Essays & Articles


Universal Design & Auto Design: We Are Getting Older


Originally published in InteriorMotives.

I recently watched an elderly lady struggle to extricate herself from the front seat of a car. “Now there is a huge opportunity,” I said to myself, “we live in an aging society, yet we still design for the young and able. Why not address this huge, important market?”

There is a tendency to shy away from designing for the impaired. This is a special-interest group, it is feared, one that will drive away other customers. Wrong. Designs intended to make life easier for the elderly or handicapped can be useful for everyone. For example, sloping edges to sidewalks instead of steep-dropping curbs were intended for wheel chairs, but they help people wheeling luggage. Long-handled shoehorns were designed for people with arthritis, but they are useful to all of us. Resizable print in web browsers was intended for those with poor vision, but is useful when giving demonstrations or talks. Many otherwise able have special needs or a temporary injury. There is a much wider audience than just the elderly or the handicapped.

There are many opportunities for improvement within the automobile. Dashboards with larger, higher contrast lettering, gauges, and controls, easer to read with a quick glance, better under glare and sunlight. Radios and HVAC controls that can be used without taking the eyes off the road. Why not seats that swivel and slide to make it easier to enter and exit, or for that matter, to put in groceries, bulky packages, or child-seats? What about handles designed to help people get into and out of seats, not just for those handicapped or aged, but even for normal folks carrying stuff. And for the rear seat as well as the front.

Some auto companies talk about the problem. For several years I have had a Ford ergonomist demonstrate the Ford “Third-Age Suit” in my Product Design class, a suit designed to age the wearer 30 years so that young engineers can experience what it is like to be older. Ford is to be commended for its efforts, but if the suit has led to design improvements in Ford products, they are too subtle for me to detect.

Much remains to be done to the insides of cars to make them a lot more accessible. But note, there is no need to advertise these enhancements as aids for the disabled or the elderly. Advertise them as improvements for everyone. These would be major sales inducements, as essential as entertainment systems and cupholders.

Donald Norman is co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, a cognitive scientist & design theorist who teaches at Northwestern and Stanford Universities and, in his spare time, writes books, including The Design of Everyday Things” and “Emotional Design: why we love (or hate) everyday things.” He lives in northern California at