Designing for All
As an increasingly popular buzzword, universal design has sometimes been misinterpreted as designing for specific, unique needs like aging or limited mobility. But when done right, it should take individuals of all ages and abilities into account. When it improves the human experience and fulfills needs, design can help people live better.
The owners of Lifespan Design Studio set out to do just that. Based in Loveland, Ohio, this universally-focused design firm was founded by architect Douglas Gallow Jr. and his wife, gerontologist Ellen Gallow. The firm specializes in designing homes and senior community centers that help people age successfully. “It’s all about our different and constantly changing abilities as we all age through the lifespan,” said Douglas Gallow Jr. “For us, that’s called design. It’s not universal design. It’s not design for aging. It’s just design, and that’s the way we think.”
There’s no such thing as average
An early work experience inspired Ellen Gallow to work toward finding better design solutions for older adults. After studying gerontology, the sociology of aging, at the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University of Ohio, she began her career working in a senior community center and ultimately served as the center’s director. She recalls a talented artist in her mid-80s who regularly volunteered at the center to teach classes who could not open the door to the building because it was so heavy and difficult to manage. “She would literally have to ring a doorbell that we had installed for her benefit so we could let her in when she came to teach classes,” said Ellen Gallow. “Early on, it registered with my brain—that is a big deal. She shouldn’t have to suffer that inconvenience and indignity.”
And it’s not just some older adults who might struggle with a heavy door. “A frail older adult, a small child, and a teen with a broken arm might all find it impossible to manage, although they’re at different places in their lifespan,” said Douglas Gallow. “You can’t just think about it from an aging standpoint. You have to think about what people’s different abilities are and how the physical environment hinders that experience.” His comment highlights a point from his firm’s website: that most buildings were built for the “average” person. The problem is, most people aren’t average.
Take this example from the airplane world: When measuring thousands of airmen on a set of ten critical physical dimensions to fit into an Air Force cockpit, researchers realized that none of the pilots measured was average on all ten dimensions. By designing something for an average pilot, it actually fit nobody. Performance suffered because pilots were not fitting well into the regulation cockpits. To address this, engineers and contractors created new, adjustable equipment designed to fit multiple shapes and sizes of pilots, and performance improved as a result.
Since most people aren’t “average,” shouldn’t we design products and systems that accommodate as many people as possible? Douglas Gallow thinks so. “We think every design decision can be made to better provide a quality of life,” he said.at’s the way we think.”
Asking the right questions
In her time at Marvin, senior product manager Brenda Brunk has spent over two decades researching and building products from start to finish. Over the course of her career, she’s found that regardless of a person’s age or ability, everyone wants a product that’s easy to operate. “We really try to look at who’s going to interact with that product,” said Brunk. “How do we make this product easy and universal for everyone to use?”
For example, many homeowners struggle with trying to reach the check rail or lock on single hung windows, especially when windows are located over a kitchen sink or otherwise not easily accessible. It can be so challenging to close them that some homeowners have had to get creative with their solutions and work around the operational limitations, using long poles to ensure that they can even reach the lock.
The idea for Lift Lock, one of Marvin’s latest innovations, began with commercial projects, where windows can be extremely large. Lift Lock moves the locking mechanism on a single hung window from the check rail to the bottom of the sash, creating easier access to open the window. Once they started considering all audiences, Marvin’s team found that the appeal went beyond commercial and could help homeowners, too. “We started to realize that this would have more residential appeal than we initially thought,” said Bill Boyd, senior marketing product manager.
As more homeowners discover Lift Lock, feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s another example of universal design that makes life easier for everyone. “It solves problems, yet it’s so simple a design,” said Boyd.
Design to suit evolving needs
It’s easy to only think about one’s current stage of life, but considering every stage of a human lifespan during the design process makes the results better for everyone. “There is no us and them in this conversation whatsoever,” said Douglas Gallow. “There’s only us.” Fortunately, forward-thinking architects and product designers are taking the necessary steps to implement design that works for all, helping us prepare for life’s inevitable changes with optimism.