interview :: nic rysenbry, design for dementia

I first came across Gregor Timlin and Nic Rysenbry‘s Design for Dementia project at RCA at the LDF in 2010.

Colour contrast tableware

Colour contrast tableware

Design is about making people’s lives better. When that can be done for people whose quality of life is compromised by something like dementia, a designer’s role becomes a very special thing indeed.

I was really moved by Nic and Tim’s thoroughness, their understanding of the challenges facing dementia sufferers and their care and attention in providing a solution that might genuinely meet their needs, both emotional and functional. I was honoured when Nic agreed to talk to me about the project.

Furniture and walls including leaning surfaces (shown in green) for people with poor mobility

Furniture and walls including leaning surfaces (shown in green) for people with poor mobility

What’s your background; how did you become a designer?

As long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a designer or creator of some description. In fact I was nine when Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was released and I remember being oddly inspired by ‘Crazy Ol Maurice’ and his amazing, albeit in retrospect completely nonfunctional, wood chopping invention.

I was attracted to many different careers but they always centred around the idea of creation –  architecture, advertising and design all had their moment, but industrial and product design eventually won me over because there such a variety in the work that you can be involved in. I studied industrial design at the Victoria University School of Architecture and Design in Wellington New Zealand for four years, during which time I won New Zealand Designer of the year and travelled around the world for Flos.

After graduating I moved to London as soon as possible to broaden my creative horizons and after two great years working for the likes of L’Oreal and Universal Pictures I went back to school to study my masters at the Royal College of Art.

Double skinned ceramic cup for easy grip

Double skinned ceramic cup for easy grip

How did the Design for Dementia project come about?

The Design for Dementia project was commissioned and sponsored by The Helen Hamlyn Centre and BUPA care homesThe Helen Hamlyn Centre is a charitable academic research facility that hires Royal College of Art graduates, teams them up with industry experts and gives them the opportunity to engage in people-centered design research. BUPA, a leading supplier of care homes in the UK, supports the project through their charitable trust.

I was interested in the project because, due to personal involvement in the subject, I knew there was a need for qualitative design research and development.

Flat bottomed table for wheel chair access

Flat bottomed table for wheel chair access

Why is it important to you to design products for people who are less able to use what’s already available?

The importance lies in designing for those who have a need and a desire for a better quality of life than their current environment allows. When it comes to diseases like dementia, where people can be scared and frustrated, little attention has been paid to anything other than the most basic function of an object. The interventions that can be made to better a person’s quality of life are often simple common sense and / or putting yourself in the position of a person with dementia.

Designing for cognitive impairments is very difficult and involves making a lot of calculated assumptions. For physical impairments there are a lot of tools that designers can use to mimic physical limitations so that they can go some way to understanding how a product will work best.

Plate with high lipped profile to help get food onto spoon

Plate with high lipped profile to help get food onto spoon

With cognitive impairments, there are no tools to help us properly understand what it is like. Plus, one of the common symptoms of dementia is trouble communicating, so we are not really able to ask either.

The result is that all too often quick and under-researched assumptions are made about needs and met with products that fall way short of the quality of life any of us would like to look forward to.  Fully grown adults are given brightly coloured, two-handled baby cups, for example, because the simplest response is to solve the problem at the most basic, functional level.

Cup with lid to avoid spillage

Cup with lid to avoid spillage

Inclusive design is very important because it does exactly what it says on the tin – it promotes design for everybody.  Most design for people limits who can use it because the design is based around a set of average standards.  Not everyone is average and so people can be excluded from being able use products, services and buildings.

Inclusive design tries to broaden those standards so the most possible people can get the most possible out of life.  This doesn’t mean that we will have to all live in an over cautious, all-inclusive environment. There have been some great commercial success with inclusive design because if you design for the lowest common denominator, you create for an inclusive market.

Personalised wall space within communal areas - crucial to aid recognition

Personalised wall space within communal areas - crucial to aid recognition

Tell us about the process you went through the design the items on show at RCA exhibition during LDF.

The process really began a few years earlier when a family member was diagnosed with dementia. I had of course heard of the disease before that, but until that point dementia was just a word. By the time the Helen Hamlyn Centretold me that I could have a year to solely look at how people in the UK in care homes with dementia I already had a basic knowledge of the disease and a personal viewpoint on the need for attention by designers in this area.

Assistive plate with divider to separate soft foods

Assistive plate with divider to separate soft foods

The next six months were spent delving deep into research, especially into person-centred care. We went to conferences, read all the books, talked to carers and families, spent many days in care centres all over the country, met with world-renowned experts in the field and debated with manufacturers. Finally, and most importantly for us to understand a little of how the products we might design could help people, we ran focus groups with people with early onset dementia and Alzheimer’s.

From there and with the technical and personal support that was so readily available from the Helen Hamlyn Centre we began developing and refining all the information, desires and needs into products that went some way towards assisting people with dementia lead a better quality of life for longer.

Easy grip on underside of assistive plate

Easy grip on underside of assistive plate

What was the most important lesson you learnt in this process?

That life is precious and you should value every day.

Have you seen your products in action, and the difference they can make to people’s lives?

Unfortunately no, not yet. The prototypes that were developed for the London Design Festival were developed for professional evaluation and for proof of concept.  To develop these products to a useable state within a care environment further budget is required. We are looking into sourcing this budget as well as finding manufacturers who would be interested in producing these so that we can make these products become a reality for people with dementia as soon as possible.

Bowl with extended rims for easy grip

Bowl with extended rims for easy grip

How would you define good design?

Good design is innovative, it’s environmental, it’s functional but most importantly it is individual. Of course it’s individual to the designer, but more than that, good design is individual to the user.

What’s next in the pipeline?

As well a growing my consultancy, N3RD and developing a new website, I’m looking at how the design for dementia project can evolve into a commercial reality so that people with dementia can reap the rewards of the products and guidelines that they themselves helped to create.

What’s your ultimate design ambition?

To create products that change the way that people interact with the world for the better.

Wardrobe designed to assist people of different abilities in the process of dressing

Wardrobe designed to assist people of different abilities in the process of dressing

Wardrobe with key

Wardrobe with key

What advice would you give to aspiring young designers?

The same advice my dad has given to me on countless occasions, although it took me a while to realise its value. The advice wasn’t his own, but taken from a Pizza Hut ad in New Zealand(!) but I think it is pertinent advice that anyone, looking to be successful at anything, should heed.

In the ad a boy is delivering a pizza.  He rings the doorbell and an older man answers the door. The boy gives him the pizza and the man pays him.  The boy counts the money then looks expectantly at the man and asks “What about a tip?”  the man thinks for a second and responds “Work hard and be good to your mother”.  I think it’s valuable advice.

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Further reading for the especially geeky:

All photography in this post courtesy of Design for Dementia, Gregor Timlin and Nic Rysenbry, Royal College of Art Helen Hamlyn Centre

4 responses to “interview :: nic rysenbry, design for dementia

  1. Fantastic post and really important subject. I’m a huge fan, ambassador shout it out from the roof tops about the importance in how good design plays a critical role in good health. I wish someone would do a Mary Portas and demand from the NHS, that our hospitals and care facilities gave the sick the investment in innovative design they deserve.

  2. I really love this. It’s the kind of post I wish I had written. There was an exhibition at the Design Museum a while back that was also dealing with this topic. It’s not sexy, but applying good design practice to these things can actually make someone’s life better… that’s what design is all about, right? How many more chairs do we need people?

    • What a wonderful compliment – thank you Daniel. (Although really all credit must go to Nic for his wonderfully considered answers to my questions.) I think any design that improves any life is important; it’s just that stuff like this is especially so.

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