Design for the Mid-Life: A Brief/Survey

Hello Everyone:
I’m a grad student at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I’m doing a small Brief/Survey of Industrial Designers as a part of my Thesis research. My Thesis deals with the possiblity for improvement during the middle of the product lifespan i.e.—the span of time between purchase and disposal. I’ve put together the Brief/Survey belowand would be grateful for anyone who is interested to participate. It should only take a few minutes, and it might actually be (sort of) fun. My goal is to get some basic input from designers, not fully resolved objects, so please don’t spend alot of time on this–10min. max. Any input would be appreciated. Thanks for your help!

Mark Havens

THE SURVEY BACKGROUND: My Thesis is about the middle of the product life cycle. By nature, industrial designers must account for the beginning of the product life cycle. Thoughtful designers also design for the end of the product life cycle (i.e.– the landfill via recyclability, sustainability, etc.). My thesis investigates the middle ground between purchase on one end and disposal on the other. What about something that has been quietly doing its job for a while or something that is almost worn out? Can it have anything new to say? Can it still surprise, intrigue, and delight? What are ways designers can ensure this middle portion of the life cycle adds another layer of experience to an object? This is not just a question of decoration or ornament. I believe all areas of design, from dialysis machines to armchairs can be made better by planning and accounting for the mid-life phase.

To begin to answer this question, I’ve formulated four separate prinicples or “tools” that can be used when working in this area. I’m sure many other tools exist. And that’s my aim – to open up a dialogue between designers in which more principles can be developed. These are not one size fits all solutions. In some instances, none of these principles will be appropriate. In some cases, one, two, or all of them can be. Here’s the principles so far:

PRINICPLE 1: The Jawbreaker
Admit that the design will be subjected to physical wear. But engineer the design to use that physical wear as a catalyst for the emergence of a new facet. (I.E…-Suck on a jawbreaker long enough and another layer of flavor will emerge.)

PRINICIPLE 2: The Cocoon
HOW TO USE: View the middle of the life cycle not as a downward spiral of continually decreasing efficiencies, but as time span that can be used to gain new skills or facets. Engineer the design to slowly build new facets/assets over time independent of physical wear. (I.E.-Let a caterpillar be a caterpillar long enough and you’ll have a butterfly.)

PRINICIPLE 3: The Pop Star
HOW TO USE: View the middle of the life cycle as existing – literally – from the moment of purchase to the moment of disposal. As result, engineer the design to constantly change its form and/or function. (I.E.-In the struggle to maintain relevancy and interest, pop music stars continually reinvent themselves.)

PRINICIPLE 4: The Activist
HOW TO USE: Allow your design to be influenced by its environment, then translate that influence into action in an emotive way. In other words, engineer your design to see a situation and do something about it. (I.E.- An activist sees what’s happening around them and takes action as a result. Can a coffee table develop concern for the plant that sits on it and move across the room following the shaft of daily
sunlight to ensure that its friend the plant stays healthy?)

Please do ONE of the following:
Use 1 or more of these 4 tools on something — anything at all — you’ve already designed and make a simple preliminary image/sketch of it.
Use 1 or more of these 4 tools to create something new and make a simple preliminary image/sketch of it.


  1. A hand sketch or Illustrator line drawing of whatever you did. Any other format is fine too, whatever is quickest and easiest for you.
  2. A tiff, eps, or jpeg image of your original design, if applicable.
  3. A short (no more than 150 words) explanation of what you did.
  4. Your answers to the 4 questions below:

A. Please rate each tool:
TOOL 1: The Jawbreaker Very Useful Somewhat Useful Not Useful
Additional Comments:

TOOL 2: The Cocoon Very Useful Somewhat Useful Not Useful
Additional Comments:

TOOL 3: The Pop Star Very Useful Somewhat Useful Not Useful
Additional Comments:

TOOL 4: The Activist Very Useful Somewhat Useful Not Useful
Additional Comments:

B .What tools of this kind do you currently have in your studio?

C. In what format would you be most likely to use these tools? (Book, reference card, website, etc.)

D. MOST IMPORTANT! Can you think of any additional tools to design for the middle of the life span? The Phoenix? The Backseat Driver? The Kodak Moment? The Empire Strikes Back? Write your tool down in 100 words or less and give an example. All ideas will add to the dialogue…

Please send yor email to: by Friday, April 23, 2004.

If you have any questions, concerns, or suggestions please contact me anytime:
Mark Havens