Visual preferences in an ageing population : design, theory, practice, education & critical reflection

Wright, Elizabeth Ann (2013). Visual preferences in an ageing population : design, theory, practice, education & critical reflection. PhD thesis The Open University.



Formative periods represent early phases in life when we are particularly sensitive to experiences that influence later choices. This investigation hypothesised that the design of products associated with formative periods continues to influence preference throughout life. In design for an ageing population these preferences are important because designers often wrongly assume a decline in interest in design and physical ability. If these assumptions are prioritised there can be a detrimental effect on the visual sensitivity and emotional value products convey.

In the United Kingdom a significant proportion of the ageing population is financially independent, physically healthy and resistant to traditionally negative associations of ageing. However, limited interrogation of the design process, or of the products produced, leaves a largely youth orientated design industry ill- equipped to challenge these associations and design for consumers whose experiences differ from their own. This investigation interviewed leading design professionals to test these assumptions and to inform an innovative questionnaire to identify visual preference.

The questionnaire incorporated images of domestic products from 1930 to 1990 and asked for rapid responses reflecting intuitive preferences. A fifty five percent , response rate was achieved from 5,000 questionnaires posted to respondents aged fifty to seventy five years. Analysis of the findings identified two associations. Firstly, a statistically small association between age and visual preference, older respondents preferred older products, although the association was marginal and insufficient to support the hypothesis. Secondly, visual analysis revealed a strong preference for the most familiar form of the product, proposed as representing the 'contemporary essence'. These findings challenge assumptions that ageing is accompanied by a decline in design interest. Rather, the economic and social cost of establishing a design environment reduces the flexibility of future choices. These issues are age neutral. To address these issues, a critically reflective design approach is proposed as a positive response to an ageing population in an inclusive society.

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