Until last evening I had not been to the Design Museum since 2018 when I went to see Azzedine Alaïa on my birthday. I used to go a lot when the Museum was in Shad Thames. Its relocation to Kensington to London’s own “museum quarter” has made visiting it inconvenient for many of us who do not live in SW London.
It was however doubly sweet to return since this time I was on the stage with a lovely panel anchored by Carly Dickson. We were going to discuss Designing for your future self.
The discussion was broad-ranging and could feel scattered at times. However having slept on it I processed some of the themes which may be useful to designers, marketers and others who work with people across ages and stages of life.
How old are you? A simple enough question. Not quite. A poll was run in the room asking us our chronological age, our biological age and how old we really feel. The answers varied from “dead” to “4”. According to the anchor, in the whole time she has run this poll, this was the only time there was one person in the room who marked herself the same age on all three counts.
A very important realisation for designers and marketers because that is where our decision-making is anchored. Not all people the same biological age are the same in preferences, life needs, life stages — a point which should challenge if not put paid to the idea of generational divide but now I realise I am going off-piste a bit.
Not all old people are wealthy so design needs to consider that. A lot of the discussion around design can unthinkingly assume that all old and or retired persons have great wealth to spend on things whereas the reality is many live on pension credit and do not have much money to splurge.
The discussion reminded me of something I wrote in 2015 — is care in design exclusionary and elitist? — coincidentally after hearing Jonathan Ive speak at .. the Design Museum, then in Shad Thames. And of something I reiterated as recently as yesterday.
Not all old people have the same attitude towards their age and their capabilities. This point recurs so often that it bears repeating as many times as it does. The book Stage Not Age that I mentioned elsewhere makes that point too.
Between Carly’s granny who went white-water rafting in her 70s, Ross Bailey’s granny in her 90s who travels alone to Jamaica, and my late father who in his 80s worked all week helping a school for destitute children, we had several inspiring examples of what we could be when we grow up. Though growing up sounded wonderfully optional in these cases!
Community inclusion and intergenerational engagement are crucial for our wellbeing. This point cannot be overstated as it did come up several times. Isolation and loneliness are known to reduce life years nearly as much as smoking does.
It was also discussed that not all people like to move house as they get older, because it isolates them from their pre-existing social networks and communities. It is also painfully clear that communities are not being designed to address walkability and access, supported by adequate public transport links.
Design must be tested and observed in the wild for relevance. I got the chance to bring up my pet peeve about the web being mainly grey on white with ellipses hiding drop-down menus. Designed by young coders who probably do not ever talk to those who use products. Definitely not designed for broader accessibility and inclusion, as I have written before.
But as everything gets tech-enabled and “smart” — for the record I live in a “dumb” home, by design — things get ever more complicated. It can break people’s confidence which in turn can hamper their ability to reach out and plug themselves into the communities they so need for their wellbeing.
But surveying users for “what they need” can hamper breakthrough creativity. This is a counter-point to the previous one but does not suggest that users are not involved in testing stages.
Design all you can but leave room for serendipity. Stories were shared of how Covid changed lives and how high streets were being obliterated slowly, thus losing communities a place to congregate. I shared a story of how my local high street — and my own neighbourhood — was better for Covid with two new coffee shops that are thriving.
Sometimes good can emerge when we were not seeking it. After all did the baking soda inventor ever think his invention will span cake baking to drain-unblocking and a lot else in between?
One day we will all be dead, but on the way, finding meaning and joy in whatever we choose to do, living healthily, engaged with generations of people around us should perhaps be what designers and marketers aim to deliver.
Suggested further reading:
Bobby Duffy’s book Generations was mentioned to me earlier in the evening by a friend and then I heard it mentioned in the pre-panel discussion.
Can motivation be used as a design assumption? Read here.
Can design be contemptuous? Read here.
Stories and experiences shared made the event interesting. Read here for when my travels in India really made me ponder bad design.
Notes from Jonathan Ive’s talk at the Design Museum. Read here.