When I first told my tenth grade Foundations of Design class that we would be working with members of the local senior center on a collaborative design project, the enthusiasm was less than noticeable. “Old people scare me” is one comment I heard among concerns and stories of past encounters with the elderly. Even after describing the lesson, the students were still less than pleased. The class would be working in small groups with an adult. The goal of the project was to learn how to work with a client of a different age to either redesign a product or come up with a whole new solution to a problem that the person has with a product that is used on a daily basis. The students had been practicing the design process throughout the semester long class to come up with solutions to their own design problems. Up until the intergenerational collaboration, they were only expected to design for themselves or for imaginary clients. The thought of a real client was daunting, and the fact that the client would be an elderly person who wasn’t their grandparent, frightened them.
I knew it was important for the students to gain some empathy towards elderly people or people with disabilities in order for a successful collaboration. Before they met with the members of the senior center we took a class period to discuss products geared toward the elderly. We discussed walkers and how many people put tennis balls on the bottoms to improve the design. The class enjoyed talking about cell phones and how their own grandparents have a hard time using the phones that are even marketed for an older age group. After sensing the hesitation to work with the seniors I allowed them to experience a generic version of some of the problems that elderly people face. The students wore foam ear plugs, fogged safety goggles, and a contraption on their hands that limited the use of their thumbs, made out of gloves and Popsicle sticks. They even exchanged shoes with a classmate and were asked to keep their backs at an angle as they walked. Although the exercise was a fun way of explaining my point, the students understood that menial tasks become very difficult with small impairments.
The Design Process
During their meeting, planned interviews were conducted between the students and adults and the groups cleverly came up with the design problem that they wished to work on together. One group set out to take on the problem of using a walking cane in slippery weather conditions while another group tackled the small tag on a plastic milk container that one pulls on to open a new bottle. The students asked specific questions about the complications that the adults had with these products and came up
with a broad design problem instead of a limiting redesign option. They thought about many possible
solutions to their initial specific problem as well as solutions to other problems that came about through
the design process. The interactions between the different generations were interesting to observe.
Many of the adults were asking for advice from the teenagers and at the same time keeping them focused
and on task.
Models and Prototypes
When the brainstorming was completed, the students worked on two dimensional models of their
design ideas and presented them to the adults. The entire group came together to analyze the designs
and make sure that every possible problem was thought of. The students were then asked to create a
model or working prototype depending on the product. One group was able to design and create a glove
for a senior with severe disabilities that affected the mobility in his hands. The glove had Velcro fixed
in targeted locations and matched on several accessories such as a paintbrush, toothbrush, and eating
utensils. The glove allowed the user to attach the accessories so that when hand fatigue set in, the utensil
wouldn’t fall to the ground.
The value of intergenerational collaboration
Although some groups were not able to create working prototypes, the project proved to be a success
in many ways. The adults had a vehicle for voicing the problems that they face on a daily basis
and were able to feel as though the students cared about the products that were being sold to them. The
students gained an appreciation for the simple things that they take for granted in their daily endeavors.
One student remarked, “ I don’t spend a lot of time with my grandparents so when I thought about
problems that elderly people have I figured it really wasn’t a big deal. After talking with my group
member and seeing how he struggles with simple tasks, I now appreciate the difficulties that exist.”
People in different age groups rarely have a vehicle for collaboration. I would highly recommend using
the senior members of a community as a resource for the students and allowing the students to become
involved in trying to improve another person’s life, in simple ways.
I have been teaching art and design at the middle and high school level since 2006 and learning about both for a lot longer.