Design Pioneer: Patricia Moore – Mother of Universal Design

27Mar13

(This is an article I recently wrote for another publication)

Patricia Moore photo

Patricia (Pattie) Moore is a pioneering female designer, gerontologist (social scientist of the aging), author, educator and design thought leader. Pattie has been named by ID magazine as one of the 40 Most Socially Conscious Designers in the world. In 2000 she was selected by a consortium of news editors and organizations as one of the 100 Most Important Women in America. Syracuse University has selected Moore for a 2012 Honorary Doctorate for serving as a “guiding force for a more humane and livable world, blazing a path for inclusiveness, as a true leader in the movement of Universal Design.”

You could easily thank Pattie for many well designed products such as OXO Smart-Grip potato peelers that feel comfy in the hands of both kids and grandparents. But you should more importantly thank her for her contribution to Universal Design which is an approach to design that considers every ability, age and walk of life. Whilst Pattie is considered a founding mother of Universal Design this approach to design is also known as Inclusive Design . Pattie’s early experiences, which fuelled her passion for Universal Design, is an interesting story.

During the 1970’s, Pattie worked as an industrial designer at the internationally renowned Raymond Loewy design office in New York. It may sound strange to us today but at the time she was the only female designer there. Product design was then largely concerned with designing for caucasian, upper middle class “average users”, with 2.3 children. Have you seen a 0.3 child? Does an “average user” have one breast and one ball? At work Pattie would often challenge her colleagues as to how people with arthritis would use certain products and they would respond, “we don’t design for those people!”.

Frustrated by this attitude, Pattie sought to explore what it really felt like to be old in order to design products that are suitable for everyone including the elderly. Where in the design world we talk a lot about the need for designers to have empathy for the people they design for, this approach is taking empathic research to the extreme.

During 1979-1982, a twenty something year-old Pattie dressed up as an elderly woman wearing her grandmother’s clothes, uncomfortable shoes she made that she had difficulty walking in, plugs for her ears to distort her hearing, and thick glasses that significantly distorted her vision. During this three year period she travelled to 116 cities in America and Canada and pretended to be an 80 year old. With her body altered to simulate the normal sensory changes associated with ageing, she was able to respond to people, products, and environments as an elder. She created nine different personas which she would rotate, including a homeless woman and a very wealthy woman in order to reflect on how other aspects influenced her experiences. With the use of canes, walkers and a wheelchair, she was also able to approximate different levels of reduced mobility. Pattie was dismayed at some of the treatment she received, including being attacked by a gang that left permanent injuries including her not being able to have children. This experience helped her to intimately understand how difficult the world was to negotiate as an elder.

Pattie has published several book chapters on Universal Design and in 1980 she set up her own design firm which specialises in developing new products for senior citizens. These days Pattie works on designing health and housing solutions for the ageing as well as inspiring young designers to come to understand the potential of design through university collaborations. In a recent interview by the California College of the Arts, Pattie discusses the power of design.

“Design has morphed into the cornerstone of equity, culture, and socialisation. It’s about bringing resources to people who don’t have them …..The power of design is to look at each individual, their home, their community, and the infinite small things that make for success or failure of interaction in those realms….”

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