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"New Year Reflections"

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by James Joseph Pirkl, FIDSA

An article published in the February 2007 issue of Design For All, a publication of the Design Institute of India.

Copyright © 2007 by James J. Pirkl, FIDSA

 



A QUARTER CENTURY HAS PASSED since the international movement to provide 'barrier-free' built environments for disabled people pricked our sensibilities and awakened a global conscience.

We've come a long way since the first public demands for 'disability rights' spread, attracted converts, coalesced into academic, governmental, and private centers of influence, effected legislation, and emerged with different names, in different countries, as an effective, 'universal' instrument for change.

All involved can take pride in the movement's laudable successes in expanding focus, credibility, and influence far beyond the limiting boundaries of disability and nationality. Having outgrown the narrow confines of an early inauspicious public image, the movement continues to expand globally, increasing its capabilities, influence, and the expectations of those it serves.

Results, however, have varied. On one level, we've dramatically increased our knowledge base and ability to affect change. We've generated an impressive array of books, articles, principles, organizations, centers, seminars, conferences, newsletters, workshops, courses, and web sites--all producing and promoting systems, principles, guidelines and advice for designing products and environments that are usable by the widest spectrum of people.

But on another level, while the data clearly supports the arguments, we find that the message fails to receive the expected enthusiastic acceptance of those who make the important decisions to design, to produce, or to buy.

The question is, why?

Quite bluntly, movement has been slow to: (1) recognize the growing global impact of human aging; (2) acknowledge the overlapping problems, issues, and concerns of aging and disability; and (3) enhance its effectiveness through a "universal"/"transgenerational" design alliance. Such a consolidation is long overdue. Two decades ago I wrote:

"For too long, people of all ages and abilities have had to adapt their bodies and minds to expedient product forms offered to them by an unresponsive technology. The time has finally arrived to extend industrial design expertise by developing a transgenerational environment in which the shape and quality of its artifacts and spaces provide an accommodating influence on the lives of all people, regardless of age." 1

Some may be tempted to reject or minimize the problem. Yet, the fact remains that for the first time in our planet's history, the generational epicenter has tilted from youth to age. Throughout the world today, there are more people age 65 and older than the entire populations of Russia, Japan, France, Germany and Australia--combined. Moreover, older people are not only increasing in number; they are living longer, and aging into --and with --disabilities.

Most would agree, however, that it's time to recognize the increasing interdependency of aging and disability, and explore new ways to accommodate the interlocking needs of both. But achieving the required results requires one to first acknowledge the interconnections that link these truths:

  • Young people grow old.
  • Disabled people grow old
  • Young people can be disabled
  • Old people can be disabled.

The point is that developing a new generation of truly "universal" designs, which accommodate any or all of these four life situations, involves a mind-set shift from a 'utility' model: emphasizing function, accessibility, and adaptation--to a 'values' model: serving user's needs, wants, and desires. The difference is the key to answering the "why" question.

The 'utility' model produces designs for products and environments that focus on accommodating the special needs of disabled people or those with physical or sensory limitations. Such designs, of necessity, comply with 'top-down' governmental and organizational standards, and are based on a prescribed framework of priority criteria (dimensions, layouts, sizes, locations, orientations, clearances, etc.) imposed by laws, codes, regulations, and standards developed by and for architects, planners, and others responsible for ensuring physical and sensory accessibility. Because emotional, psychological, or sociological issues are not normally addressed, the 'utility' model tends to produce sterile solutions, often conveying negative connotations.

The 'values' model, in contrast, builds upon the 'utility' model. It produces designs conceived using priority criteria imposed "bottom-up," guided by user expectations. Designs created using the 'values' model infuse the 'utility' model with user-sensitive, value-added perceptions, components, and features. It produces desirable products and environments, attractive to people of all ages and abilities, without penalizing any group. The ' values' model satisfies consumers' desire by translating their expectations into positive reactions, thereby maintaining self respect, extending independence, and promoting satisfaction.

Vogel, Cagan, and Boatwright, in their book, " The Design of Things to Come," explain values this way: "Value is the connection of a user to a product in a way that augments his lifestyle and makes his activities easier and better. Value is the product's ability to fulfill wishes, to meet expectations of fantasy."

They divide the values model into seven discrete classes that they call "value opportunities." 2

  • Emotion  (what expectation or fantasy do people expect? )
  • Ergonomics (the sensor and physical interaction with the product.)
  • Aesthetics (sensory interactions in experiencing the product.)
  • Identity (the physical statement of brand identity.)
  • Impact  (societal influence connected to and addressed by the product.)
  • Core technology (the functions that enable performance.)
  • Quality (Manufacturing quality and expected performance over time.)

It should be apparent that, to be truly 'universal', products and environments must integrate--seamlessly and holistically--the attributes of both the 'utility' model and the 'value' model. Designs that neglect 'utility' considerations typically discriminate against the needs of those who rely on physical and sensory accommodation.

On the other hand, accommodating designs that neglect 'value' considerations risk being undesirable, unattractive, stigmatized, and rejected by those for whom they are intended to serve.

Genuine "design-for-all" is only achieved by merging the 'utility' and 'values' models. And this happens through pragmatic innovation, which requires perforating the boundaries that separate traditional disciplines to permit the cross-blending of conceptual problem solving. It also requires integrating new enabling technology with the desires and expectations of both disabled and aging consumers. "Continue to rely on established standards and solutions," Is the old way. "Explore innovative ways to provide an equitable total product or environmental experience," is the new way.   

Such a "new way" example is "This Bold House"--what the AARP called "the world's most accessible house." 3 The magazine's featured article exposed the house's cutting-edge features to 30-milion aging readers, introducing them to the values of " transgenerational" design--offering aesthetic, innovative, transparent accessibility--a concept not being overlooked today by multi-national manufacturers.    

Evidence shows that the 'transgenerational' message is contributing significantly toward accomplishing our global agenda. The world is listening to our collective messages. We see marketing and ergonomic researchers examining the aging/disabled consumer relationship; businesses identifying potential new integrated markets and redefining their business models; high-tech research labs stimulating the development of new accessible electronic communication solutions; municipalities improving the accessibility of the urban landscape; and global companies courting elder markets by adopting a 'transgenerational' design strategy.

But, much remains to be accomplished. We need: (1) expanded 'values' research and more business/university partnerships to translate consumer expectations into desirable, accessible technology; (2) greater emphasis on educating consumers to look for, and recognize, 'values' in the products they buy; and (3) essential knowledge and information injected into the curriculums of all accredited academic programs serving the international design community.

Most of all, we need a new breed of pragmatic design innovators--in government, business, and academia--who support and accommodate the full spectrum of specialized consumer needs, wants, and desires; whose product and environmental designs are developed from user desires--not imposed by fiat; and who start with blank sheets of paper to conceive tomorrow's innovative ' transgenerational' products and living environments that will delight our senses, fulfill our fantasies, and gratify our soul.

Are we up to it?

It will be interesting look back and review our progress after another quarter of a century has passed.

 


 

1.  Pirkl, James J. and Anna L. Babic.1988. Guidelines and Strategies for Designing Transgenerational Products . Acton, MA: Copley Publishing.

2.  Vogel, Craig M., Johnathan Cagan, and Peter Boatwright. 2005. The Design of Things to Come. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing.

3.  Luscombe, Belinda. "This Bold House." AARP The Magazine (September/October 2003).

 

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