The ageing of design: beyond functionalist benefit.

I am sure I am not the only person who is fascinated by the worlds of art and design. I have always admired and appreciated the skills of individuals who are able to take their visions and mould them into visible objects and ideas, whether they be visual artist or sculptor, architect, or designer. As is evident by a groaning bookshelf I have changed my own appreciation of what I find interesting and enjoyable in the world of art and design over the years. From a fairly traditionalist stance a couple of decades ago I then discovered myself every few weeks in London for a few days and I decided to get a season ticket to the Tate galleries. Gradually over time I not only began to love the galleries in London but also the exhibitions of modern art and design which they displayed. By deliberately exposing myself to artists, sculptors, and designers who I might previously have dismissed out of hand I fostered a new appreciation and enjoyment.

When it comes to the worlds I now inhabit, those of older age and social care, design plays an exceptionally important part. There has been in Scotland over the last few years remarkable work undertaken not least by the Dementia Services Development  Centre in Stirling University (based in the Iris Murdoch Building) in increasing the awareness and appreciation of the role of design in the provision of high quality care and support for people living with dementia. Many care homes have benefitted from the lessons around layout, colour, tactile awareness, and design which have been developed over the years. There are also numerous architectural practices around the country that are really pushing the boundaries around accessible design for people who might live with disabilities and have mobility restrictions and for the ageing population as a whole. Their work needs to be celebrated and applauded and I am looking forward in a couple of weeks to hearing and seeing exemplars of innovative design at the Global Ageing conference.

This is a critical issue and is intrinsic not only to improving personal wellbeing but also to enhancing real preventative care and support. We spend around 90% of our time indoors, in buildings that are often not supporting our health and wellbeing. A place can heal and re-energise but it can also drain and empty us, and that is not just true of those buildings we describe as ‘sad.’ There is real importance in what has come to be called wellness architecture and design.

But despite the obvious sparks of innovation and real progress there are around Scotland I do bemoan the narratives around ageing which seems to act as brakes and limiters on innovative design for older life.

One such is the ever prevalent if not growing conscious and unconscious discrimination around older age. This last week I heard someone use the hackneyed meme of viewing our ageing population as a tsunami about to hit us. I heard people talk about how we can control the tide of an increasing number of older people and prevent it from overwhelming services. I heard others reflect on what we can do about the ‘problem of there being so many older people in the future.’ Everywhere you look and listen there is a suffocating negativity around older age and that infects the worlds of design as much as anywhere else. Indeed I still remember working a couple of decades ago with an architect’s practice in central London and delivering equality training when the partners proudly informed me that they were not in the least bit ageist. As I looked around the group of around 200 designers and architects sitting before me not one was over the age of 50!

Ageism in the worlds of art and design has to be challenged and addressed. There are lots of laudable efforts around age inclusivity in design, not least the Royal College of Art’s Design Age Institute ( ) but they have to be much more appreciative of the reality that an older age population is developing some of the most radically innovative approaches to design challenges. I think of the amazingly original industrial designer Ayse Birsel who is challenging ageism by presenting real older age innovation. She recently wrote Design the Long Life You Love: A Step-by-Step Guide to Love, Purpose, Well-Being and Friendship.  For Birsel, it is critical that the design world draws on the insights of older age and she argues that longer life is a real opportunity for innovation.

Discrimination and lack of appreciation of the contribution and capacity of older age has to be addressed in part by ensuring the voice of older age influences design but also by addressing the stereotypes of age which many folk, however well intentioned, may still possess.

For instance, if architecture is a manifestation of the most public form of art, then we dare not restrict it to designing environments which are simply more accessible for people as they age. Ageing is not solely about decline and deterioration; it is not just about making sure environments are accessible (though that is critical), there has also to be space for the ideas and inspiration of older designers and artists to contribute to the creation of a new built environment.

Further if product design is to capture the imagination and energy of the person who uses the finished article regardless of their age it must be more than simply usable and functional. So much of what passes as age sensitive design in relation to products is certainly great in its accessibility, its appreciation of visual and aural changes and restrictions, and awareness of the divergences of colour as people age. But in truth so much of it is boring and dull and lacking in any life and vitality. Ageing may restrict visual capacity, but it does not result in the removal of joie de vivre, a loss of the imaginative spirit or simply enjoyment in life.

Designing for an ageing population should not be simply about thinking about the worlds of care and support, about limitation and accessibility, about decline and diminishment. It should be about a continual pushing of the boundaries of spirit to ensure that older age is celebrated. The fact that most of us do not slip off our mortal coil in our fifties as our predecessors did is something to celebrate not to sit and mourn over in dour distress.

Design at its best removes the word old from the vocabulary of the creative. It is truly intergenerational in its appreciation that what works for one age should speak to another. We need inclusive intergenerational design.  And at its heart all design that I have enjoyed over the years sought to go beyond functionalist benefit to demonstrate the value of enjoyment and even adoration.

There is something about the impatience of older age which demands not to be caged and restricted even by accessible and well-intentioned design in this poem by Maya Angelou,

On Aging

When you see me sitting quietly,

Like a sack left on the shelf,

Don’t think I need your chattering.

I’m listening to myself.

Hold! Stop! Don’t pity me!

Hold! Stop your sympathy!

Understanding if you got it,

Otherwise I’ll do without it!

When my bones are stiff and aching,

And my feet won’t climb the stair,

I will only ask one favor:

Don’t bring me no rocking chair.

When you see me walking, stumbling,

Don’t study and get it wrong.

‘Cause tired don’t mean lazy

And every goodbye ain’t gone.

I’m the same person I was back then,

A little less hair, a little less chin,

A lot less lungs and much less wind.

But ain’t I lucky I can still breathe in.

On Aging by Maya Angelou – Famous poems, famous poets. – All Poetry

Donald Macaskill

photo by Med Badr Chemmaoui on Unsplash

Last Updated on 2nd September 2023 by donald.macaskill