There is a long tradition of developing empathy through direct experience of other people’s lives. Much of it has been aimed at understanding the lives of those living in poverty. In the late 1920s George Orwell dressed up as a tramp and wandered the streets of East London with vagabonds and beggars, a period of his life described in his book Down and Out in Paris and London. More recently, the British journalist Polly Toynbee wrote about her time trying out a variety of minimum wage jobs (Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain), a path also followed by the American social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America).
These examples are well known. So I would like to tell you about one of the most extraordinary forgotten instances of experiential empathetic adventuring. It happened exactly forty years ago.
In the mid 1970s Patricia Moore, aged twenty-six, was working as an industrial designer at the top New York firm Raymond Loewy, who had been responsible for designing the Coca-Cola bottle and the Shell logo. During a planning meeting she asked a simple question: ‘Couldn’t we design the refrigerator door so that someone with arthritis would find it easy to open?’ And one of her more senior colleagues replied, with disdain: ‘Pattie, we don’t design for those people.’ She was incensed. What did he mean, ‘those people’?
So she decided to conduct an empathy experiment and discover the realities of life as an eighty-year-old woman. She put on makeup so she looked old and wrinkly, wore glasses that blurred her vision, clipped on a brace and wrapped bandages around her torso so she was hunched over, plugged up her ears so she couldn’t hear well, and put on awkward, uneven shoes so she was forced to walk with a stick.
Now she was ready. Between 1979 and 1982 Patricia Moore visited over a hundred American cities in her new persona, attempting to negotiate the world around her and find out the everyday challenges that elderly people faced and how they were treated. She tried shopping in supermarkets, going up and down stairs, in and out of department stores, catching the bus, opening fridge doors, using can openers and much more. At one point she was robbed, beaten and left for dead by a gang of youths.
And the result of her immersion? Patricia Moore took industrial design in a radically new direction. Based on her experiences and insights, she was able to design a whole series of innovative products that were suitable for use by elderly people, such as those with arthritic hands. You know those potato peelers with thick rubber handles? That was her invention. She is credited as one of the founders of Universal Design, an approach in which products are designed non-exclusively, for use by the widest range of consumers possible, and which has now become standard in the industry.
As well as starting her own design firm and writing about what she calls the ’empathic model’ of design, she went on to become an expert in the field of gerontology, an empathy trainer for new staff in nursing homes, and a campaigner for the rights of senior citizens. Her time travel across the generations transformed not only the lives of others, but also her own.
Just imagine, for a moment, that Patricia Moore had your job. What empathy experiments might she conduct to expand her worldview and imagination?
Here is Patricia Moore describing her experiment as an elder, and her philosophy of design.: