How the The Pretty, Good Project came to be and why we do what we do.
Read time: 7 minutes
Hello, my name is Laura and I am the founder of The Pretty, Good Project.
I work with older people. When I say that, most people think I work in a care home, which to their mind conjures images of the end of the line and people who are totally dependent on others. But that’s not what I do. I work in a buzzing community centre in North London where I help anyone aged 50-150 to design and run the activities and events they want, and for those less able to get to the centre I look after a volunteer home visiting service. People come from everywhere in the world, all kinds of backgrounds, and have every kind of home and family set up imaginable. It’s a lot of fun and one thing it is not is your stereotypical older persons’ service with blue rinse and bingo (well, there is bingo but people run it themselves because it’s a laugh and a damn good excuse for a social).
So when I talk about older people I may have a slightly different view to many. Rather than a homogenous, greying group, who are sapping our NHS, I think older people are just people – just older. If they valued style when they were younger, they still value style. If they prefer showers to baths, that won’t change. If they are house-proud, they remain house-proud. If they are a Scrooge, they’ll just be an older Scrooge.
We all have ageing friends, parents and grandparents and know this to be true on a one-to-one level. However, advertising and services seem to lump older people together and insinuate that once you hit 50 you’ll have a style lobotomy, all go on a cruise and simply wait for the sweet embrace of death. I am of course massively generalising and being more than a tiny bit facetious here – there is a growing amount of more realistic advertising and services out there (which I pick up on in other blogs) and things are getting a lot better lately, but I think you see my point.
As a thirty-something I don’t claim to know what it’s actually like being an older person, but I hopefully will one day, so I certainly think I have a say in the matter. What I do know is that when you get older, everyday tasks do become harder for many and I see this every day at work. I also have ageing parents and grandparents, as many of us do. People lose vision, hearing, mobility, strength, flexibility, coordination, balance and cognition to lesser and greater degrees. In fact when you look at the set-up of some of our high streets, shops, services etc. it’s like society has conspired to create a giant and malevolent obstacle course for people as they age. Imagine for a second you aren’t able to go up stairs because you need a frame to help you walk, yet most shop entrances have steps into them. Imagine you are struggling with your hearing, yet most coffee shops blare out background music. This is just the tip of the iceberg. People struggle on in whatever way they can. But why should they? And what’s more, it’s not just older people it affects. Everyone from parents with buggies to people with visual impairments can be excluded from many places and activities because of poor product and space design. The cool thing is if you make a product or space work for older people, you make it work for lots of other people too.
The cool thing is if you make a product or space work for older people, you make it work for lots of other people too.
There is a whole host of equipment and gadgets out there to help people too, you can pick it up all over the place these days, from jar openers to jazzy walking sticks, but my experience was that people don’t use them until things get really bad. Even then, it is often begrudgingly, or not in public. Frequently it’s after they’ve had some kind of trauma, fall, or stay in hospital that has forced the issue. Then ‘community equipment’ as it is called is even prescribed for them. For many people this is a life-saver and is an absolutely vital service in our communities, helping them to preserve their independence and stay in their homes. But as someone who visits older people’s houses a lot, I more often than not see this equipment gathering dust. People don’t like it because it makes their house look like a hospital, it makes them feel old and frail (or even infantilised – much of it looks very childlike), and it reminds them of their lost function. Or perhaps it just came into their lives too late for them to adapt to it or really make use of it. The experience of getting it, can also be somewhat depressing; Centres of Daily Living where people can try out certain equipment are incredible places that do incredible work staffed by incredible people, but they are often hidden out of view, on industrial estates, within hospitals, with frosted windows, and you generally have to book ahead. Not exactly a warm fuzzy glow you get from idly browsing somewhere like John Lewis. People have said things to me things like “why can’t my walking frame be designed by Ferrari?” and why not?
There is however some great stuff out there, it is just quite hard to track down, especially if you’re not online. Even if you are, it can be expensive, has to be shipped in from overseas, or just not obvious what it’s benefits are to you. One of my favourite things began to be helping people to track down different, more attractive, more pleasing options that met their needs in terms of function, but also in terms of taste and how it made them feel. I would trawl the internet, the high street, even talk to university lecturers and students to see what was new and I began collating it in case other people find it useful too, first on a giant Pinterest board, and now through this blog. Something that really surprised (and delighted) me is that you can often find comparable products in high street shops or cool designers that have been designed to be beautiful, but they have inadvertently also designed a product that makes particular tasks easier. Take this plate by Habitat which has high sides and is an alternative to plate surrounds, but wouldn’t look out of place in a high-end restaurant.
People are always telling me about design-led products they have found that are really helpful to them too, like a man I met who after having a stroke found the only cutlery he could use was by Phillipe Starck. I would love to know about other examples of this sort of thing you have found.
I started showcasing these products in a friendly cafe style where people could have the chance to engage with it as part of a social, leisure activity. People seemed to like it. We have coffee and tea (sometimes wine!), we have a chat, we play with the products and we offer feedback to designers of new products. It’s fun; a bit like old school Tupperware parties! I am a big believer that only when you have a chance to touch and feel something and see the value in something for yourself might you then consider incorporating it into your life. It’s the same with everything; that desire to try before you buy mentality. Read more about these product testing cafes here.
I started using many of these products myself and giving them to friends and family as presents, first as testers, but later just because I found them easy to use and many had a cool Scandi look about them. The more I started to showcase and talk to people about these things, the more different uses people came up with for them that I hadn’t even anticipated too: “I would use that plate while I am breastfeeding as I only ever have one hand free. “That cutlery is great for my daughter with a visual impairment”, and so on and so on.
I had in fact accidentally happened upon the field of inclusive design. Something I am now quite nerdy and evangelical about and has really become the central tenet of everything The Pretty, Good Project does. Discussed in more detail in another post, but in summary, it is intelligent, empathetic design (products, spaces, experiences) designed with the people who use it in mind, because we all have different and changing abilities and design should help not hinder us. It seems so obvious to me that this should be the case, but you would be surprised how little thought about how a product will be used goes into some things. Indeed when you investigate it, most things that surround us are designed by young, fully able, male designers, and as such the functionality of products and spaces we use every day tends to reflect this. I’m not saying young, able men aren’t good designers (in fact the very opposite! See Simon Lyons’ Nimble and many others), but it is quite thought-provoking.
Cambridge University explains it much better than me in this short video – Bridging the Exclusion Gap. The graphic at 1.08 blows my mind every time.
I always use the example of the scissor packet to explain inclusive design: I bet at some point in your life you have you found yourself desperately trying to open a packet of new scissors, only to find yourself thinking “I could really use a pair of scissors to get into this”. It is so counter-intuitive it is infuriating. Perhaps you have pushed instead of pulled a door when it wasn’t obvious? Or struggled to get out of a toilet cubicle because the door touches the toilet when you open the door and only double jointed supermodels can negotiate their way out. Inclusive design is a process that tries to do away with this kind of unnecessary rigmarole in our every day; to be more sensitive to the needs of people, and ultimately to make every day stuff into products that provide enjoyment and satisfaction without us ever really noticing (paraphrasing Donald A Norman – The Design of Everyday Things)
Companies are catching on that inclusive design is not only beneficial for more people, it sells more. Joseph Joseph are a classic example of this, offering us a kind of functional simplicity and beauty enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities. There are many more too, many of which are featured on this website and tested at our cafes, from Oxo Good Grips to The Able Label. Older people and disabled people are also a valuable, growing (but all too often overlooked) market that retailers are very short-sighted to not cater for.
I openly admit I have no formal training in the world of design, in fact my interactions with most products are limited to what I have used in my everyday life, my observations of those around me and discussions with people who use them. Indeed, some very clever people have been thinking these thoughts and designing amazing products and spaces for years. What The Pretty, Good Project aims to do is shout from the rooftops of the internet (and actual rooftops as well) about beautiful, thoughtful products, ideas and the designers behind them to show what is possible when products are designed with a touch of humanity.
All I know is that whatever stage of life we’re at, we all have different and changing abilities and choice is surely a good thing. I certainly never claim that using any products I talk about on this site will be life changing either, only that there are other options out there that might be useful for some people, and if they are, that’s great. And with nearly 12 million disabled people and a rapidly ageing population, maybe this is what we need. It’s certainly worth a go.
And so The Pretty, Good Project has taken on a life of its own and will continue to evolve as more people get involved. It is not about products that are for older people, though many of them are initially conceived this way. It is simply a collective of people who think the process and result of designing inclusively can create every day products and spaces that we want (pretty), that benefit us all no matter age or ability (good). Pretty, Good all round don’t you think?