R&D for All

Research at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design is transforming the practice—and the very definition—of universal design.

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Kate Gaudion, a research associate at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design (pictured left), conducts a study with adults with autism at the Kingwood Trust, to understand how they can be motivated to complete everyday chores for themselves and feel more self-reliant.

All photos courtesy the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design

“You can’t have every product, service, and environment absolutely accessible to everybody,” says Jeremy Myerson, the co-founder and director of The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at London’s Royal College of Art (RCA), one of the world’s foremost research centers for design that serves people of all ages and abilities. “Universal design is a vision, but it’s impossible,” he says. Since its founding in 1999, the center’s approach has instead been one of inclusivity, partnering with industries to prove that addressing the abilities and desires of as many people as possible is not only morally (or legally) right, but also sound business practice. “Universal design was driven by legislation,” he says. “Inclusive design is about waving a carrot rather than a stick.”

The center’s origins lie in a 1991 initiative about aging societies, but its projects have expanded to address a much broader range of issues. Research associates, many of them recent graduates of the RCA, work in three labs—Age & Ability, Health & Patient Safety, and Work & City. Projects completed in the last year—some of which are highlighted below—include products for adults with autism, a software program to help caregivers deal with their patients’ bedsores, and furniture that suits convalescents and people who need care, designed for the leading Swedish manufacturer Kinnarps. The center’s take on older citizens, its original focus, has also grown more nuanced. “We are looking at aging, not just from a ramps-and-grab-handles point of view, but from an aspirational point of view,” says Rama Gheerawo, the deputy director of the center, who heads its Age & Ability research lab. “We had this idea we call Edges of Aging, which is looking at things that are not usually considered, like sexuality."

Over the years, there has been a shift in solutions, from things to ideas. "When we started our research associates program, it was about delivering good design—delivering inclusive design," says Gheerawo. "Now we find we're delivering inclusive process." The center recently conducted workshops for bureaucrats—both with Hong Kong's Civil Service Bureau and closer to home at 10 Downing Street—on how to design better policy that does not leave out certain citizens.

Created for adults with austism, the Spinny Disc creates a new sensation in a mundane activity. The concept came out of a three-year-long research process. 

An upcoming challenge will be the intersection of inclusivity and sustainability. “There are some conflicts and some convergences,” Myerson says. “For people with poor sight, it’s easier to control glare on a computer screen by using artificial light and screening out sunlight. But that then puts an emphasis on energy consumption.” Gheerawo suggests that we might have to retool the metrics. “How do people visualize energy?” he says. “Are we in the land of misinformation, because we’re focusing on technical requirements rather than human requirements?” After all, the grand goal is the same: to ensure that people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities live happy and well-adjusted lives on this planet.

Click through to see more 2013 Helen Hamlyn Centre research projects.

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