XXI.2 March + April 2014
Page: 70
Digital Citation

Reframing design culture and aging

Özge Subasi, Lone Malmborg, Geraldine Fitzpatrick, Britt Östlund

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The tax office announces a new online tax-reporting system that integrates various accounts. They argue it saves time and money for everyone. However, the new service replaces a whole set of everyday practices and does not necessarily make it easier for everyone, especially not Emma. Emma, a retired florist, has always done the annual tax report manually. She would gather the tax forms, yearly income statements, receipts, and bank and mortgage statements. It used to take her only a Sunday afternoon to complete the forms using a pen and a calculator. She never received any complaints. Since the new e-government services were introduced, however, Emma has had to do the tax report online. Emma has never used a computer, either in her job as a florist or at home. Suddenly, Emma found it very hard to master something she used to do with ease, even though the calculations are basically the same. She always considered herself young in mind and spirit, but this made her feel old. In the end she had to ask her 40-year-old neighbor to help her navigate the online tax process. Even after submitting the report, Emma felt uneasy about whether everything arrived safely to the tax authorities.

Addressing the needs and opportunities of an aging population is getting increased attention, and, as designers, we are still learning how to approach design in the area of aging. In the fictional example of Emma, the problem is neither the decrease in her individual capacity nor the change in her mastery of the content. In this situation, Emma feels old because the design around her changed in an unexpected and uncontrolled way that did not fit her everyday practices. In this case, it is the experience of the new service design and the new situation that leads to her experience of feeling unable to do what she used to do, and to feeling old. As designers, we can inadvertently create such situations in our products or services, through the sum of our design decisions. We need to be aware of, and take responsibility for, how we conceptualize aging and how our products can make people feel older or younger.

back to top  Insights


At the recent SouthCHI conference in Maribor, Slovenia [1], a group of designers, researchers, and representatives from organizations for older people met in a special track titled "Design Culture for Aging Well" [2] and reflected on experiences like Emma's to explore new strategies for design in the area of aging. Here, we introduce highlights from our discussions on what a different design strategy might be like and what new kinds of understanding and design practices are needed. We see this as a reframing of our design culture in the area of aging. Our proposed design culture is closely related to existing co-design and inclusive design strategies. We use the umbrella term design culture [3] to define a reflective work culture in the area of aging that is motivated by questions such as:

  • How do designers perceive, define, and reflect upon aging? Here we concentrate on new, positive notions of aging. We take aging as a concept beyond the individual. Aging has a social aspect, and it is situated in everyday life.
  • How do designers and researchers find the right people with whom to co-explore new design ideas? And what is a co-exploration of aging? Here we concentrate on communities and their everyday practices and informally organized local structures as starting points.
  • What are the roles of designers and researchers who work in this area? Here we turn to issues of designers' approaches, especially the balance between designers' creative skills and the effects of these skills on positive approaches to aging.

back to top  The Situated Nature of Aging

Aging is defined in many ways, such as social aging, which is society's relationship to older individuals and to aging as a part of life [4]. In the context of design, however, what is important is the lived experiences of people who are older; aging is neither an absolute concept nor a sum of established rules, but is instead situated and particular. With this in mind, we suggest the perspective of "situated elderliness" [5], which eschews biological age or institutional categories to define aging and old age in favor of examining everyday socially embedded situations and practices. We thus aim to understand what it is about particular situations that make people "feel old" rather than categorizing and stigmatizing people as old or young. We recognize that in a new design culture around aging, accessibility is still important in dealing with the fact that our cognitive and physical abilities change throughout life. We also recognize that design in the area of aging is much more than this, and should be based primarily on everyday life experiences and practices, where the focus is on how to integrate with, preserve, and possibly enhance these practices. This is a process where designers use their "designerly" and "artistic" skills to support people reimagining their own possible futures of aging. By opening up the ideas and skills to everyone, designers can create a design culture where new ideas are "co-designed, experimented with and rehearsed together as the process goes along" [5].

Design-led strategies can be used to uncover these concepts and open new perspectives. As an example, Bagalkot et al. developed design objects to explore a notion of "memoryscape" to capture the ways in which senior participants mediated the design process through recollection and enactment of memories.

Gita was an enthusiastic musician, collecting various trophies and awards. She had to undergo knee-replacement surgery five years ago and needs to exercise, which she does by using her swing in her garden and by pressing her feet on the ground, while listening to music. An interactive trophy was co-designed with her. It communicates with the swing and captures Gita's exercises to offer an opportunity for her to make her novel rehabilitation practice a part of how she fondly recollects her musical past (Figure 1).

back to top  Building Relationships with Everyday Communities

Design professionals with a commitment to participatory design all want to engage with real people. A focus of discussion at the workshop was the nature of this engagement and how to rethink the dynamic relationship between older people and the designers in the design process. Rather than concentrating on co-solving a problem, we support an "open design" and "open collaboration" approach [5]. In order to co-design new topics without predefinitions and preconceptions, the design conversations and explorations are about how to understand and engage with everyday practices. A question that then arises is how one can find the right people to work with on new design ideas, and how one can engage people in designing new social and technical innovations for aging. Here, we found it important to have access to experiences of day-today activities that can be obtained through working in the context of communities. Working directly within the everyday practices of a group with similar interests independent of their age, physical abilities, or professional practices can help us co-create concepts in everyday contexts.

For example, Huldtgren et al. discussed the importance of community-based co-creation, pointing to several strategies on how to engage communities of everyday practice actively in the design process and ensure that solutions are sustainable beyond single projects. Their work once again reminds us of our need to develop relations with local communities, in which designers and seniors learn from and continuously engage with each other, and for enabling community-based co-creation of solutions to fit local practices. Making documentary films with seniors, educating seniors as research fellows, and presenting at local events are among their applied strategies (Figure 2).

back to top  Creating a Design Culture in the Area of Aging

In practice there are various ways that designers can be more reflective about their own conceptualizations of aging. At a very simple level, designers can reflect on and integrate an enriched understanding of aging as a positive adaptive process into the design visuals and design languages they create, namely the pictures and slogans they use, the logos they design, and the forms of communications and prototypes they build. Do our logos, for example, always have to depict an older person bent over with a walking cane, or can they reflect a more dynamic version of someone actively engaged in an activity they enjoy? Further, design can even help create new role models that break existing perceptions of aging as a process of decline and instead communicate different notions of what it means to be older. The perception the designer has about aging is the key to how she designs these communications. In parallel, communication materials can be key to acceptance or rejection of new concepts in this area.

To illustrate this kind of approach, even in hard-to-deal-with situations, such as conditions directly associated with aging, design professionals still have choices about the design strategies and specific skills they deploy and for telling these stories without stigmatization.

Britta Schulte, for example, designed a set of "assistive garment" features for a person with Alzheimer's by using variations of crafts such as embroidery to create beautiful, non-stigmatizing features (Figure 3). For example, she addressed the issue of forgetting items by rethinking a pocket as external and made of open knit. Making the pocket a visible design feature of the garment enables the person and their carer to see what is being carried inside. Such an approach points to new strategies for future garments of assistance and her work shows it is possible to imagine new aesthetic aspirations of clothing for dementia.

To sum up, the workshop provided us with an opportunity as reflective design/research practitioners, in collaboration with people from groups representing older people, to explore key issues and strategies for a design culture that can engage appropriately with older people. The discussion here points to at least three key issues for success in this direction: how we as designers perceive the concept of aging, how we build and sustain relationships with communities and individuals, and how we use our own skills to reflect upon and engage with these issues. By getting into everyday communities and practices, by creating non-stigmatizing ways of defining aging, by opening up the design process to others, and by reinterpreting the role of design and designers, we foresee an enormous potential for innovative products and services that are integrated into everyday social practices and contexts. Such an open approach can also minimize the risk of being made to feel old through design, as experienced by Emma in our lead scenario, and increase the potential to design products and services that enable and enhance the positive experiences of being older.

back to top  Acknowledgments

We thank all participants and committee of the special track and workshops for their contributions. We also thank Alina, Britta, and Naveen for their examples, and Florian, Michael, Francisco, and Nervo for their comments on earlier versions of this article.

back to top  References

1. SouthCHI'13 is sponsored by ACM SIGCHI and IEEE. For papers see

2. Prior to SouthCHI'13, we elaborated on similar issues in a workshop (W16) at NordiCHI'12 and presented the initial outcomes under the name "Ageing as Design Culture" at Nordes'13. See

3. Initial establishment of the term "design culture" for design research: Julier, G. From visual culture to design culture. Design Issues 22,1 (2006), 64–76.

4. Öberg, B-M., Närvänen, A-L., Näsman, E. and Olsson, E., eds. Changing Worlds and the Aging Subject. Dimensions in the Study of Aging and Later Life. Ashgate, Brulington, UK, 2004.

5. Brandt, E., Binder, T., Malmborg, L., and Sokoler, T. Communities of everyday practice and situated elderliness as an approach to co-design for senior interaction. Proc. of OZCHI '10. ACM, New York, NY, 2010, 400–403.

back to top  Authors

Özge Subasi is a senior researcher in the HCI Group at the Vienna University of Technology. Her research focuses on the possible roles of design and arts-based disciplines in the intersections of design, technology, aging, and everyday life.

Lone Malmborg is an associate professor and heads the Interaction Design Research Group at the IT University of Copenhagen. Her research focuses on interaction design, co-design, and social innovation in the areas of aging, welfare design, and technology. She is a co-editor of Digital Creativity.

Geraldine Fitzpatrick is professor of design and assessment of technology at the Vienna University of Technology. Her research is concerned with how we design new technologies to fit in with everyday contexts of work, play, and daily life, with a particular interest in older people, social interaction and collaboration, and health and well-being at home.

Britt Östlund is a professor in welfare technology in the Department of Design Sciences at Lund University. Her research focuses on "modern aging," innovation and design by older people, and methods for older people's involvement in design processes.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. From left to right: The interactive trophy, trophy collection, and Gita on her swing.

F2Figure 2. From left to right: discussions in a fair, a scene from documentary filmmaking process, introducing technology.

F3Figure 3. Britta Schulte's assistive garment features.

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