Crossing the thresholds of indignation and inclusiveness

XV.2 March + April 2008
Page: 72
Digital Citation


Mark Baskinger

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With the baby-boomer population approaching mature adulthood, there is an increasing buzz about universal design for everyday objects. The year 2014 is very significant, as the last baby boomer will turn 50, with the upper tier of this generation turning 68. So many companies are actively pursuing new product-development initiatives that appeal to broad audiences and specifically address the multitude of issues we may experience with aging. Through these inclusive strategies, we may find an increasing array of products that are easy to use, understandable, functional, and relevant. If companies are successful, we may no longer see the stigmatizing, clinical, overly techno-mechanical product forms that speak to the disabilities of elders and special-needs populations. Instead, we may find accessible, inviting, attractive forms that transparently imbed assistive features and prove to be widely accepted.

As a designer who started in communication (graphic) design and branched out into industrial (product) design through graduate studies and professional work, I view all designed artifacts as embodiments of communication that act as catalysts to enhance human experiences with systems, environments, ideas, information, and with each other. It is in this space that I find a very exciting future for product forms that are useful, usable, and desirable, but also intuitive, informative, and inclusive. In this forum, I will introduce three recent research projects that touch upon some inclusive design strategies.

back to top  Inclusive Futures: The GE "Autonomy" Project

The ubiquity of major appliances affords an opportunity for a socially responsive change in thinking to address issues of design usability for the aging population. By focusing on the abilities of various populations rather than the disabilities that make them different, an inclusive strategy can be developed to generate broader appeal. At Carnegie Mellon's School of Design, we recently concluded a two-year research project with GE Appliances in Lousiville, KY, that explored the attributes of current and emerging elder populations to identify opportunities to promote sustained autonomous living. What we (re)learned in the process was that most of the advantages designed to empower elders actually increased usability and appealled to a much broader audience. As noted educator and author James Pirkl describes, this is a transgenerational approach. Through our various research methods aimed at better understanding aging from an elder's point of view, we learned that elders expressed views on features, complexity, and materials that were similar to those of much younger consumers (identified as first-time appliance buyers). So our strategy was to focus on the form language, behavior, and interaction with appliances to serve as a primer for GE designers to use as underpinnings for enhancements across their product lines. Creating a new "geriatric" line of appliances would be demeaning—no one wants to be told they're old—but establishing new interactions that would empower elders, yet appeal to a wider audience, made a lot of sense.

Working within existing kitchen-cabinet standards, we developed the StrikeZone concept, which defines a "right-size" approach and situates appliances in the kitchen at optimal locations for reach, access, and movement. This more advantageous configuration promotes greater access into and around each appliance and was determined by establishing a relationship of the user's physical interaction and movement with each primary cooking/cleaning activity, as well as the relationship of the appliance form in situ within the kitchen space. The appliance forms were designed to express behavior and capabilities in simple and intuitive ways. Through observation and anecdotes, we learned that there are common human experiences with appliances; the risk is the same when reaching into a hot oven, and everyone bangs their shins on the dishwasher door. Focusing on design solutions from the elder perspective enabled a more conscious focus on enabling features that would address risk and hazardous scenarios that translated to a broader audience.

Establishing a common visual interface across all products (microwave, dishwasher, fridge, oven, cooktop, laundry pair) was incredibly important in promoting user confidence through consistent visual language and feedback. A combination of analog and digital display serves as the basis for establishing a narrative interface that graphically illustrates the past, current, and future states of each appliance. For instance, in the washing machine interface example shown here, the various steps of a heavy load sequence are revealed with demarkation of current status. Compared with current radial dial interfaces with lots of small text and confusing terminology, a pictographic display supported by simple, readable text can easily communicate a range of information—What can I do with this appliance? What is the appliance doing now? What is it going to do next? What did it just do? What must I do now? What did I just do? What must I do next?

Currently, the research generated in the scope of the GE Autonomy project is being used as guidelines and criteria for new product development and product updating across their brands.

back to top  Inclusive Utility and Safety

One of the major qualities of universal design is the visual language of product forms and how product forms are structured to embody and communicate information. Through visual form, language products can inform interaction, encourage behaviors, and shape user experience. In risky or potentially dangerous situations, product impact is amplified; designed artifacts must clarify and present information in easily accessible and intuitive ways. In certain devices, tools, and product systems, the need for simplicity and clarity is explicit. So why do we have so many products that fail us in this respect? As part of a study on packaging and poisoning for elders, I found that the current prescription medicine bottle is problematic for a lot of people beyond the elder population. Declining eyesight, low-light scenarios, and the frequency of taking multiple medications—common for many elders—greatly complicate an already risky scenario. There is a complete disconnect between the bottle form and the labeling system to encourage safe practice and compliance. Therefore, establishing hierarchies of information in many forms may empower elders (and us all) to index medications easily, store them appropriately, and so on.

Relying on pictures alone can be problematic as well. In the case of a medicine bottle, fire extinguisher, or other potentially life-implicating products, synergy must exist between physical form, graphic imaging, and textual communication. In scenarios where ailments like arthritis and glaucoma prevent people from using products appropriately, hazardous scenarios can arise. Whose fault is it when an elder takes the wrong dosage of medication, or when the bottle rolls out of the medicine cabinet, spilling pills down the drain? Where does responsibility lie when the grandkids get access to the pills that grandma stores on the kitchen table?

These are not issues associated only with aging; they relate to us all.

back to top  Inclusive Design for Kids

In my experience as a parent, the only time I can safely turn my back on my kids (ages six and two) for a few minutes is when they are drawing at the kitchen table. When they play independently, I find they tend to get themselves into trouble. Because of their very different interests (my daughter loves dinosaurs, and my son plays only with trucks), they don't often engage in collaborative play. But when they do, it is short lived because they're at very different physical, cognitive, and emotional levels. This premise sparked a research project in 2005, between Carnegie Mellon School of Design and the at Technische Universiteit Eindhoven (Netherlands).

Our strategy was to develop a system that would engage children of varying ages within a localized play space to give parents a bit of a "breather." What emerged from the project was a prototype called "Lila," a digital art board comprising a digital touch screen and digital pegboard to provide two primary sources for input to encourage collaborative or inclusive play. The initial idea was to combine a digital interface with a separate physical interface to engage children of varying ages, as in the case of my two kids.

With Lila, children can draw pictures in a free-form style using their fingers and easily combine the drawings with animations that are generated through the use of the pegboard. Both children can generate visualizations to construct a shared story or image. The Lila system includes a projector mounted in the back of the vertical digital component to show their creations at a larger scale. Once something is projected, the children can enter that space to play and act—taking them from screen-based play back into the real world. The illustrations then serve as the backdrop to further play and provide the children an opportunity to move between physical and virtual worlds to create scenarios.

back to top  Summary

Inclusive design, universal design, assistive design, and transgenerational design are not new, but they've historically been seen as specializations. As our population ages, we may find more opportunities to mainstream inclusive strategies into product development. The key to the success of an inclusive future lies in designing for shared abilities with a keen transparency of assistive features that address human deficiencies. The visual language of product forms, systems, and technologies will have an increasingly critical role in making artifacts engaging, appropriate, and empowering.

back to top  Author

Mark Baskinger
Carnegie Mellon University

About the Author

Mark Baskinger is an assistant professor in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University and the co-founder of The Letter Thirteen Design Agency. His work spans across graphic, product, interaction, and environmental design. Mark's research at CMU focuses on how artifacts communicate through their behavior, form language, and context to inform interaction and shape user experience. His work has been featured in design publications, and has been exhibited in numerous galleries and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art (New York), I-Space Gallery (Chicago), the Krannert Museum (Champaign, IL), and the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery (Carnegie Mellon University). For a sample of Mark Baskinger's current work, please see: and

back to top  Footnotes


back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. The Strikezone concept defines an optimal vertical workspace to place most activity and interaction within a range that limits excessive bending and reaching for most adults.

UF2Figure. The Wall Oven's split-folding door enables hot surfaces to mate and minimize reach-over length. This can reduce accidental burns and provide a surface at counter line for sliding out hot cookware.

UF3Figure. Product forms inherently must express state and usage through their behavior and form to provide adequate feedback. In the medicine-bottle concept here, the squared form demonstrates that when the bottle is not securely closed, the corners will not align. In addition, the squared form fits the natural angles of the hand to provide better leverage for grasping and opening. (Designed by Mark Baskinger, May 2000.)

UF4Figure. Lila digital artboard

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©2008 ACM  1072-5220/08/0300  $5.00

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