Design Centre for elderly launched

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CULTURE SECRETARY Chris Smith launched a unique pounds 1m design research centre where the main thrust will be to help the ageing population live, work and travel comfortably in the next century.

Mr Smith said design for older people would permeate through the population. He was fed up, he said, with the emphasis always being on youth, adding: "I hate the term Cool Britannia."

The research centre, funded by a pounds 1m grant from philanthropist Helen Hamlyn, will be at the Royal College of Art in London. Its Rector, Christopher Frayling, said that most academic research into design hitherto had produced very little of practical worth; and it was now essential to produce new practical models for an ageing population: "Socially inclusive design is our aim with this initiative."

He added: "Design has been oriented towards youth, styling and Cool Britannia - a phrase that originated in the sixties with some graduates of the College who called themselves the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band; but they meant it as a joke."

Mr Smith said he liked the term "our future selves", as "it has a very New Labour feel." He went on: "By taking into account the needs of older and disabled people you can design things which benefit the entire community.

"Design has a key role to play in a view of Britain being innovative and modern - and I hate the term Cool Britannia."

The co-director of the new centre, Jeremy Myerson, said that by the year 2020 half of the adult population of Europe would be aged over 50. He cited as examples of projects that would be undertaken at the new centre:

Home improvements for older people especially in bathrooms and kitchens.

The first design research project into working at home - developing the tools, equipment and furniture.

Developing `designer' call centres.

Call centres had swept the country, he said, but are in danger of becoming the new sweat shops.

Helen Hamlyn, herself a fashion graduate of the Royal College of Art in the mid-fifties, commented: "I have chosen to back this venture because there is a clear need for a development centre which seeks practical applications of academic and creative thinking in co-operation with commercial partners. And the RCA is the place to host it."

The philosophy of the new centre will owe something to a recently completed project called the Design Age Research Programme, also funded by Helen Hamlyn. Its head, Roger Coleman, who will be co-director of the RCA centre, said: "We tried to change attitudes towards design for older people. We developed such things as easy-open glass packaging and made cars more accessible for older people."

A competition run by Design Age resulted in designs including: a battery- operated reader for the visually impaired which translates printed symbols into sound; and a carrying aid for shoppers which helps older people who may have limited grip and finger dexterity to carry heavy bags.