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  • Are We There Yet?

    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 scoffed.

    “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.

    About the Author: 

    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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