NSCAD makes prettier products for seniors

Prof teaches students to design attractive and functional products for baby boomers

Kate Mitchell, a product design student at NSCAD University, has designed a better dog bowl. It makes it easier for seniors to feed their pets. (Photo: Sarah Mann)

They championed civil rights, sparked a sexual revolution and, next year, the first wave of Canada's baby boomers turns 65.

Professor Glen Hougan, a product design teacher at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University, predicts baby boomers will also change how designers approach products for seniors.

"We're starting now to deal with the aesthetics of products so it doesn't have that stereotypical view of what a senior might use," says Hougan.

Canada's baby boom after the Second World War has put the population on an aging fast track - even greater than that of other industrialized countries.

By 2026, Statistics Canada reports, the number of seniors in Canada is estimated to jump to eight million, almost double the number in 2006.

Hougan says this demographic shift will demand a new approach to product design. "It is changing and really it's the generation coming up that are not accepting probably what my mother accepted."

He uses a line of kitchen tools called Good Grips as an example. The vegetable peelers, scrub brushes and other utensils were originally designed for people with arthritis, but the modern appearance and improved functionality has made them popular.

"There is a perception that when you're a senior it's just about function and not about aesthetics," says Hougan.

Hougan thinks items such as canes and walkers, which are meant to give mobility and independence to seniors, have a stigma - they are associated with disability and frailty.

"You do notice a lot of products for seniors that are metal and they're cold, which you would see in a hospital."

Teaching design and functionality

Hougan wants his students come up with design ideas that challenge these views.

Kate Mitchell, one of Hougan's students, looked at the problems in dog bowl design. She saw seniors having trouble bending over to pick up bowls and difficulty grasping their smooth sides.

She fixed these problems. Her design is plastic with a large arching handle that's tall enough that a person doesn't have to bend over to reach it. There are additional handles on the sides for easy grip. The individual bowls are removable, making them easier to empty and fill.

Hougan thinks the most important thing is how the piece looks. There are no metallic pieces or clinical-looking parts. Mitchell's design challenges notions of aging and falls more in line with the taste of the aging boomer generation. Mitchell's bowl is orange and green with smooth modern edges.

"If we see metal we assume it's about sickness, it's about disability. If we see another product that could be funkier colours it's just about a better product to feed your dog," says Hougan.

Mitchell put as much thought into her piece's appearance as she did its functionality.

"Older people are just like anyone else," she says. "They have their certain tastes in colours."

"They shouldn't have to have products that are uglier, less useful or harder to use," says Mitchell.

The result, says Hougan, is a more universal approach to product design that benefits everyone.

"If someone can use it like seniors, then everyone can use it. And, actually, it's just a better design."

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