Design for all

Industrial designer and gerontologist Patricia Moore speaks on universal design at ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus

woman smiling behind a lectern


Duct tape is generally regarded as the best friend of armchair handymen everywhere, but it’s not the best tool for troubleshooting a remote control. Nevertheless, it has been used that way, as a quick fix to block off superfluous buttons that some — often the elderly — find overwhelming.

While the sight of such a jury-rigged contraption might elicit giggles from younger relatives, what it represents is a design flaw that does nothing less than rob someone of their autonomy. And when Patricia Moore saw her father — a man who’d spent his life in a steel mill, literally providing for his family with his own two hands — struggling to power on his TV, that realization struck a chord.

“I can’t even turn on a TV anymore,” she remembers him saying as he resigned himself from the task.

“That broke my heart as a designer,” Moore said. “And that wasn’t funny. It was sad. He had reached a point where a technology he loved was starting to become an enemy, not a friend. As designers, we have to be mindful of that.”

“My disdain for design that discriminates came at an early age.”

— Patricia Moore, industrial designer and gerontologist

The internationally recognized industrial designer and gerontologist shared this poignant anecdote at a lecture Wednesday afternoon on Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus. Titled “Design and Wellness: Creating Innovative Healthcare,” the lecture was jointly presented by The Design School in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Center for Innovation in Healthy and Resilient Aging, which launched last April in the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation.

Moore, who was honored by The Design School at ASU in 2000 with a distinguished achievement award, has five decades of experience leading the global effort for inclusive design solutions and is considered one of the founders of the philosophy of universal design. She was recently named the 2019 recipient of the prestigious National Design Award for “Design Mind.”

“It is literally an impossible task to introduce Pattie Moore properly,” said Jason Schupbach, director of The Design School, recounting the incredible feat in which she spent four years, beginning in 1979 when she was just 26 years old, traveling the world prosthetically disguised as an 85-year-old woman.

During that time, Moore visited 116 cities in 14 states in the U.S. and two Canadian provinces. She was mistreated, mugged, beaten, and as she discovered later in her life, left unable to bear a child. But, she said, she never felt like a victim, and instead “looked forward to the day (she) would be able to take this information forward, this empathic (approach) to design.”

“That led to an incredible career trying to help people understand how people who are aging experience the world differently and how we have not designed properly for that in the U.S.,” Schupbach said.

“Who thinks we’re going to have a lot of aging people in the U.S.?” he asked the audience in the packed lecture hall, all of whom raised their hands. “And we’re not ready for it. Well, guess what? This is the woman who can help solve it.”

That might seem like a big ask of a woman whose lengthy career already includes contributions to such essential devices as CT scanners and mammogram machines, and whose clients have included OXO Good Grips. (It’s very likely you have an OXO utensil in your own kitchen. What you might not know is that they were designed specifically for ease of use for those who suffer from arthritis, hence the soft, oval shaped handles made from nonslip thermoplastic rubber and the flexy fins on either side. You can also thank Moore for the ingenious shape of Pringles, which were designed to ensure the most efficient distribution of flavor in your mouth.)

But by the end of the evening, it was clear Moore is up to the task.

Her lecture Wednesday was deeply personal and frequently moving, featuring a slideshow of photos from her life and career. It opened with a black-and-white photo of her as a toddler, standing at the bottom of an ominous flight of concrete stairs, looking back toward the camera with a displeased expression.

“My disdain for design that discriminates came at an early age,” Moore deadpanned.

She began her undergraduate education at the Rochester Institute of Technology hoping to major in medical illustration. When that degree program was eliminated, a professor suggested she try her hand at industrial design instead. But, he warned her, “It’s not a field for women.”

“I think he knew that would resonate with me,” Moore said.

She plunged headlong into the field, and during her sophomore year, the dean called her into his office to inform her that Raymond Loewy, the French-born American industrial designer responsible for the streamlined locomotive, wanted her to come to his New York office to be vetted for a classified project in Moscow.

Moore still isn’t able to reveal any details of the project but shared that, despite the fact that it never saw the light of day, it was just as thrilling as it sounds. From there, her career blossomed, but she was still told she did not belong, that she was taking a man’s job and that she should leave.

“That kind of prejudice was something I found alarming,” she said. “But worse yet came the prejudice I heard in meetings.”

When Moore suggested the design of a refrigerator door handle be reworked to consider those who might have trouble opening it, she was told, “We don’t design for ‘those people.’”

“They didn’t think our responsibility went to all consumers,” she said. “People who saw with their fingertips … heard with their eyes, spoke with their hands … people who don’t have hands. Don’t they deserve the respect of design?”

Shortly after, Moore embarked on her four-year tour of North America as an elderly woman, which she credits for solidifying her commitment to the philosophy of universal design.

“I never talk about a person’s disability, but rather, I focus on capacity and the ability each of us has as a consumer when I design,” she said. “I have never designed for a disability; there’s no sense in that. Design is about giving people the quality of life they deserve.”

In her capacity as an adjunct professor at ASU, Moore led students in the design of the hotly contested Valley Metro Rail. Despite the death threats she received from unhappy citizens after her home phone number was published in a local paper, Moore said she is proud of the work she did on the public transit system.

“My primary focus was consumers who needed us the most,” she said. “So the next time you ride, if you wonder about the design, it was very deliberate. … The next project we do with ASU students, we can only imagine what a very close tomorrow will bring.”

The hardest work Moore has ever done, she told the audience Wednesday, is the work she did with wounded warriors on prosthetics and rehabilitation equipment.

“As a conflicted pacifist, I do understand the need to protect sovereignty," she said. "But I will never understand how violence and war can give us peace. And I have never designed any (tool for war), but I will work with bodies who have been abused by war” to attempt to improve their quality of life through design.

"Design is about giving people the quality of life they deserve."

— Patricia Moore

Moore acknowledged that great strides have been made in designing for inclusivity of all lifestyles and abilities, but cautioned that there is still work to be done. She sees the current global socioeconomic landscape as a chance to discover what else is possible.

“We have challenges. They are many and great. Growing disparity between the rich and the poor. … Our commonalities are eroding. … Hate has taken us to places where everyone is at risk and the most innocent among us are thrown from their homes and their quality of life,” she said, adding that considering climate change, that includes the animal kingdom. “That gives designers opportunities.”

One area of great opportunity Moore identified is the aging boomer population, one-fifth of whom she said are considered “RINKs”: retired, independent, with no kids. That specific group of people have given rise to what are being called accessory dwelling units — essentially a second, smaller dwelling on the same grounds as a regular-sized single-family home. They’re becoming necessary to accommodate members of extended family as the model of the typical American family is morphing into one that is less nuclear and more amorphous and intergenerational.

The idea is to create spaces where people can not just age in place, but thrive in place, she said, and that doesn’t stop with the built environment. “The most important component for wellness today is the caregiver,” and that means designing better training and compensation models for them.

In response to an audience question about whether the design of telehealth could be improved to provide more of a human touch feel, Moore said, “Only the presence of another person really fulfills that essential linkage of people in our lives … and we can’t replace that (with robots).” Though she added, “But I’m willing to try.”

Moore likes the idea of things like smart refrigerators and Mirror, an interactive fitness device that allows you to view personal health data, workout routines and your own reflection as you perform them. But she’s not entirely sold on them yet.

“I’m not sure that’s where the technology should be going, into things that can break down.” She’s also concerned about the price point of such tools. Fittingly, then, Moore closed her lecture with her thoughts on equity in design.

“The equity we deserve and the equity we desire is a matter of design,” she said. “It’s a matter of respect and sensible thinking … embracing and building bridges, not walls.”

Top photo: Internationally recognized industrial designer and gerontologist Patricia Moore delivers a lecture on design and wellness Wednesday, Feb. 26, at ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus. Photo by Charlie Leight

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