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Clara Gaggero Westaway and Adrian Westaway, Special Projects' founders.
27th October 2016

Old News: Special Projects bridges the generation gap at the Design Museum

-by Anthony Leyton
One day, you wake up old. Overnight, you have become a different sort of being. In the eyes of much of society, you’ve moved from an ‘us’ into a ‘them’. People look at you differently, treat you differently – as a problem to be dealt with, a relic of a bygone paradigm or a whole new demographic to be marketed at.

But that’s absurd, isn’t it? You – or rather, the animating, experiencing force at the heart of you – hasn’t changed, or has it?

One day, you wake up and everyone has become young. The world has filled with oversized children, brimming with naivety and self-importance, rushing blind into futures they cannot possibly understand, treating you as an irrelevance, an obstacle in their path, thinking they’ll live forever. And who knows? Maybe they will.

In our society, all too often, youth and age look at each other as though they’re separate entities, rather than relative positions on a continuum. Old age in particular is surrounded by stigmas and preconceptions that are called into question all too rarely.

In January, through an installation at the relaunched Design Museum’s exhibition NEW OLD: Designing for our Future Selves, Special Projects are seeking to cross the gap. And they’re doing it through conversation.
Sketches by Special Projects.
Their contribution to NEW OLD’s ‘Identity’ strand – Exchange – is a simple but welcoming area decorated with foliage and furnished with a table and chairs. Here, visitors are invited to sit down and start a conversation with an older person, by asking a question. 

What is the most valuable thing you have learned so far? 
What is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?
Is it true that people don’t grow up? 
Do you worry about death more or less than when you were younger?

…or anything else they wish to know, no matter how frank, morbid or personal. The older participant then asks their own question in turn, sparking an exchange of understanding that will – if the installation is successful – enrich and enlighten them both. 
Sketches by Special Projects.
The interactions are recorded and the table is topped with paper so participants can write down their questions, creating a physical legacy of the exchange that took place – a record of the momentary friendships and shared realisations that formed across the generation divide. 

Model of 'Exchange' by Special Projects.
For anyone familiar with Special Projects’ previous work, ‘Exchange’ might seem like a surprisingly simple or low-tech idea. They are, after all, the people responsible for biometric wearables, empathetic weighing scales, and a Lego-based digital time-management system. But sometimes technology isn’t the answer, as agency founders Adrian Westaway and Clara Gaggero Westaway realised in 2009, when Samsung asked them to design a mobile phone that met the needs of older people. Conducting research with older phone users across Europe, they discovered it wasn’t the phone that was the obstacle; it was the manual.  

Their resultant project, ‘Out of the Box’ was a pair of interactive analogue books that engaged their users in setting up and using a smartphone in an intuitive, engaging and altogether human way. Alongside, they created a set of ‘magic’ cards that used Near-Field Communication technology to allow users to engage specific phone functions, while also showing them how to access that function on their own.

So ‘’Exchange is far from the first time that Special Projects have argued that better communication can help overcome the stereotypes and stigmas associated with ageing (‘Out of the Box’ is also showing at NEW OLD), but it is the first time that they’ve publicly brought to life their belief that asking the right questions and listening to the answers is critical to effective design. As Adrian says: ‘There is so much stigma around ageing and, as designers, the only way to overcome it is to deeply understand the people you are designing for. For NEW OLD we've tried to let the audience jump into a part of our process by letting them literally spend time with a range of amazing older adults to discover what ageing means for themselves.’ 
Model of 'Exchange' by Special Projects.
While many other exhibits and installations are answering the question ‘How do you design for the older generation?’, Special Projects are responding, simply: ‘Ask them.’
NEW OLD: Designing for our Future Selves runs from 12 January to 19 February 2017 at the new Design Museum on Kensington High Street.


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