Why we have to design for all ages

Given the current discussion about the value of arts education and its importance to the UK, the timing could hardly be better: Lund Humphries is publishing a collection of 30 projects from the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre, the groundbreaking research unit dedicated to inclusive design. If you don’t know its work, here’s the potted history:

In 1986, the Boilerhouse Gallery at the V&A (which was the precursor to the Design Museum) held an exhibition called New Design for Old. Its curators, Helen Hamlyn and Elizabeth Henderson, had asked 14 well-known designers to reimagine everyday products in a way that made them easier for older people to use. Hamlyn had been inspired to organise the show because of her own struggles to find suitable products to help her elderly mother remain independent.

She then used her charitable foundation to fund Design Age, a research unit at her former college, the RCA, which launched in 1991. It was headed by designer and social activist Roger Coleman who developed Hamlyn’s concerns into a more wide-ranging approach centred on the notion that good design is design that works for all of us, no matter our age or abilities.

Coleman was joined as co-director by Jeremy Myerson and the pair created the basis for the centre’s approach. Design for ageing was recast as ‘design for our future selves’, because some loss of ability can happen to all of us, and Design Age became the Helen Hamlyn Centre. RCA graduates would be paired with businesses to work on year-long projects, guided by Hamlyn’s own appeal: “Make things people want; don’t just make people want things.”

There was a changing view of age and disability … it was the idea that people weren’t disabled per se, they were disabled by the thoughtlessness of their environment and how it was designed

Crucially, Coleman decided that those designers would be trained in ethnographic techniques from the social sciences and encouraged to design with, rather than for, the groups whose needs they were attempting to address.

Designing a World for Everyone, written by Myerson, who became the centre’s chair in 2015, showcases the results of this approach. I spoke to him about the centre’s development and the larger shifts within the profession that it has both influenced and embodied.

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