Universally useful - designing for every stage of life

Cover story, Domain, The Age, June 12, 2010

Design disables people every day. Type people can’t read, instruction manuals people can’t understand and technology pieces people can’t connect effectively disable people.


Product design disables people. For many years, female skiers suffered more knee injuries than men because bindings didn’t release under their lighter body weights and lower centres of gravity. Every weekend surfboard fins and noses with excessively sharp edges send surfers to hospital with lacerations. 


The design of homes arguably causes the most injuries and disabilities.


A 2008 Monash University Accident Research Centre report found there were over 500 fall-related deaths and110,000 hospital admissions every year in Australia caused by falls in buildings, most of them in homes and suffered by people over 65 years old.


Author of the report, Prof. Joan Ozanne-Smith, says,  “People will not stop falling but design can help prevent injuries. Building codes were mostly about fire or natural disasters but hadn’t previously considered the injuries that occur inside buildings every day and far outnumber those caused by fire or natural disasters.”


Four of her report’s primary recommendations are the subject of a recently completed regulatory impact statement before the Victorian state government. If they are accepted, “a clear path to a level entry, wider doorways and halls, a toilet suitable for people with limited mobility; and reinforced bathroom walls for the future fitting of grab rails” may become mandatory in Victorian homes.


Changes have arguably been a long time coming. The Australian Building Codes for staircase step dimensions - another factor in falls - are over 100 years old and date back to a time when average heights and foot sizes were a lot smaller.


Ms Erin Cassell, director of the Victorian Injury Surveillance Unit at Monash University, says, “Architects need to be held to account for designing unsafe structures and selecting unsafe fittings.”


The design of buildings for universal access is an element of universal design, a movement that is gaining influence on both product and house design in Australia.


Universal design was a theme of the 20th agideas International Design Week held in Melbourne in April. Dan Formosa, a keynote speaker and co-founder of Smart Design, the US company that designed the Oxo, wide-handled, range of kitchen utensils for people with arthritis, says, “Design has as much power as the medical profession in determining who is able and who is not able, who is capable and who is not capable, and who can live independently. So design is key.”


Mary Lyttle, CEO of Elder Rights Advocacy Victoria, says the design of houses forces people out of their homes early into residential care facilities.


Universal design focuses on people and behaviour rather than objects and their functions. It involves studying the ergonomic needs of different and less able groups of society in order to design better objects for all. Course director of industrial design at Monash University, Selby Coxon, says the idea of universal design “is part of our evolution to a more egalitarian society. The aim is to have no barriers to any kind of activity for anyone.”


Simple contemporary examples of universal design include walk-in, curbless showers and lever tap handles that are easier to use for the elderly and popular because they are easier for all to use and, as a result, look elegant.


Smart Design develops products with user groups of six different people including experts and novices, strong people and people with disabilities. “Blind people know a lot about the design of objects because they have to,” says Formosa. “Every bump means something to them… If you want to learn about design, talk to someone with a physical challenge.”


Universal design has sound economic foundations. It enables companies to better develop products for an ageing population and widens the potential market of any product by including different body types and user groups.


Smart Design made its name by introducing anthropometrics (human measurement) to Corning in the eighties and helped their sunglasses fit 70% instead of 30% of the population, more than doubling the company’s potential market.  The company’s gardening secateurs have rotating handles so people with small and large wrists can use them with ease.


An ageing population, especially a demanding baby boomer population, will require different product design. America has already witnessed an increase in sales of three-wheeled, Harley Davidsons. Instrument panels in cars, signage systems, button displays and storage systems are all likely to improve over the coming, ageing decades.


A third economic foundation of universal design is to develop products that work more intuitively with a wider range of human activities.


Agnete Enga of Femme Den, a women’s design team established four years ago as a part of Smart Design, helped design a light, portable, one touch photo printer (Hewlett Packard’s Photosmart printer) for women to use easily, like the Flip video camera, at social occasions.


Enga says designing for women, who more often make buying decisions, means considering “benefits not features and functions, the whole product experience, a woman’s body, her life stages and how it makes her feel”.


Designing for women is not about “putting more products on the market,” she says. “It’s often about finding the right product and the right solution that works for both women and men.” Smart Design redesigned unisex hospital scrubs using performance sports clothing principles to make them more functional and elegant for women and men.


Design for different genders and abilities has to avoid stereotypes that segregate people all over again. Enga says design for women has moved beyond ‘shrink it and pink it’.  “That’s stigmatising,” she adds.


Mary Lyttle, CEO of Elder Rights Advocacy, asked, “Why does a shower seat have to look like hospital equipment? Why can’t products for the elderly have good colour and design elements and not look like ‘cripple city’.”


The split between function and aesthetics cuts both ways. We still make new products that look good, or are easier to manufacture, but cause pain. Hard plastic blister packaging cuts young and old people alike.


Modern lounge suites with low backs and wide seats look good in neo-modernist homes but also cause neo-modernist back pain. Adjunct professor in ergonomics at Latrobe Uni, Prof. David Caple, says, “Contemporary lounge furniture is not based on anthropometry or ergonomics. It’s based on the look.”


Universal design is not just about the safety of objects or designing for the disabled. It’s about designing products that are easy to use for all body types and abilities. Prof Caple says there is “still more concern about the safety of objects than their ergonomic design.”


One obstacle to intelligent ergonomic design is our evolutionary instinct to blame ourselves and adapt rather than blame the object. Formosa says, “People are starting to blame the thing and that means people are looking for better and better products.”


It will never be possible to design single objects for all users. “Universal design doesn’t mean one product needs to fit everyone,” says Formosa, who has designed a left-handed pencil (with text running the opposite direction).


Coxon points to an opposing trend towards personalised manufacturing or the “mass customisation” of products much like consumer software allow users to design their own kitchens.


In the future, we may identify which product and house design elements can be designed for universal use and which require a specialised range of forms. This awareness might help us produce fewer objects with built-in disabilities.


Dan Formosa’s idea of a band-aid solution was to design a band-aid strip with the gauze at one end so people can roll it onto a cut finger with one hand.  







Website links



Smart design, New York



agIdeas 2010



Monash University Accident Centre report “The relationship between slips, trips and falls and the design and construction of buildings”



Victorian government accessible housing Regulation Impact Statement: www.buildingforlife.com.au

Andrew would like to thank agIdeas for allowing him access to the conference and workshop with Dan Formosa of Smart Design.

© Copyright Andrew Bock 2010. All rights protected.