How an industrial designer discovered the elderly

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.

Patricia Moore as a young designer.
Patricia Moore as a young designer.

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.

Patricia Moore
Patricia Moore, in her twenties, facing the world as an eighty-year-old.

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:

9 thoughts on “How an industrial designer discovered the elderly

  1. As a systems programmer, there is an entire world of improvement that can be made in the technology industry. As I spend more time immersed in technology, I find myself gravitating toward designs that are more universally friendly (i.e. trackball mice; hardware with clear, understandable buttons and labels; remote controls with larger buttons and less buttons; the list goes on).

    I believe that items that are universally designed are indeed better overall from a usability standpoint. With regards to design, my opinion is that,

    “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint Exupéry

    Start as simple as possible and add features if necessary. So what dictates necessity? I suppose that depends on your perspective. For me, a tool that performs a single task well is all that is necessary. This does not mean that the tool cannot be used for other purposes than that intended by the original design, but staying true to purpose is important to design.

    But I have digressed into a design discussion. This article illustrates a great example of empathy to better the world. I find it hard to be empathetic at times, but nothing works quite so well as immersion in an environment. I can’t say that I’m surprised at the fact that she was beaten at one point during her “experiment”, but I am disappointed at the way the United States treats its elderly population.

    The elderly built our society and country. They brought our nation to its current state, for better or worse. They have experience and wisdom that we should leverage to design an even better nation. Time is of the essence and an empathetic ear might just lead to another great innovation.

  2. Fascinating, Roman, but is this empathy?

    There is a strong sense of self promotion in all the examples you cite. The video (love the music by the way) concluded with global tv footage of Pat Moore (captioned Moore and Associates) which strongly suggests that this is a highly self-conscious media exercise. Orwell writes powerfully, but it is always rather ludicrous to think of this Etonian with lots of rich arty chums as really Down and Out. Ehrenreich and Toynbee are also professional journalists knowing that this is a great yarn (Ehrenreich’s started writing up her experiences half way through for Harpers).

    I feel that these writers are great white explorers of class divides: that it is only because they come from the same class as their readers that they can be a trusted intermediary (I think, for example of all those books and novels in which a Western protagonist explores the third world).This is not to say that they are not sympathetic, or even empathetic. Nor is it to say that their work is unimportant in creating empathetic understanding.

    But it is to question the purity of their own motives given that their plan was always to dip in, and then come out promptly and promote their experiences. There are many many people who empathise so strongly with another group that they immerse themselves and simply disappear. The thing is: you don’t usually hear about them.

    So I tried to think of an example of extreme empathetic immersion and came up with Bruno Manser who abandoned Switzerland to live with the Penan hunter gatherers in Borneo, who adopted him as an equal. Bruno is hardly unknown- ( but it was never his plan to write a book or go on talk shows . I knew him well and believe that he would have happily stayed anonymously in the forests of Sarawak for the rest of his life. The outside world, in the form of industrial logging, caught up with him and he dedicated himself to defending the forests and the Penan – but he came out very reluctantly and only because his life was threatened. In the end he could not stand it any longer and went back in- only to disappear forever.

    WHat do other readers think?

  3. I don’t want to crowd out other people’s responses, George, but let me say a few words in reply.

    I think you’re right to point out that empathy experiments are often temporary affairs. Indeed, they are sometimes terribly superficial, as in the case of many life-swap TV shows. There is something very powerful about the examples of people who immerse themselves in other lives and cultures for long periods of time. Gandhi, for instance, was one of them, living for years on ashrams effectively as a peasant farmer, unlike Orwell who dipped in and out of being a tramp. But obviously Gandhi became more well-known than Bruno Manser!

    I think it’s important to look at people’s intentions for empathising. Were they doing it for the right reasons? As I explain in my forthcoming book ‘Empathy’, Orwell went down and out in the East End of London and Paris, as well at other times in his life, not simply because he wanted good copy for his books and newspaper articles, but because of a genuine desire to understand life on the social margins and to tell the world about it.

    One of the reasons I highlighted Patricia Moore’s case was precisely because it wasn’t an instance of a rich person trying to discover the lives of poor people; it was about crossing generational divides rather than class divides. I don’t believe it was an exercise in self-promotion, as you can find out if you read her book, ‘Disguised’. She was deeply concerned with the plight of the elderly, believing them to be a forgotten sector of society. She went on to become a respected gerontologist, as well as being a designer, and spent years campaigning for the rights of the elderly. Most of her TV appearances took place several years after she did her experiment on the streets, at the time her book came out (which is also when the video was made). Even if it looks otherwise, it is clear to me that she saw her empathetic journeys, as well as her media appearances, as a form of social activism.

  4. Hi Roman,
    I appreciate your comments about the sincerity of these people, though I still think their motives are mixed…from what I have read about Orwell he had a complex and restless psychology, so certaintly some kind of empathy, but also a kind of rootlessness. And my point remains that he maintains this pretense that he is going to starve along with his fellow plongeurs in some garret which makes me rather think of those tv documentaries in which you can only believe that people are taking huge risks and dangers if you forget that the crew filming them are on the other side of the lens,
    …and then there is that old egotist Gandhi with his pack of followers and acolytes and a 24 hour team of scribes at his elbow writing down his every word- someone once said that it cost a lot of money to keep Gandhi in poverty…!

  5. these are interesting comments about a writer/designer/activists motivations and empathy.

    I’m not sure that the two (empathy for others and self promotion) are mutually exclusive although, without doubt there is scope for conflict of interest. it reminds me of debates in literary theory about reading a poet or novelist’s life events into their creative work, and that this is by no means the method of interpretation: the analogy isn’t perfect.

    while of course Orwell, Gandhi, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Patricia Moore publicised their activities, and through this themselves, it is without doubt that the insights they brought to the general public through their undercover activities inspired many and made others think. And in the modern day, forms of self-publicity are available without any moral aspect to them. also, a certain amount of promotion – of oneself or one’s work – has needed to be done in the recent past in order for the mainstream media to take note and to give public space to communicate stories and ideas, and a “human story” of the dramatic undercover ruse has helped that to happen, although of course in an ideal world, the stories of injustice and inequality that these people have sought to publicise should be understood and taken up for its own sake.

    Perhaps with the accessibility of the internet and its freedom of participation, this situation will change and stories can come to public consciousness directly from those experiencing it, without a “translator” from a privileged background who acts as conduit.

  6. I was so excited to find your article on Patti Moore. May I quote some sections from this blog if I give you credit? I’ve been using her immersion experience as the perfect springboard to teach creative writing students in grade 3-12 about the elderly and the challenges they face. I have a workshop this WEEKEND so would really appreciate it. I use other materials about her, but I love the whole PURPOSE of your website. BRAVO!

  7. I enjoyed reading the true story of Pat Moore. As a nurse and the author of My Parent My Child, I can relate to her story. This blog is over five years old. What is the current status on Pat in 2017? Has she done an update on the elderly? What is she currently doing ?

  8. Hi Roman! Thanks so much for writing your book, Empathy: Why it matters and how to get it. It was very eye opening and challenging. I appreciate your work!

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