Transgenerational Design

Transgenerational design is the practice of making products and environments compatible with those physical and sensory impairments associated with human aging and which limit major activities of daily living. The term transgenerational design was coined in 1986, by Syracuse University industrial design professor James J. Pirkl to describe and identify products and environments that accommodate, and appeal to, the widest spectrum of those who would use them—the young, the old, the able, the disabled—without penalty to any group.
The transgenerational design concept emerged from his federally funded design-for-aging research project, Industrial design Accommodations: A Transgenerational Perspective. The project’s two seminal 1988 publications provided detailed information about the aging process; informed and sensitized industrial design professionals and design students about the realities of human aging; and offered a useful set of guidelines and strategies for designing products that accommodate the changing needs of people of all ages and abilities.

The transgenerational design concept establishes a common ground for those who are committed to integrating age and ability within the consumer population. Its underlying principle is that people, including those who are aged or impaired, have an equal right to live in a unified society.

Transgenerational design practice recognizes that human aging is a continuous, dynamic process that starts at birth and ends with death, and that throughout the aging process, people normally experience occurrences of illness, accidents and declines in physical and sensory abilities that impair one’s independence and lifestyle. But most injuries, impairments and disabilities typically occur more frequently as one grows older and experiences the effects of senescence (biological aging). Four facts clarify the interrelationship of age with physical and sensory vulnerability:

Within each situation, consumers expect products and services to fulfill and enhance their lifestyle, both physically and symbolically. Transgenerational design focuses on serving their needs through what Cagan and Vogel call “a value oriented product development process”. They note that a product is “deemed of value to a customer if it offers a strong effect on lifestyle, enabling features, and meaningful ergonomics” resulting in products that are “useful, usable, and desirable” during both short and long term use by people of all ages and abilities.:p.34

Transgenerational design is “framed as a market-aware response to population aging that fulfills the need for products and environments that can be used by both young and old people living and working in the same environment”.:p.16

Transgenerational design benefits all ages and abilities by creating a harmonious bond between products and the people that use them. It satisfies the psychological, physiological, and sociological factors desired—and anticipated—by users of all ages and abilities::p.32

Transgenerational design addresses each element and accommodates the user—regardless of age or ability—by providing a sympathetic fit and unencumbered ease of use. Such designs provide greater accessibility by offering wider options and more choices, thereby preserving and extending one’s independence, and enhancing the quality of life for all ages and abilities—at no group’s expense.

Transgenerational designs accommodate rather than discriminate and sympathize rather than stigmatize. They do this by:

Transgenerational design emerged during the mid-1980s coincident with the conception of universal design, an outgrowth of the disability rights movement and earlier barrier-free concepts. In contrast, transgenerational design grew out of the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 (ADA), which prohibited “discrimination on the basis of age in programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance”, or excluding, denying or providing different or lesser services on the basis of age. The ensuing political interest and debate over the Act’s 1978 amendments, which abolished mandatory retirement at age 65, made the issues of aging a major public policy concern by injecting it into the mainstream of societal awareness.

At the start of the 1980s, the oldest members of the population, having matured during the great depression, were being replaced by a generation of Baby Boomers, steadily reaching middle age and approaching the threshold of retirement. Their swelling numbers signaled profound demographic changes ahead that would steadily expand the aging population throughout the world.

Advancements in medical research were also changing the image of old age—from a social problem of the sick, poor, and senile, whose solutions depend on public policy—to the emerging reality of an active aging population having vigor, resources, and time to apply both.

Responding to the public’s growing awareness, the media, public policy, and some institutions began to recognize the impending implications. Time and Newsweek devoted cover stories to the “Greying of America”. Local radio stations began replacing their rock-and-roll formats with music targeted to more mature tastes. The Collegiate Forum (Dow Jones & Co., Inc.) devoted its Fall 1982 issue entirely to articles on the aging work force. A National Research Conference on Technology and Aging, and the Office of Technological Assessment of the House of Representatives, initiated a major examination of the impact of science and technology on older Americans”.

In 1985, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Administration on Aging, the Farmer’s Home Administration, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development signed an agreement to improve building, landscape, product and graphic design for older Americans, which included new research applications for old age that recognized the potential for making products easier to use by the elderly, and therefore more appealing and profitable.

In 1987, recognizing the implications of population aging, Syracuse University’s Department of Design, All-University Gerontology Center, and Center for Instructional Development initiated and collaborated on an interdisciplinary project, Industrial Design Accommodations: A Transgenerational Perspective. The year-long project, supported by a Federal grant, joined the knowledge base of gerontology with the professional practice of industrial design.

The project defined “the three aspects of aging as physiological, sociological, and psychological; and divided the designer’s responsibility into aesthetic, technological, and humanistic concerns”.
The strong interrelationship between the physiological aspects of aging and industrial design’s humanistic aspects established the project’s instructional focus and categorized the physiological aspects of aging as the sensory and physical factors of vision, hearing, touch, and movement. This interrelationship was translated into a series of reference tables, which related specific physical and sensory factors of aging, and were included in the resulting set of design guidelines to:

The project produced and published two instructional manuals—one for instructors and one for design professionals—each containing a detailed set of “design guidelines and strategies for designing transgenerationalproducts”. Under terms of the grant, instructional manuals were distributed to all academic programs of industrial design recognized by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD).

Continuing to emerge as a growing strategy for developing products, services and environments that accommodate people of all ages and abilities, “transgenerational design has been adopted by major corporations, like Intel, Microsoft and Kodak” who are “looking at product development the same way as designing products for people with visual, hearing and physical impairments,” so that people of any age can use them.

Discussions between designers and marketers are indicating that successful transgenerational design “requires the right balance of upfront research work, solid human factors analysis, extensive design exploration, testing and a lot of thought to get it right”, and that “transgenerational design is applicable to any consumer products company—from appliance manufacturers to electronics companies, furniture makers, kitchen and bath and mainstream consumer products companies”.