Aging as an opportunity for intergenerational design

Nikolaus Hafermaas is calling for a cultural change and shows why intergenerational design is more than a design concept

Column by Prof. Nikolaus Hafermaas, Graft Brandlab

Advanced Style Intergenerational Design
Advanced Style Friendship / Bffs Project | © Ari Seth Cohen

Author: House of Eden

Sustainability. A term that literally is flooding our lives in many areas today. Rightly, as climate change is urging us to rethink and act immediately. Brands are repositioning themselves and developing strategies for their products and services, to keep our planet in a condition worth living for future generations. But that is only one facet of sustainability. We mastery ignore another important phase of generations, at least from a design point of view: namely the phase of aging, and above all the aging of our own generation.

We create, develop and innovate for the world, but always for agile people who are in the prime of life. While according to the WHO the world in 2030 will have more over 60-year-olds than children from 0 to 10 years old. The solution: intergenerational design. This movement shows aging as an opportunity for positive cultural change.

Senior citizens' design wasteland: Cheers to aging. The creative industry is in demand.

Terrifying, I am no longer one of the youngest. At heart, however, I am and will remain the same boy, fascinated by the Documenta in Kassel in 1972, discovering his creative streak. I will always maintain and live out my unconditional demand on design, aesthetics and quality of life, even as a senior citizen - just like most people will keep their individual style and preferences. But when I look around, in my opinion there is a lack of a positive, cultural expression for aging and a lack of a positively designed environment, that can enrich life in all stages.

As an old design hand, I can only say: For the creative industry, this is a once-in-a-century chance. It must recognise design wastelands and develop innovative approaches, that have the greatest possible positive effect - in a kind of creative, artistic blue-ocean-strategy.

Intergenerational design requires cultural change

"Intergenerational design" is a design concept, which considers people holistically in their environment. As part of the concept, the physical space, be it residential buildings or entire city quarters, is redesigned in order to mediate between generations and phases of life. The focus is primarily on the exchange between generations within a holistic design.

What is behind it, however, is much larger than a pure design concept. Intergenerational design requires a real cultural change. Aging should no longer be perceived as a defect and process of decay. But rather as a gain in experience, wisdom and serenity - both for the individual and for society.

Urban space as an intergenerational meeting place, example Los Angeles

An example from my long-time home, Los Angeles, is the speculative design project MacArthur Park, initiated by the Gensler Research Institute in partnership with the Milken Institute's Center for the Future of Aging. The proposed design of this built environment promotes the interaction between young and old and by this way becomes a prime example for the coexistence of several generations in an urban area.

Intergenerational Design Macarthur Park CA

Macarthur Park, Los Angeles, Speculative Design Project | © Gensler Research Institute

Local street vendors, community-oriented events and festivals, gyms, playgrounds and open-air classrooms for people from all ages have seamlessly been integrated into the neighbourhood of this conceptual design. Also the transport infrastructure offers residents better access to residential and commercial buildings, as well as to health centres, for example by means of safe road crossings with audio signals - social contacts included.

In the future, when integrating several generations in an urban context, we will increasingly see the application of digital media and tools. For many of the older generation, the use of a smartphone or tablet is already a matter of course. And so, for example, the barrier-free digital display of a wayfinding system can make everyday life easier: Walls become a communication area to provide information via audio signals. Depending on the individual mood, passages or rooms can also play in colours and sounds, for example to convey a feeling of security, etc.

From universal design to #advancedstyle - style is ageless

More comfort, more lightness, simpler usability: This is what Universal Design is focussing on. The emphasis here is on the development of products and equipment, which enable accessibility and can be used in different phases of life. Universal design is becoming more relevant, especially in the living area, because there is a great desire to be able to live independently in your own home for as long as possible - with high demands on aesthetics and design. Gone are the days of unsightly, clunky white plastic holders in the bathroom. Because with universal design, aging and style are no longer mutually exclusive.

Advanced Style Intergenerational Design

Advanced Style: Older and Wiser | © Ari Seth Cohen

At Graft Brandlab, for example, we are currently in the process of developing new sustainable concepts for a major player in the field of senior citizens' home. We bundle strategy, architecture and all design disciplines to enable a holistic, aesthetic and sensual experience for the elderly.

Interestingly, even Dimitri Hegemann, founder of the world-famous Berlin techno club Tresor, has recognised this controversial topic early. At a Vernissage a few years ago he explained to me, that he wanted to design his own retirement home, because he didn't want to give up his own lifestyle just because he was getting older.

A trend reversal can also be seen in fashion. The photographer and author Ari Seth Cohen wanted to make fashion-loving people over 60, especially women, visible. In 2008 he started to present photos and interviews of style icons on his blog. Since then, his Instagram profile has developed into his own hashtag, which motivated many older people to show themselves and their style on Instagram. Exciting examples that prove that the cultural change has already begun.


Always informed about the latest lifestyle trends, architecture, design & interior, as well as current technologies around sustainability.

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Author: Nikolaus Hafermaas

Prof. Nikolaus Hafermaas is Managing Partner Creation of the innovation agency Graft Brandlab. The former dean of the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena / CA focuses on the creative connection between technology and being human. He runs the agency together with Rico Zocher, which was founded by Graft Architects in 2014, with the aim to make brands tangible in a multidimensional way, while acting at the interface of art, design and technology. Projects include the development and implementation of branding strategies in the form of multimedia branding, communication, architecture and mediatecture.

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