Tips from the “Mother of Empathy” on Designing for Elders

By Jess Kessin

I was lucky enough to be asked to speak at a design thinking conference in Norway last year. Besides the amazing experience of speaking there, it gave me the opportunity to meet the lovely Dr. Patricia Moore. Pattie and I became fast friends. I am honored to say that she has been so generous as to come speak at Capital One, she’s agreed to speak at LX: Leading Experience, and she has taken the time to do this interview with me.

Her impressive bio has made her the “Mother of Empathy”. She’s an internationally recognized gerontologist and designer, and she’s the leading authority on consumer lifespan behaviors and requirements. Early in her career, she spent three years (1979–1982) traveling through the United States and Canada disguised as an elderly woman. This experience of altering her body to simulate the normal sensory changes associated with someone nearly 80 years older than herself provided her the capacity to truly respond to people, products, and environments as an elder.

I can’t begin to cover what she has done in her career and the mass influence that she has had over change in the world of design. I will say that she is a renowned author, professor, designer and advocate. She has been named one of The Most Notable American Industrial Designers in the history of the field and one of The 40 Most Socially Conscious Designers in the world.

I hope you all enjoy this interview with Dr. Patricia Moore.

You traveled the U.S. and Canada for over three years as an octogenarian. This transformation from a young, able-bodied woman to someone with decreased mobility, eyesight, and hearing was clearly a huge undertaking. Can you recap your reasons for starting this experiment?

When I was hired, as the only female industrial designer for Raymond Loewy’s NYC Office, it was a proverbial dream come true. I had no idea that I was going to experience the cruelty of gender bias in this esteemed domain, a prejudice which sadly still exists decades later, but even more disappointing was the blanket rejection of my passionate desire for meeting the needs of elder consumers and people living with the physical and cognitive challenges that were unmet by a biased attitude that “We don’t design for those people!”

Patricia Moore disguised as an octogenarian, 1979–1982.

Having been raised in a home with my grandparents, I knew that the daily difficulties they encountered with products, the house, and our community were not due to any failure by them, but rather because their needs hadn’t been considered and embraced by design.

I was incensed by this insanity and so, when I met one of Saturday Night Live’s make-up artists, I was given the great gift and opportunity to live as an elder and learn from that perspective why ageism existed in our culture.

For continuing as long as you did? Was that your intention from the beginning?

My first experience as an elder was a trip to Columbus, Ohio to attend a meeting of architects and designers responsible for the creation of skilled nursing facilities for eldercare. On the first day, participants paid no attention to me and actually treated me rudely, not including me in discussions, or inviting me to join coffee breaks. On the second day, I appeared as myself. People greeted me enthusiastically. The same men who let doors shut in my face the day before held them open as gentlemen would, and offers for coffee were plentiful. During a discussion group, someone noted that there had been an “old” woman in the room yesterday and maybe we should have asked her opinion about some of the concepts being developed. On cue, a comrade reached into a bag and lifted out my wig to a confused crowd. Like a wave at a ball game, the room filled with embarrassed recognition of what had occurred. The conversation quickly turned to what an opportunity I had created and how I had to continue with the research. The Elder Empathic Experiment was born.

You are known as the ‘Mother of Empathy.’ Who coined that title and what does it mean to you?

I’m not certain where or when I first heard that compliment, but I believe it was either Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It, or Dev Patnaik who penned Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy.

Follow your bliss. Always listen to your heart. And never forget, you have a right and a duty to be here.

Your career has gone in some amazing directions. You have been named one of The Most Notable American Industrial Designers in the history of the field. You where named by ID Magazine as one of The 40 Most Socially Conscious Designers in the world and you were selected in 2000, by a consortium of news editors and organizations, as one of The 100 Most Important Women in America. What have been your most rewarding projects, jobs or moments from your career? (And yes, I’m sure it is hard to pick just a few!)

I was asked, earlier this year, to provide a list of career highlights for an Industrial Designers Society conference on Women+Design. This is what I shared:

• Member of the Raymond Loewy USA-Soviet Union Détente Project for Design
• Member of the Loewy Design Team to Create the First Full Body Tomography System [CAT Scanner] for Pfizer Medical Systems
• Member of the Loewy Design Team to Create the First Mobile X-Ray Unit
• Member of the Design Team for the Creation of the Canadair Regional Jet
• Principal for the Elder Empathic Experiment: Four Year Age & Ability Experiential Study
• Member of the Kimberly Clark Corporation R&D Team for the Creation of the First Adult Continence Care Product Complement
• Design Director for the First Automatic Breast Release Mammography Unit for LoRad [Now GE Health Services]
• Member of the Design Team for the Creation & Launch of OXO Good Grips for Sam Farber
• Design Director for the Japan Inclusive Transportation Project
• Design Lead for the South Korea Consortia on Elder Care
• Design Lead for R&D of the First Home Dialysis System
• Design Director for Veterans Administration Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Treatment Health Care Environments
• Lead Designer for the Phoenix Valley Metro Light Rail Vehicle
• Phoenix AZ Design Lead for the Sky Harbor Airport Train System
• Lead Designer for the Honolulu Metro Light Rail Vehicle
• Design Director for China-USA Elder Care Consortia
• Design R&D for The International Association of Chiefs of Police
• Design Lead for the International Association of Fire Fighters
• Design Collaboration for The FBI Academy Elder Abuse Abatement
• Lecturer at Universities throughout North America, Australia, China, Europe, Korea, Japan, New Zealand and Russia

When asked this question by reporters, I typically reflect that if I have managed to impact the global design community with the awareness of their responsibility to meet the needs of all people, with equity, then I am most happy my life has made a difference.

The baby boomer generation is now in their 60’s. This is a significant part of the population with around 75 million people in the US alone. Through your years as an octogenarian and all of the incredible work you have done since then, what are your top three lessons that you would teach young designers to help them keep this population top of mind?

Actually, the leading edge of the Boomer cohort is 71 this year. Donald Trump and Bill Clinton are both 71, to name but two! So therein is lesson one: Don’t design for an AGE, design for ABILITY levels. Lesson two: Design WITH people, not FOR them. And perhaps the most important learning I can share, lesson three: Follow your bliss. Always listen to your heart. And never forget, you have a right and a duty to be here.

And finally, where do you think design will be in 5 or 10 years? Where do you hope to see the field go and what changes do you expect to see?

Design has earned a “Capital D” in recent decades and I believe the importance and responsibility of Design and Designers to embrace all of life’s challenges, and opportunities will continue to evolve and grow.

I know that as we continue to influence industry, at the highest levels of the food chain, we must also take our place at the tables of governance. Imagine what a wonderful world it will be when a designer sits in the Oval Office!

Imagine, indeed! If you want more Moore, join us at LX: Leading Experience conference in San Francisco on March 19–20, 2018. Early bird tickets are still available!

Also, you may have noticed that she came and spoke at Capital One. If you want to come work with us and have speakers like Pattie show up to your standard work meetings, we’re hiring.