Designing Help For Aging In Place

November 02, 2022

A group of local senior citizens recently supplied a critical building block to the design projects of some Virginia Tech students — honest feedback.

“As opposed to loved ones, they’re not afraid to tell us our idea is not going to help them,” said Jordan Jones, a Virginia Tech student. “You know, my grandma would be like, ‘Oh, that’s so great, Jordan.’ But they’ll just tell us, ‘I don’t want that.’”

Jones was one of about 40 third-year students studying industrial design to receive such feedback from residents at Warm Hearth Village, a senior living community near the Blacksburg campus, on a recent Monday.

It was the students’ third of four visits to the facility as part of their semester-long group project to design and create items that make routine tasks easier for people as they age. This meeting was specifically scheduled to gather real-life insights from the very population they aim to help.

“It’s about learning how to really respond to those human needs when you look through the eyes of someone else by incorporating those needs into your decision-making process,” said Martha Sullivan, department chair and an assistant professor of practice in industrial design.

Sullivan, who leads the studio course along with Ben Kirkland, an instructor in the department, said the project comes at an ideal time in the academic life of the average industrial design student.

“By your third year [in the program], you kind of know how the world goes together and you understand structure and materials,” Sullivan said. “Their third year is really focused on design research, which is really just getting good information from people through observations, questionnaires, surveys, and customer feedback, and then incorporating that into good decisions.”

Kirkland said learning to harness those soft skills is critical to the success of any designer and the products they craft.

“Design is all about communication,” Kirkland said.

This fall marks the 12th year Virginia Tech industrial design students have worked on aging in place projects with Warm Hearth Village residents. The partnership has resulted in products that have won prestigious national and international awards, and it echoes the industrial design department’s commitment to health care as one of its four pillars.

The projects have also been bolstered in more recent years by a partnership with the Roanoke-based SFCS Architects, which specializes in senior living design. The firm not only provides monetary support, but also supplies mentors for the students.