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9th March 2017

New Old: Q&A with Adrian Westaway

Most people will admit that they have a fear of ageing, yet when we are children all we want to do is grow up. Where exactly along the way do we lose faith in age? New Old: Designing for our future selves — an exhibition curated by Jeremy Myerson at the new Design Museum in January and February this year — set out to explore how design impacts our understanding, experience and perspectives on age and our lives as older people. We interviewed Jeremy about the exhibition and how a show in 1986 inspired him to curate it, you can read the full feature here.
No stranger to designing for older generations, Special Projects was chosen to create an exhibit for the show due to founders Adrian and Clara’s experience as research associates at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design. Exchange was an immersive exhibit that asked visitors to the show to sit down with an older person (all volunteers) and ask them questions. It was immensely popular, with volunteers including Lady Helen Hamlyn and Daphne Selfe, so we asked Adrian to tell us what he learnt from the experience.
Adrian Westaway and Clara Gaggero Westaway designing Exchange in their studio.
So, how was it for you?

We’ve been so happy with the response from the installation so far, but probably the best part has been getting to know all of the amazing participants who took part. We were asking a lot from them to come and sit in a new place and answer a steady, unpredictable stream of questions from the public but they all rose to challenge and did brilliantly! One participant said, “Nobody usually queues to talk to an older lady.”
A shot of the Exchange installation at the Design Museum.

When you create an installation that involve real people interacting, there’s an inevitable element of unpredictability – did Exchange go according to plan?

We made sure to run an induction day with every participant, where we did a few practice runs, and asked some challenging questions - so everyone knew what to expect in some way. A big fear for everyone was that nobody would come up and speak to people but within about ten minutes of opening we realised that our problem was that too many people were coming! I was amazed at how the participants took control of the space in their own unique way, and really “owned” it for the time they were there. 

What do you think visitors thought of Exchange? Did they understand what it was trying to do?

It was a strange installation because it really demanded your attention before you could fully understand it. We wanted the interactions to feel very natural, so there weren’t enormous signs everywhere telling you what to do. Instead you’d need to be curious enough to watch, and then take part to really understand it. We had amazing feedback, there were some really emotional connections happening.
Exchange in an early design phase.
What did the volunteers make of the experience?

We’re meeting up with all of the volunteers next week to hear about their experiences. From early conversations everyone really enjoyed it and I hope the entire team connected too. Part of the reason we are meeting up is that they told us they learnt so much about younger people and they want to share their findings with us!
Did anyone ask anything that you thought was rude or controversial?

Actually, in many ways no. I was amazed at how gentle, and considerate every visitor was. I don’t think anyone made the volunteers feel uneasy in any way. 

Clara made a really great discovery: The older adults tended to ask questions about technology, such as, “Why are you always on your phone.” Whereas the younger visitors asked the sorts of questions you can’t Google! Things about manners, and the how to behave, like “What should I say to someone at funeral.”
Younger participants tended to ask about behaviour and ettiquette.
Lady Helen Hamlyn and Daphne Selfe both took part – did people recognise them? Did they get different sorts of questions?

Those were some of the busiest days and people actually came especially to meet them. Interestingly they didn’t get questions that were that different from the rest, and they ended up really enjoying the day.
Having now seen it in action on the topic of ageing, do you think the Exchange formula could apply to other types of social divide?

I definitely think it could and we’re already in talks with a few organisations about bringing the installations to some really interesting places abroad.
Both volunteers and visitors found the experience illuminating.
Apart from Exchange, what was your favourite exhibit at NEW OLD?

I really love the furniture collection by Lanzavecchia Wai (no country for old men) because they solve real problems in such an elegant way. Brilliant!
Some of Lanzavecchia + Wai's designs for New Old. Photography by Davide Farabegoli.
Did the show as a whole change your own perspectives on ageing?
Yes, it really did. We were lucky to have so much contact with older adults over the 6 weeks it was running and it completely affected the way we think about ageing. We’re staying in touch with a lot of the volunteers and hope to involve them in other projects in the future.
Are you looking forward to getting old?

A volunteer speaks to a visitor at the installation in The Design Museum.
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