Universal Designs Build Bridges between Students and Elders

Article excerpt

I imagine, or at least hope, everyone has had one of those "Yes!" moments, the times when everything seems to fit together-the times that bring a sense of being in the right place at the right time, doing the thing one was meant to do. My most recent "Yes!" moment occurred last fall when I witnessed an unlikely collaboration between a group of 26 young college students-many international-and 13 elders from San Francisco State University's (SFSU) Sixty Plus Club, a 500-member organization of SFSU students over age 60.

The idea for this intergenerational collaboration began when I was invited to teach a course for the university's Design and Industry Department (DAI). The theme for the class would be universal design-a creative strategy for product, graphic, environmental and software interface design that considers the diversity of people in terms of age, abilities, and ethnic and cultural backgrounds.


As a full-time faculty member at SFSU from 1990-2000, I was well aware of the strong role that universal design already played in research and teaching at the university. SFSU has long had experience in universal design through multidisciplinary efforts, such as the Engineering Department's Wheeled Mobility Center and DAI's Design Center for Global Needs. After leaving the classroom environment to work full time as a consultant in universal design and related strategic planning, I found that I missed teaching and began planning what I hoped would be a great class.

My first challenge was to help broaden the students' understanding of universal design and dispel preconceived ideas they had regarding older adults and designing for an aging society. As part of a classroom exercise, I asked the students to take on diverse roles: an 85-year-old widower with mobility and vision problems; a 50-year-old mother with three children and elderly parents living 300 miles away; a five-year-old sharing a home with her three siblings, parents and grandparents; a couple over age 65, looking ahead to retirement and travel.

Through these exercises, the students discovered that "seniors" are not a large, homogenous, sedate group. Also, they began to learn that universal design is not about developing highly functional, boring products for "old people" or "the disabled." My goal was to help the students discover new opportunities to direct their passion for design toward an emerging market of aging boomers with hugely diverse interests, abilities and expectations about quality and choice.

The challenge I put to the class was to develop a marketable design with inter-generational appeal. To succeed, it was important that they remain sensitive to the needs of elders and those with diminished abilities while arriving at solutions that would attract younger consumers. I knew that in order for the students to get it right they needed more than lectures, role-playing, reading and observation-they needed the help of older individuals. With assistance from faculty in the SFSU gerontology program, we found the perfect group of volunteers.


Liz Nager and Anne Warrin were intrigued by Tuyet Tran's concepts for her Lotus Laundry Bag design. Nager observed, "Sorting and transporting laundry doesn't end when you get old, so there is a market for us seniors." Warrin added, "But the product has to be easy to use and versatile. …