Patrick Burgoyne on good design for all ages
TAONR — Do you think your age is relevant to how you see the world? Describe this world and how age impacts it.
PB — Inevitably yes, because to some extent we are all informed by our experiences as well as our relevant position or influence or privilege in society. I suppose the challenge with age is to employ the experience and position that you may have accrued along the way in a positive manner and avoid becoming jaded or cynical or dismissive of other generations.
TAONR — From a designer’s viewpoint, what do you think are the biggest challenges the world shares across all ages?
PB — A designer’s challenges ought to be the same as those of the world in general. With that in mind, I would say the impact of climate change, the strains on society that were magnified by the 2008 crash, with rising inequality and instability underlying them and the resultant shift toward political populism, the impact of ‘fake news’ and all that means with regard to how well-informed and cohesive we are, and the impact of AI and automation which may fundamentally change the world of work. The latter may be the most direct threat to design as a profession but designers cannot be unaffected by any of these forces and issues
TAONR — As designers what can we learn from people who are older and how do you feel this knowledge can inform our decision making?
"If a product of service can genuinely be used equally well by anyone, then surely that is a well-designed product or service?"
PB — Good products and services should not exclude anyone on the grounds of physical or mental ability, so perhaps this is less about ‘older people’ and more about understanding the needs of those who experience life differently from us. If a product of service can genuinely be used equally well by anyone, then surely that is a well-designed product or service?
TAONR — What can we learn from people who are younger and how do you feel this knowledge can inform our decision making?
PB — I think the whole Digital Native thing might be instructive here: it seems reasonable that people who have never known a world before devices such as smartphones and the products and services they provide will have a different relationship with them than those of us for whom they represent some kind of futuristic magic. It’s natural for those of us who have prior experience of other media to view new media through the prism of the old – look at the metaphors for web design that we started off with, ‘pages’, ‘menus’ and so on. Everyone knows the cliché about early TV being radio with pictures and so on. And these attitudes go beyond the visual – think of how younger people view the idea of paying for content, scheduled TV, reading a newspaper that only comes out once a day. We need to understand those attitudes rather than being dismissive of them.
In terms of the generation of younger people today, from my limited exposure to teenagers and those in their early-20s (so-called Millennials), which is mostly via my son, nieces and nephews and their friends, there does seem to be some truth in this idea of them being a very compassionate group. They can be derided as ‘snowflakes’ but there genuinely does seem to be a different attitude toward issues like gender and sexuality. It may be the naivety of youth but if Millennials go on to be a more compassionate, empathetic influence on society that must surely be a good thing.
TAONR — What benefits and opportunities does an ‘ageless’ society provide us with?
"If we move away from defining people by their age and look more at their interests, socio-economic power and so on that seems to me a much healthier position to be in."
PB — Any society that is less divided than our current one must be welcome. There are huge challenges around the demographic shift to come. If we see those in terms of older people being a ‘burden’, that is going to cause big problems. If, instead, we move away from defining people by their age and look more at their interests, socio-economic power and so on that seems to me a much healthier position to be in.
TAONR — How do you think we should change how we view and think about age when we are designing?
PB — I don’t think we can get away entirely from old-school demographics. It depends on context but there is surely still a case to take into account the attitudes, experiences and resources of groups who at some point do still have a lot in common due to their age. For example, people who are starting university – not all of them will be 18 as there are many mature students but overwhelmingly they will be, which means that if you are designing, say, a banking service for them, you probably can make some assumptions about what they might respond to. Ultimately surely the goal should be to design products and services that work well for all. But if the intention when designing is being driven by marketing prerogatives rather than the desire to make something intrinsically better, that might not always be the case!
TAONR — What are your thoughts on designing with the customer / worker / citizen as part of the design process?
PB — I think this is where we are seeing something of a generational shift that is very much influenced by software culture. The old doctor/patient relationship where the all-knowing designer creates for the user is being seriously challenged by a culture that emphasises minimum viable products that are then shaped by user research. It’s a much less egocentric, more democratic way of working and I welcome it. I wonder how this situation will be exacerbated by the move toward organisations growing their own in-house design and creative teams. When you are running or part of a studio or agency, the idea that you have access to a superior level of expertise and insight that no-one else has and that you have the prescription for whatever ails your clients is essential. However, when you are working within an organization, by necessity relationships must be much more collaborative and two-way.
TAONR — Ageless or intergenerational design? Which phrase do you prefer? Is there any other words or language you feel we should consider?
I’m not sure either is entirely successful. Design for all? Perhaps Universal Design is the better term but it doesn’t explicitly address the issue of age. It’s a tough one!
TAONR — What do you think is the benefit of a society where our age does not define us?
PB — No-one should allow their date of birth to define them. Be you, not what people your age are expected to be.
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