Blind at 92, Barbara Beskind is not your typical product designer

If it weren’t for her “sticks,” it would be hard for Barbara Beskind to walk.

She personalized the two ski poles — which she bought at Costco for $30 — wrapping the handles with flannel and duct tape to prevent blisters. To differentiate between right and left poles, she also put markers on the top that she can feel.

There’s even a flashlight mounted to one of the poles.

Legally blind at the age of 92, Beskind might not look like your typical Silicon Valley product designer, but she sure acts like one.

And on Wednesday, Beskind, of the design firm IDEO, gave students at the USC Davis School of Gerontology tips on designing for an aging population — and specifically people like her who deal with vision loss.

“I came here today to show you the view from the inside,” she said. “Good designs are meant for everybody.”

Finding answers

Beskind has become somewhat of a celebrity in terms of designing for an aging population. She’s been a guest on NBC’s Today, NPR and has spoken at the White House. She started her fellowship at IDEO in 2013 at the age of 89.

She contacted the firm after hearing IDEO founder David Kelley talking on 60 Minutes about the diversity of experience on his teams.

“To me, it makes a lot of sense that people like her should be involved in not only product development but in all kinds of finding solutions for the elderly — it’s housing, transportation — that’s where we get our answers,” said Katja Emcke, a student pursuing a master’s in gerontology.

Beskind told the students how she gets around in the world. She was diagnosed with macular degeneration in 1998 but didn’t lose most of her vision until 2012.

Besides tweaking the sticks, Beskind puts little bumps on her products. She puts them on lipstick tubes, pill boxes — nearly everything — to orient the object. She makes sure to vary things by size, texture and color, telling the story of a time she put a white light on a white table, which took her weeks to find.

Designing woman

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Professor Aaron Hagedorn introduces Barbara Beskind, 92, to his class on technological innovations in aging. (Photos by Gus Ruelas)

Beskind has solved problems since she was a child. She remembers making her own hobbyhorse out of two old tires at age 8.

“I learned a lot about gravity because I fell off so many times,” she said. “That was my first exposure to designing.”

Beskind always wanted to be an engineer, but a guidance counselor told her that engineering schools wouldn’t accept a woman. She then joined the Army, where she served for 20 years, retiring as a major in 1966. She was trained in occupational therapy — a blessing, she said, because of the knowledge it gave her while working with people.

She had a private practice in New Jersey for children with learning disorders and holds a patent for a device that helps children maintain balance.

Professor Aaron Hagedorn, who invited Beskind, hopes innovative minds like her own can make industry respond to a growing market.

“Because there isn’t an existing infrastructure, businesses generally don’t consider people like Barbara as a target customer,” Hagedorn said. “But with the aging of the population, there are ever growing numbers of people like Barbara.”

People over the age of 65 will amount to 20 percent of the population by 2029, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

No slowing down

Turning 93 in February, Beskind isn’t slowing down. She has a hearing aid conference coming up at Stanford University and she reports to IDEO every quarter, traveling to both the Palo Alto and San Francisco offices to give presentations.

“If I see ways … that we can be of value to those in the aging or low-vision populations — I feel that’s my duty,” she said. “I never want to stop.”

–Joanna Clay