's a welcome change.
Final question. Is Motiv in a good position to help companies move forward in the Transgenerational Design space?
Feeheley: We certainly have the skill set to do it - the consumer research capabilities to uncover the needs and wants.
Bacon: And not just from a functional standpoint - like how to design a handle better from the industrial design standpoint. But how do people need to be talked to about this? What's the right way to communicate the benefit without saying, "Hey, if you have arthritic hands, you can still use this"? Our communications skills in this area are pretty well developed, and that can be critical for companies that want to reach out to audiences who need to be spoken to in a particular way and who appreciate the sensitivity.
Feeheley: To do the research we do, then to be able to come up with the brand and product strategy to address the positioning of the product so that it's desirable to people, and then to be able to do the actual design - with human factor specialists like we have on staff taking a lead in that - and finally to package it and promote it effectively. Let's just say that at Motiv, we have a passion as a company to design products for people of all ages and capabilities, and we have the skills and experience to make it a reality.
For more information about Motiv's experience with Transgenerational Design, contact Matthew Bacon (email@example.com)