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At 90, She's Designing Tech For Aging Boomers

Barbara Beskind, 90, is a designer at IDEO who works with engineers on products that improve the quality of life for older people. (Courtesy of IDEO)

In Silicon Valley's youth-obsessed culture, 40-year-olds get plastic surgery to fit in. But IDEO, the firm that famously developed the first mouse for Apple, has a 90-year-old designer on staff.

Barbara Beskind says her age is an advantage.

"Everybody who ages is going to be their own problem-solver," she says. And designers are problem-solvers. Beskind speaks while sitting on a couch at the open office space of IDEO in San Francisco. She commutes to the office once a week from a community for older adults where falling is a problem.

"People where I live fall a lot," she says, adding, "For a friend of mine, I tried to design air bags of graded sizes that would be activated at a lurch of 15 degrees." She is stumped on how to find the right power source for her air bags.

Beskind says she started designing when she was 8 years old — toys, of course.

"Well, in the Depression, if you can't buy toys, you make 'em, " she says. Beskind's first design was for a hobbyhorse. "I was determined I was going to have one, and so I made it with old tires. I learned a lot about gravity, 'cause I fell off so many times."

When it was time for college, Beskind told her counselor she wanted to be an inventor. That required an engineering degree. In those days, women couldn't get into those departments. So she studied home economics and later enlisted in the Army and became an occupational therapist.

After 44 years, she retired as a major and then went into private practice. From those years, she has six patents on inflatable devices that help children with balance issues.

Beskind tried to retire again. Two years ago she was watching 60 Minutes and saw David Kelley, the founder of IDEO, talking about how important it was to have a diverse staff on a design team. He emphasized how important it was to bring different perspectives to a project.

Beskind says the interview made her think she wanted to work at IDEO. "Oh, that sounds like that's for me," she remembers thinking. "And besides that, I was living in Silicon Valley. What could be better?"

Beskind wrote to the firm and she heard back within days. It turns out that interest in designing products for older adults is growing as baby boomers age.

Gretchen Addi, an associate partner at IDEO, hired Beskind. Addi says when Beskind is in a room, young designers do think differently. For example, Addi says IDEO is working with a Japanese company on glasses to replace bifocals. With a simple hand gesture, the glasses will turn from the farsighted prescription to the nearsighted one.

Initially, the designers wanted to put small changeable batteries in the new glasses. Beskind pointed out to them that old fingers are not that nimble.

"It really caused the design team to reflect," Addi says. They realized they could design the glasses in a way that avoided the battery problem. "Maybe it's just a USB connection. Are there ways that we can think about this differently?"

Like many IDEO employees, Jason Dehler thinks Beskind's energy is contagious. "I'm sitting here doing a not very inspiring task," Dehler says. "I'm doing budgets. And listening to you talk and your attitude ... I got more into it."

Beskind has macular degeneration and only has peripheral vision. So she draws her designs with easy-to-see thick black felt pens. She hands me a design for glasses that would help people like her. One of the features is that they take a photo as people walk up and introduce themselves. The glasses also have a small speaker. "So that the next time as you approach within 10 or 12 feet, something in my ear would say it's Laura," she says.

Beskind says as she gets older and faces new problems in the world, she's thankful she's a designer. "It makes aging more tolerable, more enjoyable," she says. "I enjoy the age I'm in. I think it's one of the best chapters of my life."

And for the bulging demographic of baby boomers growing old, Beskind has this advice: Embrace change and design for it.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Today, designing tech with seniors in mind - simplified tablet computers, phones with big buttons, health monitors. It's a burgeoning marketplace attracting venture capital and startups, as well as established companies. We'll hear about that.

And if you're going to design for elderly people, it may help to be one. So we're about to meet someone like that in Silicon Valley of all places. Barbara Beskind defies the tech industry's reputation for being obsessed with youth. She is 90 and as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, she works for IDEO, a design and innovation consulting firm.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Designers solve practical problems, and as Barbara Beskind ages, she says being a designer can be very helpful.

BARBARA BESKIND: Everybody who ages is going to be their own problem solver.

SYDELL: Beskind sits on a couch in an open office space at IDEO filled with staff young enough to be her grandchildren. She commutes to the office once a week from a community for older adults where falling is a problem.

BESKIND: And people where I live fall a lot. I started out for a friend of mine - I tried to design airbags of greater sizes that would be activated at a lurch of 15 degrees.

SYDELL: Beskind is stumped on how to find the right power source for her airbags. She says she started designing when she was 8 years old - toys of course.

BESKIND: Well, in the Depression, if you can't buy toys, you make them.

SYDELL: Beskind's first design was for a hobbyhorse.

BESKIND: I was determined I was going to have one, and so I made it with old tires. I learned a lot about gravity because I fell off so many times.

SYDELL: When it was time for college, Beskind told her counselor that she wanted to be an inventor. That required an engineering degree. In those days, women couldn't get into those departments so she studied home economics and later enlisted in the army where she became an occupational therapist. After 44 years, she retired as a major, then went into private practice. From those years, she has six patents on inflatable devices that help children with balance issues.

Beskind tried to retire again. Two years ago, she was watching 60 minutes. She saw David Kelley, the founder of IDEO, talking about how important it was to have a diverse staff on a design team.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

DAVID KELLEY: That's the hard part, is the cultural thing of having a diverse group of people and having them be good at building on each other's ideas.

SYDELL: Beskind says the interview made her think she wanted to work at IDEO.

BESKIND: Oh, that sounds like that's for me. And besides that, I was living in Silicon Valley. What could be better?

SYDELL: Beskind wrote to the firm and she heard back within days. It turns out that in the U.S. over the last couple of years as baby boomers age, interest in designing products for older adults is growing. Gretchen Addi, an Associate Partner at IDEO hired Beskind.

She says when Beskind is in a room young designers do think differently. For example, Addi says IDEO is working with a Japanese company on glasses to replace bifocals. With a simple hand gesture, they will turn from the farsighted prescription to the nearsighted one. Initially, the designers wanted to put small, changeable batteries in it. Beskind pointed out to them that old fingers are not that nimble.

GRETCHEN ADDI: It really caused the design team to reflect on, you know, maybe it's just a USB connection. Are there ways that we can think about this differently?

SYDELL: IDEO employees like Jason Daylor often tell Beskind that her energy is contagious.

JASON DAYLOR: I'm sitting here doing like a not very inspiring task - I'm doing budgets. And like, just listening to you talk and your attitude, I'm like - I got more into it.

SYDELL: Beskind has macular degeneration and only has peripheral vision so she draws her designs with easy-to-see, thick black felt pens. She hands me a design for glasses that would help people like her. One of the features is that they take a photo as people walk up and introduce themselves. The glasses also have a small speaker.

BESKIND: So that the next time as you approach within 10 or 12 feet, something in my ear would say, it's Laura.

SYDELL: Beskind says, as she gets older and faces new problems in the world, she's thankful she's a designer.

BESKIND: It makes aging more tolerable, more enjoyable. Yeah, I mean, I enjoy the age I'm in. I think this is one of the best chapters of my life.

SYDELL: And for the bulging demographic of baby boomers growing old, Beskind has this advice - embrace change and design for it. Laura Sydell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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