A can of old worms

It is easy for young designers to forget that the packs they create will be sent out into a world increasingly dominated by older people, whose frailties must be catered for, says David Benady

Designers are facing up to the challenge of creating packaging and products suitable for a rapidly ageing population. But some observers wonder whether designers have sufficient empathy and awareness for the task.

There are numerous examples of packs that fail to take into account the requirements of people of advancing years. In one case, researchers for a household cleaning giant were shocked to discover that some older women had taken to stabbing and ripping open packs of a washing-up liquid brand with knives, as their fingers were unable to undo the cap.

At the same time, newspaper and magazine designers have been accused of ignoring the failing eyesight of older readers, using tiny print that is difficult to read.

And while people might be happy to unsheath their reading glasses when sitting down with the paper, they may rush through a supermarket without the aid of spectacles. In this case, bolder and clearer on-pack labelling is needed to ensure legibility.

A survey into the attitudes of shoppers aged over 50, by “grey marketing” agency Millennium, makes sobering reading. Over half the respondents felt packaging was merely “adequate” for their needs, with only a third saying it was good or very good. Ten per cent felt packs were poor.

When it came to specifying what is wrong with packaging, 72 per cent said too much packaging is environmentally unfriendly and unnecessary. Over half – 54 per cent – said packs should be easier to open, and nearly a quarter – 23 per cent – called for larger print.

Millennium ran a workshop for a number of Tesco’s designers, to highlight the challenges faced by older consumers when it comes to packaging. Young designers put on makeshift “third age” suits, which mimic some of the problems faced by older consumers. Such suits are widely used in the motor industry to give car designers an insight into the needs of older drivers.

The Tesco designers wore water wings on their arms, weights on their ankles and glasses with distorted lenses. They also put on two pairs of rubber gloves to experience the difficulties some older people have in picking up objects. Millennium creative director Reg Starkey, who questioned older shoppers at a Tesco store about their attitudes to packaging, says: “As your fingers get more arthritic, opening packaging is completely different from when you are a 20-year-old designer. When we were doing the interviews, a lot of people said many products were hard to open. Unfortunately, in order to make a product secure, you make them difficult for older people to get into.”

Reach Design managing director Caroline Hagen says older people’s needs have to be examined as closely as those of younger consumers. “Successful packaging comes about as a result of being single-minded about your target audience. If they fall into an older age bracket, play to their aspirations – older people do have aspirations too.

Storm Brand Design managing director Bruce Drinkwater agrees that some designers can appear out of touch with the needs of older consumers: “Design agencies are often seen as the domain of the young and there are, no doubt, companies out there more interested in the awards their clients could win than in their client’s customers.”

But he says it is not always the designers who are to blame for trendy, inappropriate packaging. “Occasionally a client will demand a certain style for a product and insist on proceeding with the approach even when subsequent research shows that the target market has very different ideas,” he adds.

One of the biggest questions for modern brand owners is whether they should appeal to consumers in the traditional terms of age and class, or to target consumers by attitude. Simon Gore, joint managing director of design agency Vibrandt, says: “Targeting consumers is less about demographics and more about appealing to a particular attitude or insight.” An important issue, he says, is “age compression” where people stay “younger” longer. He also points out that although eyesight deteriorates as people get older, eyecare and eyewear have improved dramatically over the years and laser surgery has become far more affordable and accessible.

According to Brandhouse WTS chairman and creative partner Mark Wickens, the increasing wealth of many middle-aged and older consumers requires design that plays to their sense of quality.

“There used to be an adage that people had made up their minds about the brands they would buy in their lifetime by the time they were 25. This has now changed, because of the advance of technology and new goods such as mobile phones – vast leaps that have altered the brand landscape,” he says.

The over-50s of the future will certainly behave differently from previous generations, and designers will have to take these developments into account.

But some suggest that even though the “silver surfer” generation is increasing in number, it is not necessarily increasing in decrepitude. Many people are healthier for longer – this is why they are living to greater ages. Pearlfisher creative partner Jonathan Ford says: “We would beg to differ with the view that brands need to concentrate more on creating products and packaging specifically for this market. Brands need to recognise that today’s generations are closer than ever and we are seeing the rise of the old young and the young old.”

As cross-generational marketing becomes an increasingly important issue in the years to come, designers will have to ensure their ideas mature rapidly to keep up with their consumers.

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