How Diverse Representations of Old Age Can Shift Our Perspective on Aging

Alzheimer Nederland brand identity. Courtesy of Studio Dumbar.

In 2019, at the age of eighty-five, designer Don Norman wrote in Fast Company that “despite our increasing numbers the world seems to be designed against the elderly”. The examples he gave focused on product development but the same might be said for visual and graphic design. Norman suggests design studios should work directly with older audiences to understand how visual language impacts them—or, perhaps more accurately—often ignores them.
In 1981, a design competition for children launched a road sign that would become one of the most ubiquitous images in Britain. The sign, used in traffic codes to indicate that there are “road users requiring extra care”, depicts two hunched stick figures, one clasping a walking aid and both encased in a red triangle with little else to define them.  One of the biggest challenges facing designers is conveying and understanding older people’s experiences as varied, multiple, nuanced and evolving. 
Even so, moving away from stereotypical representation still presented something of a challenge. A road sign, in particular, needs to convey an instant message that allows for clear directions. Nasr notes the walking aid remained a much-debated symbol for the judges. Some designs even went too abstract in an attempt to avoid using the symbol – like using the rings of a tree to evoke age without stigma, for example. A balance was struck in the winning image by  SwaG Design, which riffed on the original but also drew on elements of active aging and joyfulness. In their new icon, the two people now throw their hands up in the air, breaking free of the red triangle with the walking aid transformed into a dancing cane. For Nasr, the winning image subverted the original but still felt universal, which was an important element in “making a public icon which has to resonate on so many levels”. 
The Centre for Ageing Better proposes that providing a wider range of icons and photographs that represent an array of diverse older people can shift public consciousness in incremental ways. “I hope in 10 years time these are just the go-to images that will be replicated in media,” Nasr told me. However, he also remains alert to the ways in which icons in particular run the risk of flattening experience. “There are still limitations to what we can depict and what people see in those icons”. A purely “age positive” approach to design might well be challenged on this front. One of the biggest challenges facing designers is conveying and understanding older people’s experiences as varied, multiple, nuanced and evolving. 

Two projects that use a modern design language to aesthetically speak to nuanced experiences of aging are Magda Sabatowska’s Social Oven project and Rejane Dal Bello’s work with Studio Dumbar for the Dutch Alzheimer Foundation. Both use bold colourful palettes and distinctive typography to tell stories of social inclusion that certainly feel emotional. Studio Dumbar created a typography that shifts in readability and embraces texture to evoke the changes in meaning an Alzheimer’s patient might experience. Meanwhile, Sabatowska’s project aims to bring older women together through the medium of cooking and uses fun, accessible, and approachable design to support healthy aging in Polish housing estates.

Melanie Bell-Mayeda, Partner and Managing Director at the design company IDEO, has worked as a system design strategist across a range of care and aging-based projects. One project, The Powerful Now, designed creative solutions with companies, cities and social organizations to shift thinking around aging and caring on a global scale. Changing systems through design solutions means being attuned to a range of issues – from the labour of care (which disproportionally falls on women) to encouraging dignity in smart systems that allow people to age in place. The way older people are visually represented plays a role in these changes. Mayeda suggests we often see two types of older people, either the “‘decline model’ or the ‘silver-sneakers’ person, who’s running a marathon or still horseback riding”. But “the reality is there’s so much more in between”. 
Grace Creative, an LA-based advertising agency run by and for women over 50, also strives to produce graphic design that has their target audience in mind. Founding partner Kathy Sjogren notes that younger designers do not tend to “know what modern 50-year-old’s design sensibilities are because there are no 50-year-olds on creative teams at advertising agencies”’ and advocates for hiring “the target demographic you want to reach if you want the work to resonate”. (Indeed, as the AIGA 2019 Design Census shows, only 11% of designers in the workplace are over 50.)  “Those now most likely entering retirement came of age during a revolutionary period in design, branding and typography,” Sjogren said “We are a generation that has a natural appreciation for, and connection to, clean, modern design.” 
Yet, it wasn’t until 2020 that an alternative, ready-to-use icon was created by the Centre for Ageing Better, a charitable foundation focusing on improving experiences of later life in the UK. Hot on the heels of their free stock photography library, they launched a competition that asked graphic designers to reimagine the road sign and to create a suite of other icons that could represent older people in an “age-positive” way. As Ageing Better’s digital officer, Yehia Nasr, explained both the suite of icons and the public image library filled a gap for a range of needs – from wayfinding to care home signage and media coverage – which simply hadn’t existed before. The icon competition drew over 120 entries, suggesting it was a gap that graphic designers were interested in too.  The UK road sign has been contentious for at least the last two decades. In 2003, the words ‘elderly people’ were removed from underneath the image and in 2008, the then-Department for Transport argued that the sign didn’t depict older people but rather those who were frail. By 2015, the UK government’s independent policy advisers for the elderly, Dr. Ros Altmann, suggested there was a direct correlation between the sign and the risk that employers would be put off from hiring over 50s. That same year, Anna James, founder of the online retailer and lifestyle site Spring Chicken, brought together different design studios to redesign the icon. Submissions were included from graphic designers such as Milton Glaser and Vince Frost, as well as illustrator Marion Deuchars and typographer Margaret Calvert, the latter of whom designed many of the UK’s other iconic road signs. In fact, Calvert was keen to distance her other work from the sign depicting older people and active in calling on the ‘discriminatory’ signs to be removed.
In a philosophical sense, Zapolski suggests everyone—at any life stage—should be ready to think about aging through the lens of self-expression (as facilitated by design). “Imagine that life is a perpetual journey to becoming more and more of yourself, then it only follows from that, as you age, you want to continue to look for opportunities to express yourself aesthetically.” 
Then there’s the question of when does “old age” begin? Segmenting age generationally can create divides and suggest aging is a homogenous experience. For Mayeda, “when we bundle an entire group into 50+ or 65+ the point is missed – there are so many stages of change”. She suggests the solution is to start thinking about how design can be leveraged to change larger systems. For example, she outlines how, when designing generationally “you have to think in design arcs of three to five years of work for every 10 years of impact, because stereotypes are so persistent – systems are almost like a rubber band, they want to go back to the way that they currently operate”. To create true change through design will take a concerted and conscious effort. 
At Alive Ventures, co-designing takes the form of US-wide conversations with older people framed around four key themes: love, work, vitality and friendship. As a venture studio – a hybrid between a design studio and venture capital firm – co-design is at the heart and start of each project. The team has regular, weekly calls with groups of older people, digital networks that anyone can participate in, and run regular small group sessions using creative exercises to explore topics. “Whether we were meeting with a group of people in rural Mississippi, a Californian border town, or in New York City,” CEO John Zapolski told me, “we found that older people tended to be a little bit more optimistic and focus a little bit more on what they wanted, rather than what they didn’t have”. In the co-design sessions, it emerged that retired folks want to contribute to work, only in different ways that sit outside of the traditional nine-to-five. Older people want to find love and maintain friendships, only using different techniques and technology than a swipe-right dating app. Designing with older audiences allows for this nuance and for rethinking the way we can all approach work, love and friendship. 
With an eye on the future, “age-positive” design can enact small changes that shift huge systems—be that removing a road sign or developing products with both beauty and functionality in mind. Representation is one part of a whole and designers must remain mindful that ‘positive’ shouldn’t mean disguising the more difficult parts of aging. Rather, we should find hope in the complexity. By offering more nuanced and diverse images of later life design remains, as Mayeda confirms, an important element of “making aging something we all want to experience and invest in”.

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