Community & Education HKFP Features Interviews

Beautiful old age: The elderly designers that are Making a Difference

One hundred interventions and activities taking place in the community, completely driven by its citizens, all happening in one day. It sounds almost too far-fetched to be true, and yet, the global citizen movement that began in Colombia, and is slowly gaining popularity worldwide, has just proven otherwise.

With the help of its Colombian founders, Dr Yanki Lee and Albert Tsang at the Hong Kong Design Institute (HKDI) will be bringing the100in1day global citizen movement to Hong Kong at the upcoming MaD conference taking place this weekend.

However, there is a twist. While the original movement does not target a specific people in the community, the pair decided to bring in a large group of elderly “designers” to the project.

designage hk club

DesignAge HK Club’s booth at the Senior Expo. Photo provided by interviewees.

These senior citizens – around 400 of them – are members of the DesignAge HK Club and were all recruited from a Senior Expo at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai, where products for the elderly such as health food were sold.

“For the past two years they’ve given us a free booth, and they we try to engage the senior citizens in little design tasks. In the first year, we asked them to design a diamond from ashes. We’ve also asked them to design bags and even a meal. Every year, we meet about a couple of hundred people from this event… They then fill in a form and we give them a membership card,” Tsang said.

senior expo

At the DesignAge HK Club’s Senior Expo booth. Photo provided by interviewees.

At a past workshop, senior citizens were encouraged to think about how to put furniture onto a floor plan and how that will translate into real space. In another, they were asked to reimagine the measurements of their homes and draw it out. All of this aims to help them learn the language of design. This enables Lee and her team to carry out their research as well, that being the ways Hong Kong people design their homes under space restrictions and how they use their creativity to make their small homes more comfortable.

hkdi student elderly designer

A student and an elderly designer looking at the floor plans. Photo provided by interviewees.

The senior citizens also get to work together with students at Hong Kong Design Institute. “I always tell foreigners that if they want to see something truly local, they should come to HKDI. The richer kids can afford to go overseas and study in some expensive art school, but here most of our students live in public housing estates,” Lee said.

hkdi students elderly designers

HKDI students and the elderly designers. Photo provided by interviewees.

Dr Lee and Tsang work at the HKDI’s DESIS Lab for Social Design Research. “I won’t say that we’re doing social innovation – it’s a term that has a top-down connotation, and it’s usually what the government would say. We use the term ‘social design’ instead, meaning that we really want to make design more social,” Lee said.

death project

An exhibition on the project on death. Photo provided by interviewees.

Her team has engaged over 30 different design types at HKDI in their projects, and DesignAge HK Club – now three years old – is no exception. For their first project, which revolved around the theme of death, students from seven disciplines – jewelry design, fashion and architecture – were involved in designing cemeteries and funeral halls with bubble diagrams, and using “styling” methods to help senior citizens tell their life stories.

students bubble diagrams

Students using bubble diagrams. Photo provided by interviewees.

How did the idea for this project come about, and what did they want to achieve? “Three years ago I had just got back from Hong Kong from the UK, and, over there, social design and inclusive design has been around for more than a decade. I was mostly working with aging and disability design a lot, and we worked with people in those groups to see how we can include them in the design process,” Lee said.

“We just really want creative people with rich experiences in society, so immediately we thought of senior citizens. Sometimes, we do come up with solutions to social problems, but that’s not the main focus – it’s more of the fact that you see elderly people tackling the small things in life with their intelligent ways, and we want them to inspire the students.”

death project

DesignAge Hk Club’s death project exhibition. Photo provided by interviewees.

An example of this would be the mutual learning and mutual inspiration process could can be seen when the two groups join hands for the first time in the death project. “For a 19-year-old landscape student, death may seem really far away, but they were tasked with the challenge of coming up with a more poetic and humane way of doing sea burials,” Lee said. After talking to some senior citizens, the students had the idea of putting the ashes in carriers that looked like lotus flowers. “We want to use design to put together the intelligence of three generations of people.”

The project coordinators also see a change in the senior citizens that take part in the project. “When we first mention the word ‘design’, they’re always a bit put off by the word, saying that they don’t know how to do it… we try to gently coax them, to let them see that – even though they might not know how to draw – they can still ‘design’,” Lee said.

DesignAge HK Club logo

DesignAge HK Club. Photo provided by interviewees.

“They don’t really say that much, except that they’re really happy – but you can observe the changes. At first they go, ‘How would we know how to do this? We’ve never even gone to school!’ but after a couple of times they’re experts, they pick things up even more quickly than the youngsters,” Tsang said. “Sometimes, the students are really shy when working with strangers in projects, and the senior citizens take the lead instead. We’ve asked for their feedback with questionnaires and even asked them to criticise us, but they just politely say things like ‘Oh, it was great,’ so now we try and observe instead.”

“Especially those who have just retired – you can really see the gears turning in their head at work and they’re starting to have really good ideas, especially after talking to the students. Sometimes, they feel like they don’t know enough about design, so they’ll ask the students for help,” Lee said. “They’re also starting to really come up with their own ideas and take an initiative, and we thought it’ll be great to include them in the 100in1day challenge.”

HKFP is a media partner for the upcoming MaD Forum 2016: Village Reinvented. It will be held on 22-24 January, 2016. Visit www.MaD.asia for more details about the forum. 

Giveaway: HKFP is giving away free tickets to this weekend’s MaD Conference to the first five readers who send us a message on Facebook.

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Beautiful old age: The elderly designers that are Making a Difference