Age Neutral Design is the New Normal

A huge opportunity for designers and manufacturers

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Age neutral is a newish term with, it seems, no precise definition. It can simply mean products that young people use, but old people also favour because they are comfortable, convenient and crucially not associated with old age. Virtually anything connected to personal appearance can be age neutral, from clothes (think jeans and tracksuits) and shoes (trainers) to frames for spectacles, or even a haircut. Then there are mobile phones and laptops with their intuitive touch-screens, clear icons and enlargeable scripts–over half of Apple’s customer base is over 50. Or electric bikes, empowering young and old alike. Or the iconic Anglepoise lamp, designed in 1932, which can be positioned with the lightest of touch.

On a different tack, age neutral can describe products that ingeniously address the bodily failings of older people (for example: reduced mobility and strength, poorer eyesight/hearing and memory loss) but look stylish. Leader of the pack is America’s OXO with their “universal designs” for the home “to be used by as many people as possible.”  First came a potato peeler 25 years ago with a comfortable rounded handle—that’s still a bestseller today—and now there are hundreds of products. More recently, the Serious Readers LED lamps are aimed specifically at older users, but with elegant styling that is universally appealing. Another example is a fold-down scooter that adapts to evolving mobility needs. Says its designer Paul Priestman of Priestman Goode: “The best outcome is a product that can be with you throughout your life.”

An age neutral scooter called “Scooter for Life,” designed by Paul Priestman.
Scooter for Life, designed by Paul Priestman for PriestmanGoode. Photo © PriestmanGoode

The movement towards age neutral design, also called inclusive or universal design, is well advanced in the bathroom. Attractive taps with lever handles, or with sophisticate infrared sensor controls, are easy for everyone to use, as are thermostatically controlled walk-in slip-resistant showers.

These are the products that can “future proof” a home. There’s also the elegant new domestic lift “designed like a piece of furniture” by Swedish designer Alexander Lervik for Aritco controlled by a smartphone, it comes with its own shaft, so it can be fitted in new and existing homes alike.

Age neutral lift designed by Alexander Lervik
Artico Home Lift, designed by Alexander Lervik. Photo courtesy Artico

Indeed the fully “smart “or “connected” home” can be convenient and accessible to young and old alike. This could have heating, security, lighting and appliances controlled by a central panel and/or a phone, or by voice or even finger tip or facial recognition, streamlined perhaps by artificial intelligence (AI). But systems for all ages must be simple and easy to understand and memorise, as must individual remote controls for lamps, curtains and blinds, TVs, appliances and so on. Adds Priestman: “Technology can help people live independently and better for longer, but we must be careful not to use it just because it’s there.”

Johnny Grey, a British designer, author and educator, has his own kitchen company underpinned by 40 years of experience. His “multigenerational” kitchen is for all the family, from children to grandparents, with height-adjustable surfaces, robust and beautiful materials, plus touch controls, sensors and timers where appropriate. Safety is a key consideration.  Grey is even working on an AI oven. Hopefully this spring a 4GKi (four generations kitchen) prototype will be installed at the National Innovation Centre for Ageing’s new building in Newcastle.

In the future, the driver for “age neutral” products lies in the swelling size of the potential market, says Dick Stroud, who runs the UK-based 20plus30 consultancy and is author with Kim Kelly of Marketing to the Ageing Consumer (2013).  The McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) has noted that individuals in the 75-plus age group are now spending more on average than younger consumers.

Euromonitor, a global market research agency, talk about Age Agnostics, a new kind of mature consumer with an ageless attitude to life—see their downloadable report Top 10 Global Consumer Trends of 2019.  This diverse group have an inclusive mindset, they believe, “with much more in common with millennials and younger generations than many realise.”

In the UK, fuelling change for designers, businesses, governments and society at large is the pioneering agency The Age of No Retirement, founded in 2014, “to shatter age-related barriers and ageist stereotypes.” They state unequivocally that age inclusive design is the future of design—with a lifetime value and benefits for everyone.

Their document “Age Does Not Define Us” has ten “intergenerational design principles (IDPs).” These include “clear and intuitive,” “delightful,” and “accessible.” And the youngest and oldest groups of the 2,000 people surveyed displayed surprisingly similar attitudes towards, for example, the internet, the pace of modern life, new technology and healthy living.

Age neutral high back armchairs
hm82a and g high back armchairs with hm68f table, Edith Collection, designed by Sir Kenneth Grange for Hitch Mylius. Photo courtesy Hitch Mylius

Esteemed UK product designer Sir Kenneth Grange, himself now 90, was the star of Making British Modern, his retrospective at the Design Musuem in 2011. Eight years ago he designed the Edith seating group for Hitch Mylius, designed specifically for healthcare use. Grange successfully shattered stereotypes, using typically thorough research into ergonomics and comfort, then adding his trademark smart styling including turned beech or chrome skid legs, and button detailing. At home, however, Grange has perhaps the ultimate age neutral gizmo. It’s a bookcase with the same dimensions as his body, and a disturbingly familiar shape …”very handy as my coffin.”

Main image: hm82a high back armchairs, Edith Collection designed by Sir Kenneth Grange for Hitch Mylius. Photo courtesy Hitch Mylius

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