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One sure sign is slowed response time, with a
corresponding drop in enthusiasm for responding at all. It is poignantly
expressed in Robert Frost’s shortest poem, “The Span of Life”:
The old dog barks without getting up,
I can remember when he was a pup.
Another is increased sensitivity to cold. A Roz Chast drawing in The New Yorker shows “Old People in Hell”: three shivering seniors, one of them saying, “You call this hot?”
There are a multitude of markers for old age. Folk wisdom holds that
first your legs go, then your mind, but in real life that order is less
predictable. An actress friend of mine decided she was getting old when
scratches took weeks to heal instead of hours. Henry Wolf thought the
infallible signal was that the office phone stopped ringing. William
Paley said it was when people began remarking, “How well you look,” but
he confessed that he had heard that first from Cardinal Spellman and
added, “I always thought less of him as a Cardinal after that.”
Through most of recorded time, such problems were not thought by many to
be addressable by designers. But individual lives, on average, record
more time than they once did. The phenomenon is largely responsible for
the advent of Universal Design with major improvements in safety,
mobility, and healthcare, and minor improvements in convenience. But
while Universal Design improves life for people of all ages, it holds no promise of eradicating the distinction between them. We still look for telling indications.
John Updike has found one: suddenly, he reports, everything becomes
harder to open. This criterion not only can be addressed by design, but
should be, since design has contributed so significantly to the problem.
Updike’s is not a reliable gauge of age because today everything is
harder for everybody to open. Design deficiencies inevitably
breed new designs for dealing with them, so hardware stores are stocked
with devices for getting lids off jars and caps off bottles, activities
that once could be performed by the naked hand.
A few weeks ago I bought a new razor that promised to raise the
experience of shaving to a level never previously achieved. This was to
be accomplished by a configuration of four blades powered by a AAA
battery that makes the thing vibrate and hum. I couldn’t wait to open it
when I got home. But, for that matter, I couldn’t open it when I got
home, for it was vacuum packed in the amount of molded plastic required
to house a helicopter cabin and of the same thickness. When she found me
vainly trying to stab it with a pair of Fiskar scissors, my wife
“A poor workman blames his tools,” she said, “but a really incompetent
workman can’t even find the right ones.” The last remaining evidence of
her Masters degree in graphic design is a drawerful of Xacto knives.
Designers seldom use them these days, but my wife does, finding them
superior to anything in the OXO line for ripping into blister packs and
slicing bagels. Producing one, she did manage in time to unsheathe the
razor. She also managed to cut her finger, a prelude to my nicking my
chin with the razor a few minutes later.
There was a time when presents were mailed in November with the challenging admonition: Do not open until Christmas.
That tradition has given way to a new challenge: anyone receiving a
package in November has to attack it immediately to get it open by
Christmas. At a time when we are urged at every turn to think outside
the box, many of us can’t get into it in the first place.
At my granddaughter’s fifth birthday party in January, unwrapping the
gifts was literally child’s play. It took Rachel an average of twelve
seconds to unwrap each one. Once the paper and ribbons were off,
however, it took her father—armed with a Swiss Army Knife and a full
complement of shop tools—an average of twenty-three minutes to penetrate
the carcass in which each doll was mummified.
Designers have always understood containment as an aspect of design,
which is why your Mac is so much handsomer than my PC. Ben Thompson, the
architect who founded Design Research, the first of the scores of “good
design” shops that dot the landscape and the Web, wrote about the
initial appearance of Charles Eames’s molded plywood chair.
“Contemporary furniture at that time was usually shipped in heavy wooden
crates and arrived broken,” Thompson remembered. “Wrestling with the
Railway Express and insurance companies was the most painful chore in
furniture retailing. You sometimes had to order two or three backup
chairs in order to receive one intact. Suddenly here was a technological
chair discovery that was not only comfortable to sit on, but
conveniently packaged in a cardboard box that solved the shipping
problem. Everyone who came to the store studied the welded rubber
connections and the molded plywood, asking ‘Who is Charles Eames?’ I
studied the shipping box.’”
One of the best design books I know is Hidiyuki Oka’s How to Wrap 5 Eggs,
which is not a how-to manual for the poultry industry but a stunning
presentation of traditional Japanese packaging. In a worshipful forward
George Nelson calls our attention to the capacity of packaging—which for
us is so largely a throw-away enterprise in every sense—to express the
deepest values of a culture. Thumbing through the 222 plates now I am
struck not only by the elegance with which they were fashioned, but by
their quiet demand that, no matter how humble the content—dried fish,
medicinal herbs, five eggs—the packages be opened elegantly as well.
I cannot imagine a surgeon, pianist or origami artist whose balletic
hands could open my razor package elegantly, for the design defies grace
and gracefulness alike. But it does offer protection. The more lax our
national security becomes, the safer our products are.
There is of course one sign of advanced age that may be even more
reliable than enfeebled legs, deteriorating memories, a propensity to
get chilled, and reduced access to packaged goods. It is the tendency to
speculate on the signs of advanced age.
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
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