Barbara Woods reached for the tube of toothpaste, but the one she picked up and squeezed onto her toothbrush contained Bengay, the cream used to relieve aching joints and muscles. It was a defining moment, one that helped her realize that she was nearly blind with a severe case of macular degeneration and needed tactile cues to brush her teeth and do other routine tasks.
Barbara was 69 years old at the time. She didn’t read Braille. In fact, less than 10 percent of the visually impaired can read Braille. So she began using nail polish to differentiate packaging with varying sizes and numbers of dots.
Amanda Bolton helped her grandmother cope as much as possible.
“Things she couldn’t feel, I would help her make these cues according to her liking,” Bolton said. “She knew what she wanted. She knew what worked best for her.”
As she watched, Bolton, then 19, decided to change her major at the University of Cincinnati from fine arts to industrial design, creating products for people like her grandmother.
“The depth of challenges and opportunities is just so broad in this category,” she said, now 24 and a designer for Design Central in Columbus, Ohio. “It was really a call to action when I was observing these things. It wasn’t that they were different. It was all the same challenge. But seeing the challenges first-hand and how Grandma dealt with them was inspiring. It made me think about where my designs could be beneficial.”
Barbara Woods died in 2011, but her spirit is alive thanks to Amanda’s B-PAC Kitchenware, a conceptual set of products with tactile cues for the vision-impaired that won top prize in the 2014 International Housewares Association (IHA) student design competition.
“The B in B-PAC is for Barbara,” Bolton explains. “PAC is for Prevention Accuracy Communication.”
B-PAC consists of a cooking pot guard, measuring cup and food storage containers. The pot guard is a silicone collar than snaps onto a standard cooking pot. Extended, it guides and contains food to prevent spillage. Flipped down, the collar protects hands from hot surfaces. The measuring cup pops out buttons to indicate quantity as it fills with liquid. The lids on the containers feature embossed shapes communicating contents and date when the food was stored.
One of the contest judges was John Caruso, associate professor at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design.
“Amanda took on three major problem areas — cool touch, calibration and storage after you cook — and did them all three equally well,” says Caruso. “The one that we were most impressed with was the calibration method of a small measuring cup that at each level when you poured liquid into it, there would be a little blister of silicone that would pop out so you could feel it. That was just outstanding.”
The other first-place winner, Matthew Burton of the University of Houston, designed an electrical outlet adapter, called Connect, to make it easier for people with limited dexterity or poor eyesight to safely plug cords into outlets.
“The inspiration to do the plug came from looking at the life and daily tasks of a man with cerebral palsy,” he said. “What I noticed was that he bought a ton of electronics and tools to ease his daily tasks.”
“We tell our students everyday: you will be designing for the elderly,” says Caruso.
The students in the IHA competition got the message, most of them tackling aging issues even though there was no specific requirement to do so.
“This stuff was beyond professional,” says Caruso. “It was very thought-provoking and very indicative of the reality that this is going to be a major marketing segment of companies. It’s undeniable. Fifty percent of our population will be over the age of 50 in six years — by 2020. It has to be done.”
Zachary Handziak of the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design came up with Flow Crutches — a “dramatic rethinking of a conventional crutch,” the judges commented in awarding it second place. Flow Crutches enable people to walk up and down stairs, to sit, and to reach or bend doing daily tasks.
Joseph Parr of Kendall College of Art & Design and Sara Linginfelter of Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design received third-place awards for their designs. Parr created a device that can be used as walker or a temporary seating device. Linginfelter’s cooking pot for the visually impaired uses high-contrast colors to identify parts and the pot’s position on the stovetop.
Sara used videos and tips from visually impaired cooks she connected with on the Internet. For three days, she wore filtered glasses so she could experience what it feels like to be legally blind.
“Sara’s color palate was astonishing,” Caruso says. “She came out with the research that 90 percent of the legally blind people can actually see red as a dark color that resonates with more intensity than even black. So that’s where she put the areas where you touch.
“If there was one shared commonality,” Caruso adds, “the students all did incredible user-centric research and they had a great sense of materials and processes. I saw some really interesting solutions for extreme users but yet they were elegant enough that anybody could use them.”
“The No. 1 goal and the best thing that could ever happen is a line of cooking utensils that are inclusive for both visually impaired and other customers,” Bolton says.
The student designs were the highlight of the 2014 International Home + Housewares Show in Chicago because they focused on issues that aren’t receiving the attention they deserve.
“They call the visually impaired market small but it’s really not,” Bolton says. “Twenty percent of the human population will have some sort of vision impairment throughout the course of their life time. It’s a huge demographic.”
Bolton and other student designers are answering the call to action and showing the way for others to follow.
Burton, now a designer for Point Innovation in Dallas, has established a nonprofit organization, Matter, to encourage industrial design students to make design matter through thoughtful and meaningful products.
The young designers are answering the call to design for the elderly and showing the way.
“There’s such an opportunity to really do some real social good,” Caruso says. “It’s the single best way to empower your corporation — make everybody feel they’re doing the right thing. It’s needed. You can make money on it.”