Raising our game

In gestation for several years before its launch, the DBA Inclusive Design Challenge has now become a valuable asset for both the design industry and the society it serves

Jeremy Myerson, Director, Helen Hamlyn Centre, Royal College of Art

The origins of the DBA Inclusive Design Challenge stretch back to the early 1990s and the launch of the DesignAge action research programme at the Royal College of Art, led by Roger Coleman.

DesignAge was funded by the Helen Hamlyn Foundation to alert the design community to the far-reaching design implications of a rapidly ageing society. At the time, few in the youth-obsessed design industry recognised the profound demographic shift that was taking place.
Coleman had the bright idea of contacting the newly formed Design Business Association and suggesting a ’product challenge’ in which DBA member consultancies would work with older-user groups to develop new products for an ageing population, working on a speculative and socially progressive basis.

I was invited to chair the first product Challenges – these were lively affairs held at the Royal College of Art, presenting a flow of new ideas for older people. Standout solutions from this period included garden shears by Seymour Powell and an inclusive rethink of the bus passenger experience by Ideo. The Ideo project, called Urban Bus, accurately prefigured many of the ideas later put into practice by Transport for London.

When Roger Coleman and I co-founded the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the RCA in 1999, building on the achievements of DesignAge, it was the product challenge format with the DBA from the early 1990s that we dusted off for the new millennium. Senior Research Fellow Julia Cassim joined us, having worked extensively with Japan’s visually impaired community, and she was passionate about demonstrating to professional design consultancies the value of inclusive design in the innovation process. What better way to do so than through an intense Challenge experience?

What Cassim brought to the RCA was not only focus and commitment, but an international perspective that recognised that disabled people, young and old, could be an inspiration for designers due to their lateral problem-solving skills, honed daily through living in a difficult world not designed for their needs.

Thus, when the first DBA Inclusive Design Challenge was launched in 2000, it fused design for older and disabled people into one model. The inherent frailties that come to us ’The DBA Inclusive Design Challenge is the combined Oscars and Olympics of inclusive design’ Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC correspondent all with ageing would be explored through creative collaboration with ’extreme users’ drawn from the disabled communities with whom Cassim enjoyed close links.

In the first year, Factory Design’s new-style milk carton Milkman, developed in close partnership with people living with severe arthritis, showed how both targets – age and disability – could be reached. Factory made a six-minute film to show the process and the resulting concept, a format that became the standard presentation tool for all Challenge entrants during the coming decade.

Once the competition element of the Challenge was established in 2001, with an annual trophy designed by an RCA student or graduate, we were treated to a succession of full houses at the RCA award nights. What started as an extension of the original product challenge swiftly branched out to embrace visual communications and digital design. And what started as a London-centric affair gradually attracted the participation of creative DBA groups from around the regions.

As the year-by-year review on the following pages reveals, many exciting concepts emerged and touched the market in one form or another. BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones once described the DBA Inclusive Design Challenge as ’the combined Oscars and Olympics of inclusive design’. For the Helen Hamlyn Centre, it has been a priceless asset in putting inclusive design on the map – and in encouraging professional designers of all disciplines to raise their game and think more broadly about the society they serve.

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