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This Age Thing

In 1999 he set up the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design with Roger Coleman – and he subsequently played a lead role at the RCA in establishing InnovationRCA, the College’s incubator for new business start-ups; the Design London joint venture with Imperial College London; the Helix Centre at St Mary’s Hospital London, Europe’s first design-led innovation centre inside a working hospital; and, most recently, the new Design Age Institute in 2020.

He was Director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design for 16 years until 2015, pioneering new practices in inclusive design in relation to population ageing. Today, he holds the Helen Hamlyn Chair of Design at the RCA. He is the author of more than 20 books on a wide range of subjects in art, design and architecture. October 2021 sees the release of his new book Designing a World for Everyone: 30 Years of Inclusive Design, which charts the history of inclusive design through the lens of projects from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design.

What have been the most interesting changes in design that you have seen?

The way design has shifted over the past 30 years from a commercial tool for business to a cultural platform to address social challenges around ageing, climate or health has been fascinating to witness. So has the progression from designing the standalone artefact to designing complex systems. I’ve also been intrigued by the rise of service design and digital communication. Design never stands still.        

What led you to co-found the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design?

Our purpose – to mobilise the RCA community to design for an ageing society – was never going to be bounded within one or two design programmes. We needed to create a research vehicle that spanned the entire College and sat outside the conventional RCA structures. The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design was an experiment, the first unit of its kind to be defined not by a single creative discipline but by an over-arching social challenge. That’s why we were able to make a convincing case for inclusive design.     

What do you feel has been your greatest achievements with the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design?

I’ve always felt our network of Helen Hamlyn research alumni, now numbering close to 200 RCA graduates, and working in some of the world’s top design roles in practice, research and education, represents our greatest achievement. Yes, we’ve developed some good products, devised some useful research tools and written some influential papers, but it’s the people who are now carrying the torch for inclusive design through their careers that really count.   

You chose to study with the RCA. Why do you think the College continues to be the hub for top innovation and design?

I arrived at the RCA as a mature student in 1991 having already covered its affairs for more than a decade as a journalist. I was attracted by its relative smallness and sense of intimacy, and by its aura of intellectual curiosity and possibility. I assume that same gravitational pull keeps the RCA to the fore today. 

You have published some research that gives insights into how optimal workspace can boost our individual, team and organisational performance. How do you think the pandemic and working from home has affected this?

It took working from home throughout the pandemic for people to realise just how uncomfortable and poorly designed most offices are. One of our top architects recently reminded me that working eight hours in a standard office is like taking a long-haul flight – exhausting and dull. My hope is that, after the pandemic, offices will start to pay more attention to our senses and our wellbeing, and less to efficiency.

Our Future Foyle, Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design

Are the days of a traditional offices over after the Covid-19 pandemic and the changes it has wrought in working practices?

Rumours of the death of the office are greatly exaggerated, in my view. Work will become more hybrid and flexible, with more days at home. But we’ll also spend a great deal of time in the office because we crave social interactions with our colleagues, and we find such activities as learning and innovating easier to do face to face. Younger people are also trying to build a professional network, and that’s so hard to do on Zoom.

You are co-founder and director of WORKTECH Academy, a global knowledge network of companies and academics exploring how we will work tomorrow. Your expertise is in analysing how a combination of design, technology, behaviour, place and culture will shape the new world of work. How do you see the workplace of tomorrow?

The workplace of tomorrow will need to be as comfortable and personalised as the home, if not more so, because people will have a choice where they work. The days of the high-density office factory floor are over. Expect to see hospitality-style design combined with the latest tech. Think of people conversing in a wing chairs attended by a robot butler.  

As curator of the NEW OLD exhibition what innovative ideas have you seen that will enhance the experience of our later lives?

We took the NEW OLD exhibition on tour to Taiwan, Poland and the Pratt Institute in New York after its initial run at the Design Museum in London. More than 100,000 people saw the exhibition. Wherever we went, the innovative ideas that really caught the imagination were all to do with the possibilities of new technologies – whether smart wearables, autonomous vehicles, or biotech interventions in the ageing process. As they say, the future of ageing isn’t what it used to be!  

How would you like to see the Design Age Institute help shape the future of ageing?

The Design Age Institute is a fantastic new initiative that will create products and services to support healthy ageing through creative partnerships. I think the Institute can make a big difference in terms of innovation in a longevity sector that badly needs it. As a country, the UK is great at identifying the problem and delivering the solution once it knows what to do. Its weakness is in design and development, there’s a failure of imagination. I was delighted to be part of the successful bid to Research England and the set-up of the Institute. But it was a case of enlightened self-interest - as I get older, I want great design around me!       

What do you feel is one of the biggest misconceptions of ageing?

The biggest misconception is that you can address the needs of ageing with special needs design. Older people don’t want to be patronised or marginalised - they want to be included. They want the same design as everyone else.

You will be retiring at the end of this academic year, with all your insights what will you be doing to live a healthier and more rewarding life?

Well, I’m retiring from the RCA but not giving up work. I’m reverting to journalism through the WORKTECH Academy platform - I write or commission a lot of the articles. My experience tells me to keep active in mind and body. I’m hoping to improve my tennis and step it up on the tenor sax. I intend to be busy.

Tell us about your new book Designing a World for Everyone: 30 Years of Inclusive Design.

It tells the story of 30 years of inclusive design through 30 objects and environments that the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design has influenced – from the airport and the ambulance to the park, power tool and wheelchair. It has a very simple structure and is intended for a general readership. I suppose it is true to our core principle of being as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.