Designs For The Aging: And Why Are The Insides Of These Bowls Blue?

Stanford Center on Longevity competition challenges students to design products for seniors.

This prize-winning set of tableware was designed to help people with Alzheimer's feed themselves. Courtesy Sha Yao
This prize-winning set of tableware was designed to help people with Alzheimer's feed themselves. Courtesy Sha Yao


The Stanford Center on Longevity is encouraging innovative designs that improve the lives of older people – including one that could help people with Alzheimer's eat with greater dignity and efficiency.

Last week, a panel of academics, industry professionals, nonprofit groups and investors picked the winners of the Design Challenge, which was launched in September 2013 and is the first of its kind at Stanford. The theme was "maximizing independence for those with cognitive impairment."

Ken Smith, the Center on Longevity's Director of Mobility and one of the organizers of the challenge, said the center received submissions from 52 teams from 31 universities in 15 countries that represented a wide range of both applications and disciplines. There were seven finalists, including one student team from Stanford.

Sha Yao from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco won the $10,000 first place prize for her project, "Eatwell," which involved the design of tableware specifically for people with Alzheimer's.

For example, blue was chosen as the color of the insides of bowls because dementia sufferers can become confused when food and bowl have similar colors, according to Smith. As spills are common when bowls are tipped to get the final bits out, Yao designed a slanted bottom that eliminates the need to tip. The cups have low centers of gravity and are difficult to knock over.

"The beauty is in the way that small design decisions were made with intentionality and with lots of testing with actual users. It is a wonderful example of user-centered design," said Smith.

Yao said her late grandmother had Alzheimer's, and that served as her personal motivation for the project. Yao had to overcome numerous obstacles and frustrations, she said, but eventually produced what Smith described as an "extremely well thought out" and original design.

"Eating is what people have to do every day to stay alive and healthy," Yao said. "My project proposal was to develop an eating set for people with Alzheimer's to eat by themselves as much as possible to maintain their dignity, and also to alleviate the caring burden of caregivers."

Yao, who hopes to begin manufacturing her product before the end of this year, thanked her family, friends, faith, instructors and Stanford for the opportunity. She said, "I am very thrilled to win the first Stanford Design Challenge."

The second place prize of $5,000 went to "Taste+," a National University of Singaporestudent project involving a spoon that electrically stimulates the taste buds to promote better eating for those with diminished taste sensations.

The $2,000 third place award was given for "Memory Maps," a system that allows a person with early-stage cognitive issues to record memories attached to real-world locations. The device was developed by students at the Copenhagen Institute of Design.

The design created by Stanford students featured a system for automatically monitoring activities of daily living and generating a call for help when necessary.

The entire article can be viewed via Stanford News online.


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