Body double

Young product designers step inside their elders’ skin. Sean Flinn measures up the empathy suit.

Grey matter Glen Hougan and Richard Flanagan with a prototype empathy suit. photo Robin Hart Hiltz

Among other messages, the media reminds us that the population is aging. A critical mass is bearing down upon all of us, its full weight yet to settle and make its full impact. From medical professionals to automakers, corporations are reacting to the generational juggernaut in their own way—how to make better medicines and cars to suit the graying population. Researchers at the Ford car company, for example, recently showcased an “aging suit,” which simulated for the wearer the experience of sitting in and operating a vehicle as a senior.

Taking Ford’s idea out of the car and into everyday life, a third-year NSCAD design class, under the guidance of assistant professor Glen Hougan, is researching and designing their own simulation suit to experience—to inhabit—an older body and all its changes, not just in a car but everywhere, in every moment.

Hougan says he’s “getting out of the studio, their personal world view,” by having them visit seniors, either the students’ grandparents, if still living and close by, or elderly folks at local facilities, to observe their lives, from climbing stairs to opening jars.

Meanwhile, the students develop and calibrate the suits to model the physical experiences they record.

“You’re feeling the issues,” emphasizes Hougan in his office. He stands up, sits down, bends down as if to pick something up, reaches overhead, covers one eye—all gestures to make the point that aging brings with it new limitations along with many capabilities. Designing products for older “users”—consumers is a passive term, he says—requires physical as well as intellectual involvement from future designers.

“That’s where I hope they get hooked—that it’s a meaningful experience. I’m hoping these students become idealistic,” Hougan says.

Hougan knows he’s set a challenge for his students to overcome their assumptions about aging and the elderly. What’s more, this is a required course for design students. He knows many students are thinking: “I want to make cool stuff for my peers. Oooh, I want to create the next iPod. All of a sudden they’re dealing with a group they think is not very cool, their parents and grandparents.”

Turning 20 in a couple weeks, designing products was not the first priority for Katie Tower, though she says she now sees how no design exists in isolation. “ will probably affect other things I design,” she says during a break from constructing a simulation, or empathy, suit. “Products are better when they work for more people.”

With 10 groups of four students each, the class is looking at many issues, including vision and manual dexterity. Tower’s group focuses on joint mobility and tension, adding a system of fabric tubing to a flight suit purchased from the Army/Navy store. The group runs bungee cords through the tubes, hooks them up to a harness. The bungee cords run along the “main axes of the body,” such as the outside of the arms and down the back, explains another group member, 25-year-old Richard Flanagan. Suddenly bending one’s elbow to drink from a cup of coffee becomes a strain against the tautening bungee cords.

Flanagan came to NSCAD from engineering school. Experience with graphic design in that program led him to transfer to NSCAD. Through courses like this, he says, “The reasoning behind this satisfied the little scientist in me.”

It only stands to reason, Flanagan believes, that design should start to incorporate and address the aging population. Like Tower, though, he hadn’t thought about it until he started Glen Hougan’s design for an aging population class.

“It’s a logical progression for product and industrial design,” Flanagan says, adding his grandmother has suffered severe joint immobility. “She’s almost bionic.”

At the end of the semester and this course, Glen Hougan hopes to build on the students’ simulation suits. The professor’s talking to other departments at other universities—Dalhousie’s architecture school, for one—about funding and evolving the suit research. Statistically, this province has the oldest population in Atlantic Canada, a region which, according to the 2001 census, has a higher average age than the rest of the country. For Hougan, the numbers mean the province must play a lead role in age-sensitive design because “we’re going there first.”

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