Upstart Designers Aim for Ageless Products

Some time in the past three decades, light switches got flatter and wider. In many buildings, the familiar "toggle" switches gave way to "rocker" switches that are easier to grasp in the dark and require less precise movement to turn on and off. They're now preferred by builders in many parts of the country, especially in homes constructed with older residents in mind, says Jay Sherman, director of residential marketing at Leviton, a century-old electrical supplier in Melville, N.Y. "Rocker switches are just more pleasing to look at, and they don't require the same degree of fine motor skill to operate," he says.

The evolution of the prosaic light switch is one example of “transgenerational design,” the fancy way product designers describe making their wares more functional for people of all ages. Katy Fike, a gerontologist and chief executive of consulting firm Innovate50, says big consumer product companies are beginning to get interested in the aging market, but much of the innovation comes from startups. As the youngest baby boomers, those born in 1964, prepare to celebrate their 50th birthdays, she says upstarts are "fighting this battle against big, beige, and boring."

Assaf Wand started Sabi in 2009 as a brand of personal products intended to appeal across generations. The 38-year-old Israeli entrepreneur, a McKinsey veteran who also co-founded a telecom company in Israel, says people over 50 control 90 percent of personal wealth in the U.S., but companies direct only 5 percent of their marketing budgets toward them. "This massive disconnect is a very interesting opportunity to do something for this specific generation," he says.

Complaints from his wife and mother about the lack of stylish pill boxes inspired Sabi's first products. When Wand began researching how consumers felt about existing pill cases, "one of the most shameful times of their lives was when they're going through airport security and someone pulls out all their pills," he says. He developed a line of about half a dozen sleek cases intended to make carrying pills "stigma free and a lot more subtle," he says. One is a water bottle with a compartment to store pills in the cap. Another resembles a Moleskine notepad.

The 5-employee company, in Palo Alto, California, has sold several thousand of each of its products, Wand says, which range in price from $5 to $25. Sabi contracts with manufacturers in China and Taiwan. (Wand won't disclose the company's revenue but says Sabi turned profitable this year.) He has raised about $2 million from angel investors. Sabi plans to expand with new product lines, including household organizers and travel accessories, beginning next year.

Designing with older adults in mind often leads to products that are easier for everyone to use. Older consumers "push harder on the system. They'll show you things that are difficult or not intuitive or not well designed," says Fike, who co-founded a network called Aging 2.0 in April 2012 to connect people interested in innovations for the aging market. "It can show you latent needs in the population."

A classic example: Oxo Good Grips, a line of kitchen tools and other housewares. Founder Sam Farber started Oxo in 1990 after his wife, who had arthritis, had trouble holding existing kitchen tools, according to the company's history on its website. Oxo now makes more than 850 products that appeal across generations.

Gadi Amit, president of 25-employee design agency NewDealDesign in San Francisco, is working with Sabi to create new pillbox configurations. The challenge is to create carrying cases that have room for more pills but remain compact enough to be easily carried by people taking medications throughout the day. And they should look smart, too.

Amit, who designed the popular FitBit step tracker, says the growing number of older, active adults will force people who make consumer products to adapt. "Most designers are young, and they tend to design for themselves," he says. Now baby boomers are "asking for livable, innovative products," Amit says. "That's a market that Sabi is tapping. That's a market that is going to be there for decades."