Design for Aging in a Modern World: Linking Aging Theory and Design Process

Presented by: Migette L. Kaup

Design for Aging in a Modern World is an advanced level course offered on-line to both undergraduate design students as well as non-design students studying gerontology at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The focus of the course is to use foundational theories of environmental gerontology (e.g. Lawton, 1980, see Appendix A) and life course perspectives (e.g. Moody, 2006; Settersten, 2003) as a way of framing solutions to modern design problems for older adults. The course is organized around four core sections. The first section addresses the foundational theories on aging as well as the physiological changes that are common in later years. The second section introduces the process of design thinking and targets issues for products used in everyday life. The third section focuses on design issues for home and work. And, in the final section, the class considers design consideration for community planning.

One of the major objectives of the course is to teach students how theories on aging and life course are exceptionally powerful when combined with the design process to solve critical issues relevant for aging populations. In the second module, the students are asked to select a product or an environmental design feature, analyze it from several perspectives as introduced in the first module, and then re-envision the product or attribute as re-designed or improved to better address an older user group. The analysis starts with consideration to commonly held life-course perspectives such as modernization theory of aging (Cockerham, 1997) or activity theory of aging (Cummings & Henry, 1961), and, they are asked to consider dimensions such as physiology, psychology, sociology, and culture, and describe what will matter most to this user group (See Appendix B). 

The strategy to guide students through an analysis and re-conceptualization process includes the use of a web-based resource called the “Inclusive Design Tool Kit.” The kit provides planning and analysis tools and demonstrates steps in design and problem solving. The kit can also demonstrate an assessment of the demands that a task places on the user’s capabilities and provides feedback on the proportion of individuals who would be unable to complete that task. As students begin their analysis, they are required to share their experiences and pose questions to each other about the web-based tools. They also provide ideas and feedback relative to what their peers are discovering in relationship to their selected items. Students then proceed with an individual narrative analysis articulating their assessment as well as the suggested changes for enhanced acceptability and usability of the item for an older user group. Finally, the students are asked to either design or narrate an advertisement that would be directed at and be attractive to this targeted group.

Results demonstrated through the student projects reveal that a heightened awareness and understanding of user/product interface is developed through this active learning experience. Non-design students are especially attracted to the tools as a mechanism to understand the relationship between the human experience and physical design attributes. Design students develop a stronger ability to tie social theoretical constructs to the design and problem solving processes that they’ve come to take for granted. Student dialogue demonstrates a strong appreciation for the shared learning experience facilitated through the use of the web-based tools. This presentation will outline the structure of the on-line course and these targeted student learning outcomes (SLOs), provide a detailed explanation of the assignment that is used to achieve the SLOs, and, provide examples of projects that demonstrate how students reconsider the interface of environmental attributes and the aging human body along with the social constructs that provide meaning and value to the items that individuals interact with on a daily basis.


  • Cockerham, W. C. (1997). This aging society (2nd ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Cumming, E. & Henry, W. E. (1961). Growing old: The process of disengagement. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  • Lawton, M. P. (1980). Environment in human behavior. In M. P. Lawton (Ed.) Environment and Aging (pp. 1 -20). Monterey, CA: Brooks/ Cole Publishing Co.
  • Moody, H. R. (2006) A life course perspective on aging. In H. R. Moody (Ed). Aging: Concepts and controversies (5th ed.) (pp. 1-25) London: Pine Forge Press.
  • Settersten, R. (2003) Propositions and controversies in life-course scholarship. In R. A. Settersten (Ed). Invitation to the life course: Toward new understandings of later life. (pp. 15-45) Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishers.

Appendix File 1
Appendix File 2

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