Design for Elders

Community Partner Organization: Bethany Center Senior Housing, San Francisco:

CCA Faculty Leaders: Rachel Robinette and Charlie Sheldon, Design

Outside Experts: Patricia Moore, designer and gerontologist; Jump Associates:; Wayne Pan of Affinity Medical Solutions: and SciMed Partners Inc.:; Anna Cwirko-Godycki of the U.S. Administration on Aging:

Goal: Define pragmatic, cost-effective design solutions that benefit elder residents and administrators at Bethany Center

Bethany Center is a progressive, publicly subsidized, low-income, 133-unit elder living facility in San Francisco's Mission District. Its population is incredibly diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, language, and the residents' personal histories. It also has a specific policy of encouraging and welcoming the arts, which made it an obvious ENGAGE match for faculty leaders Rachel Robinette and Charlie Sheldon.

"The Bethany Center was really excited to get a fresh take on its problems -- which are mostly centered on communications, residential life, and community engagement -- from a design perspective," says Sheldon.

The 14 participating students began by researching aging from personal, health, product, and trend awareness standpoints, then establishing a conceptual map of how individuals age in today's society. After validating and building on their findings with a number of experts from state agencies, the medical profession, and the design industry, the next step was to interview and shadow residents and staff at Bethany Center. The threads they pursued included an interactive photo booth for the lobby, an elevator redesign, resident ID cards, a proposal for a new garden and activity space, and programming and design initiatives centered around cooking. Supplementary documentation included a checklist that will help in evaluating future problems and environmental and policy improvements. Jump Associates, an innovation strategy firm, provided guidance and hands-on tutorials on research, analysis, and design methods.

As they developed and refined their concepts, the students invited Bethany Center residents to "co-design" sessions in which the elders could give direct feedback. "Seeing the students showing their work to the people who would actually benefit from their ideas was one of the most rewarding moments of the class," says Robinette. "The Bethany residents actually grabbed markers and drew out their feedback and input."

The students' main deliverable was in the form of a presentation of ideas and prototypes to residents, staff, and board members. "A semester is a short period of time,” says Sheldon. "We're already planning to build on what we started here in a second course next year. We will seek grants and partners to fully implement the concepts. Working alongside community members with tangible needs added a layer of motivation, realism, and context to the project. The learning outcomes were substantial and ingrained key principles about civic responsibility while at the same time demonstrating what constitutes a strong design process."

"The students became personally involved in the needs of the clients," Sheldon continues, "and we as instructors became resources to help them succeed. Design is a powerful source of creative solutions, and I hope that the students and our community partners recognize and benefit from it—that they now see ways to apply design in contexts where issues haven't yet been regarded with design in mind."

For Haley Toelle (Industrial Design 2012), "The most rewarding part was designing something for a very specific group of people within our community and then seeing their reactions. Sometimes we designers fall into the trap of designing just for other designers. Some of our solutions maybe seemed unglamorous, but seeing nods of approval, smiles, and excitement from the residents made me feel like I had really embraced what it is to design for people. It was emotional, and I feel very inspired to continue along this path. These people made the experience very real, and their stories and interactions taught me more than anything I could have learned in a classroom."

Excerpted from All Hands on Deck by Samathan Braman.