Universal design pioneer: Why design still excludes many

Gerontologist and designer Pattie Moore--who designs rehab spaces, light rail systems and home health care environments--says good design is like pornography: 'You can’t really define it, but you know it when you see it.'
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive

Internationally known gerontologist and designer Pattie Moore says good design is like pornography: “You can’t really define it, but you know it when you see it.”

But one thing she knows for sure is that if someone can’t use a product—whether it’s a wounded soldier opening a door or your grandmother peeling a carrot—that’s a design problem. Universal design, which is an approach to the design of products and environments that makes them usable by people with the widest possible range of abilities, addresses this.

For three years in her 20s, Moore traveled North America disguised as women in their 80s to learn about the challenges facing older people. Since then, her design clients have included OXO, Herman Miller Healthcare, AT&T, Corning Glass and 3M. Today, she is on the road about 240 days a year, lecturing, consulting and working on new projects around the world. Last fall, her community rehab unit (Independence Way) opened at Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which I visited in January.

I recently called Moore in Phoenix, where her firm, MooreDesign Associates LLC, is based. Excerpts of our conversation are below.

What is a gerontologist?

The social science of aging. We look at the holistic person in terms of the lifespan and aging process. I’m trying to bring the sensibility that all of us are growing older. You see headlines that say, “How to meet the needs of your aging parents.” Well, if they’re not aging, they’re dead. The fact is, we’re all aging.

So gerontology is about lifestyle, the quality of our life. As far as I know, I’m the only designer gerontologist, but it’s a very exciting lifestyle from the design perspective. Some days I sit on the business side, some days on the creative or technology side. My hero of all heroes is da Vinci. I loved the balance he had. I started as a fine artist and then ended up in industrial design.

Industrial design has morphed into the term product design, but I also have focused on the environment. I like to say I’m looking out for age and ability and making sure we each have the lifestyle we wish for and need. It’s the basic requirements of life mixed with the choices of life. The biggest fear of anyone is getting institutionalized, living in a tiny room in a nursing center, with someone telling you what to do 24/7. That’s every Baby Boomer’s fear.

What makes good functional design?

Design can’t just be about the technology, the material science, the widgets and wow factors. It has to be holistic, it has to be human, it has to speak to us. We know the perfect little black dress when we see it. Everyone’s in search of the perfect mattress and has their special favorite cup. Things become an extension of what we’re able to do.

So design is a combination of technology and know-how and sensitivity and know-why. It’s like pornography—you can’t really define it, but you know it when you see it.

Between 1979 and 1982, you dressed up as an 80-year-old and went to more than 100 cities in the U.S. and Canada to experience life as older woman. What lessons from that are you still using today?

It’s become my cornerstone. When it started I was 26. There were nine characters, from a homeless lady to a wealthy woman with a chauffeur (which showed me how much wealth affects the way people treat a person).

An article about it ended up in Readers Digest. It was amazing how many people found me because of that piece. Then the Today Show called and I did that, and all hell broke loose, and I started to get a feel for how important it would be to share this. What started to happen was I had a stronger voice, so I could start sharing with people the importance of including older people in architecture and design. Until then, there was total disinterest in talking about the needs of older people. That’s been my mantra.

In the 70s, we were told we design for a Caucasian, 40 years old, living on Long Island, with 2.3 kids. We didn’t even really design for women. And if you brought up the idea of designing for people with arthritis, for example, they would say, “We don't design for those people!"

So as a result of my research, I was given the world stage to talk about growing older lifestyle design. On its heels we began universal design.

Why is there still reluctance to design this way?

What’s happening is that we’re this very fearful culture, because we have come to believe that if we’re old, we’re not important. We have all this fear about being an elder, and I think at the end of the day, that’s why there’s not more attention paid to all of this. You can’t live a life where you exclude the last chapter.

I was pulling out some ads from a 1928 Good Housekeeping, which said, “Don’t have wrinkles, use this product,” which shows just how long this has been with us, and it’s not going anywhere. Until we get rid of it, it’ll define us.

When people tell me, “We passed ADA code on this,” I says, “That’s great, that gives you a passing grade,” but great design—that’s something different.

Tell me about your early design work with OXO Good Grips.

The OXO product was the peeler, and then paring knife. I stayed with Sam and Betsy [Farber] for a while; when Sam decided to sell the company, the new owners decided to let other designers design the new products, and I think they came at it without as much of a human factor. Consumers noticed the difference. You can’t fake good design.

What industries are leading the way and setting a good example in universal design?

We have to look primarily to housing and the products in our homes for the areas where we’ve seen the most progress. In every educational setting there is an understanding that consumers come in all shapes and sizes and ages. So we’re at least doing that. But there’s still hesitancy to define a home as having features for all ages; we’re not talking about grab bars around the toilet, but rather a toileting system that is responsive to our needs. When you have the flu, sometimes it’s impossible to even drag yourself to the toilet. So what about bringing the toileting process to the sick bed? It’s that kind of thinking that got us to things like continent products.

That’s why OXO is so effective—so a little child can help mom and dad prepare a meal, and grandma can help too.

We’re looking for features of design that don’t exclude anyone; I’m talking less about age and more about capacity. It correlates to age, but look at Jack LaLanne—who was doing phenomenal physical feats at such a late age. So it’s really ability level.

When we build one of these centers and go to the manufacturer of the refrigerator and let them see how difficult it is for the veterans to open the refrigerator door, we let them know why it’s important. We tell them that every airport in the country has those refrigerators, and if a veteran can’t manage the simple task of opening the door, something is wrong with the design, not with him. I saw that happen to my grandmother opening a refrigerator door—when it happened, she was in so much pain it was like she’d been stabbed.

Everything we do in the course of the day: Think: How would I be doing this if my fingers were frozen with arthritis or a stroke, or if I had glaucoma, or if I couldn't put one foot in front of another. It’s all about design.

Interior view of the accessible Phoenix light rail vehicle

What are you working on now?

I lecture at universities all over the world. I have relationships with Carnegie Mellon, University of Cincinnati, Art Center [College of Design] in Pasadena, Arizona State University, Northwestern and California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. I do workshops and lectures and work with classes.

We’re doing a project now at CCA for senior housing. We need to change that name and redesign the housing. It gets students thinking so when they go into the real world they can take some of that training with them. It also gives people at the housing development a blueprint for the time that they are able to get funding to make changes.

What else?

Honolulu’s new light rail system. They have such gridlock: You arrive, and you try to get out of the airport and you’re in a traffic jam. This system will go right from the airport to Waikiki. We’re working on that vehicle. And we’re also working on the Phoenix system.

We’re doing a lot of home health care, and I can’t tell you the companies, but what we’re looking at the 78, 79 million Baby Boomers that will be looking around their house and asking, “Can I even stay here?” So health care and home health care are key.

I’m personally involved in working with Hong Kong and China on architecture and design education, which means helping all the universities emerge and evolve with programs that will address all these issues. So it’s an information exchange, but it’s more than that. If we don’t start putting down the weaponry and holding hands, there’s no point to this anyhow. But I really believe what we do in academia can make a difference. You see students all over the world working together, and I think that’s the best model we have for the future. If this the last chapter of my career, I’m very happy about it.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards