Oya Demirbilek is a Professor of Industrial Design at UNSW Built Environment, and has a long history of research focused on the intersection of design and humanity in fields such as Design & Emotion, Design for Ageing, Ageing in Place and Accessible Design. She’s passionate about how industrial design can enhance life for everyone, particularly for an ageing population.

She has extensive experience in co-design thinking and applying it not only to aged and healthy design, but also to all the systems of different scales that affect the way we live. “Co-design methods involve different groups of stakeholders, and especially people who are the most affected by whatever topic you're researching,” says Oya. “So it's about designing with, rather than designing for. A good example is that currently lots of public spaces are designed in a co-design way with local governments, urban planners, landscapers, architects, designers and members of the community all coming together. Because, the members of the community live in that place, and they know best what they want, and really require.”

She notes that the concept of codesign is not a new one, having been practiced in one form or another around the world for much of the last 50 years. “It originated in the 70s where it was called cooperative design at the time in Scandinavia,” notes Oya. “They were using it for workplace democracy - so to help people really redesign their work environments, to make their workplaces the best for them. And later, when the US picked up the idea of collaborative design, they called it participatory design. So it’s been around for a while.”

It’s a widely known fact that one of the challenges we face in Australia is adequately preparing for an ageing population, which will have significant ramifications across our society, our economy, and - unsurprisingly - our design. “People are living longer, and that's really impacting the research that we are doing, because we’re doing research to help to support what is coming at us,” says Oya. “So the aim for many is to age at home for as long as possible, so we have to be able to survive in our homes as long as possible while still being able to do everything.”

“Many disabilities are invisible,” continues Oya. “There are older people with a wide range of disabilities, and they have friends and families who are also affected indirectly by the disability in some way. That means we need more inclusive design solutions that work for as many people as possible, and ideally, for all. When you have an inclusive approach to design, you solve an issue for the people who are the most affected, and the solutions end up working for everyone. And that's where my research is really.”

While Oya’s research and interest spans the full gamut of design in both public and residential settings, she is unequivocal that accessible bathrooms are one of the areas in which codesign has a crucial role to play. “The perfect bathroom would be uncluttered,” says Oya. “It would be a large space, because you may need a wheelchair - so large enough to spin around without trip hazards. Our older participants always tell us that luxury is a necessity. So the space should look nice, but still be safe.

“Non-slip floors are essential,” she continues. “And you should have an open shower area where you can enter without a hob. Again, if you have a wheelchair, you should have a drain that is not visible - and there are now very nice invisible linear drains that you can put along the wall. So there are obviously many things in style and preferences that are related to individuals, but you can make it look very luxurious, and still have a very accessible bathroom.”

Oya is optimistic and upbeat about her work and research, and looks forward to seeing the results en masse in the future. “I’ll quote Roger Coleman and Maria Bengtsson, industrial designers who worked in this area for many years - they said that ‘designing for other people is designing for our future selves.’ So we have to imagine the future we want to live in, and start designing now to make sure it happens.”

Listen to this episode here.

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