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Making it

Think your iPod is cool? Up-and-coming product designers like Margot Durling have news for you.

Financial Post Business, October 2006

Many young designers set their sights on creating products their contemporaries will find hip and trendy — a slimmer cellphone, a sleeker iPod or, better yet, a slim, sleek iPod that doubles as a cellphone. Margot Durling, a 25 year old from Halifax, works with an older crowd in mind. “I choose projects that have meaning or address a need,” she says. “Right now, the ageing population represents the most rapidly growing demographic in the world, so for me it’s so obvious. What else should I do?”

A freelance designer and recent graduate from the NSCAD University, Durling is at the forefront of a design revolution that experts say is gathering steam with the greying of the Baby Boom. Because of their sheer numbers and financial clout, Boomers are starting to demand — and get — new or redesigned products that suit their needs and limitations as ageing consumers.

The trend is taking off in a wide range of industries. To design the new Focus, for example, the Ford Motor Co. equipped its designers with a suit that simulated, among other things, the loss of vision and lack of gripping power people experience as they get older. The result: a car with a high driving position, making it easier for the driver to see, and extra wide doors, making it easier to climb in and out. Here’s another one: La-Z-Boy Inc. has retooled its “lift chair” — a reclining armchair with a motor to shift sitters into standing positions — turning a design originally developed for hospitals into a popular and appealing piece of furniture for the home.

But while designers and manufacturers are catching on to the idea that older consumers demand better functionality from the products they use every day, many are still adjusting to the notion that Boomers also want products that look good. Previous generations of older consumers may have been satisfied with plain products. The Boomers are not. They demand form as well as function and are happy to pay for products that measure up. Durling says learning that lesson was a real eye-opener for her. “We assume they like all old-fashioned things, like second-hand furniture, but they don’t.”

For Durling, the revelation came a few years ago while she was conducting research in the geriatric ward at a local hospital, searching for products that could use a makeover. During the time she spent talking to older people, she noticed that nurses struggle to help residents out of their beds using a lifting belt that looked like an embarrassing cross between a diaper and a sling. It wasn’t the kind of product the coming wave of retiring Boomers will need any time soon, but Durling knew she’d found a project. “I remember distinctly the first lifting belt I saw. It was just a plain old piece of canvas — there were no handles, no cushioning and it definitely wasn’t visually appealing. It obviously needed to change,” she says.

Durling has spent the past three years designing a new type of belt, one that will be easier for caregivers to use and more comfortable and attractive for users. One of her major initial considerations was finding a sturdy material that could stand up to frequent washing in a hospital setting, but still provide cushioning and not look like a diaper. She settled on a soft fleece that is easy on thinner, more sensitive skin and comes in a range of fashionable colours. After learning of the high incidence of workplace injuries related to lifting among nurses and other caregivers, Durling also consulted occupational therapists and lifting experts to develop handles for her belt. The design she came up with, when used correctly, practically forces the caregiver to lift properly, distributing the weight safely and evenly.

Since completing the final prototype of her belt this past summer, Durling has been overwhelmed by the interest that her design has received. She’s been fielding phone calls from families who’d like to buy a belt to help move their elderly parents and grandparents around the house more easily, as well as manufacturers who want to buy or license the design. Durling’s new to the business side of product development, so she hasn’t made a final decision on her next steps. She’s considering her options and says she’s even looking at patenting the design herself and then partnering with a company that will let her further develop the product. After spending so much time working on prototypes with older people and caregivers, she’s eager to make sure the final version is a hit with users, both in terms of form and function.

She’s already had an early vote of approval. As Durling worked on her prototype, her 92-year-old grandmother moved in with Durling’s parents during a six-month illness. “I got to see, firsthand, how difficult it was to get her from sitting on the couch to sitting at the kitchen table,” she says. “It hit close to home.” Naturally, Durling used the opportunity to have her grandmother, who is in good health today, try out the belt. “She really liked it,” says Durling. Given the interest she’s had from manufacturers, that’s just the beginning.

next article: Changing times, changing stores

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