She Sacrificed Her Youth to Get the Tech Bros to Grow Up

As a young industrial designer, Patricia Moore undertook a radical experiment in aging. Her discoveries reshaped the built world.
Pattie Moore
Known as the Mother of Empathy, Patricia Moore is considered one of the founders of universal design.Photograph: Jesse Rieser

When Patricia Moore was 26, she looked in the mirror and saw an 85-year-old woman. Crow’s feet clustered at her eyes, her back hunched, and silver hair gathered around her face. Another person might be horrified. Moore held a hand to her cheek, astonished and thrilled at the transformation.

Back then—this was the spring of 1979—Moore was a young industrial designer living in New York City and working at Raymond Loewy Associates, the famous designer of everything from NASA’s Skylab space station to home appliances. At a planning meeting one afternoon, Moore mentioned that, growing up, she’d seen her arthritic grandmother struggle to open refrigerators. She suggested creating a fridge door that unlatched with ease. “Pattie,” a senior colleague told her, “we don’t design for those people.” The firm’s target users were middle-aged male professionals. Moore fumed at the injustice, to say nothing of the lost business opportunity. But, she thought, who was she to advocate on behalf of elderly consumers? Moore had never struggled to open anything. She left the meeting frustrated, with a feeling she couldn’t shake: If she could understand what it was like to be old, she could develop better products. Not just for elders, but for everybody.

Not long after, Moore attended a party where she met Barbara Kelly, a makeup artist for a new sketch comedy show called Saturday Night Live. Kelly, it turned out, had a specific talent: aging up actors. Moore had an idea. “Look at me. Look at my face,” she said to Kelly. “And tell me if you could make me look old.” Moore’s face was round, without high cheekbones—the perfect canvas for an ersatz wizening. “I could make you look very old,” Kelly replied. Within a few days, the makeup artist crafted custom flesh-toned prosthetic pieces for Moore. She created jowls, eye bags, and saggy neck skin. The result, once carefully adhered to Moore’s face and topped with makeup, was uncanny—as if Moore had stepped into a time machine, or fallen under a spell.

As “Old Pat,” Moore wore her grandmother’s clothing, a pillbox hat, glasses, orthopedic shoes, and gloves to hide the youthful texture of her hands. She darkened her teeth with smudges of crayon and clouded her eyes with dabs of baby oil. She also wanted to feel old; otherwise, she reasoned, the experiment wouldn’t work. So she plugged her ears with wax to dampen her hearing. Taped her fingers to simulate arthritis. Wrapped cloth over her shoulder to create a hump. Secured balsa wood splints behind her knees to restrict her movement.

Old Pat’s first outing was at a conference on aging in Ohio. When she fooled everyone there, she knew she was in business. For three years, Moore went undercover as Old Pat at least once a week, packing the costume in her suitcase when traveling. Old Pat visited 116 cities in 14 states and two Canadian provinces. Moore felt she wasn’t merely putting on a character; she was living part of her life as an old woman.

She chronicled her insights about navigating the world in a changed body—the connections she made with others, and the prejudice she faced—in a book, Disguised, published in 1985. Picture a Stephen King–esque cover with dramatic hot-pink font and eerie photographs of Young and Old Pat. “Old has become a synonym for being useless, ugly, unimportant, of less value,” Moore wrote. “That is the core perception which must be changed, and I think will be changed, in this generation.” She endeavored to be part of that shift by talking about her experiences and championing a new form of product design.

Published in 1985, Moore's book (out of print but easy to track down) chronicled her insights about navigating the world in a changed body.

Left: Courtesy of Patricia Moore; Source Image: Helen Marcus; Right: Courtesy of Bruce Byers

Today, Moore, who started a firm called MooreDesign Associates in the early ’80s, is considered one of the founders of “universal design,” the idea that products and environments should be built to accommodate the widest range of people possible. Moore has designed for Johnson & Johnson, Boeing, Kraft, AT&T, Herman Miller, and 3M, among many others. She’s known in the industry as the “Mother of Empathy.” In interviews, colleagues called her a Jedi, a unicorn, and a design goddess. David Kusuma, president of the World Design Organization, told me, “I don’t think there is anyone in the design world who hasn’t heard of her.”

Now Moore is 70. Nearly 40 years after the publication of Disguised, in other words, the Mother of Empathy is much closer to the grandmotherly age she once pretended to be. Despite her hope that her generation would overturn ageism, technological progress has, in many cases, created more problems for aging users than it has solved. I wanted Moore’s assessment.

Then, mere days into reporting this story, I got into a horrible accident. Suddenly I, too, had a changed body, one that would teach me, in a way little else could, just how necessary Moore’s work is.

This article appears in the November 2023 issue. Subscribe to WIREDPhotograph: Sinna Nasseri

When I fell, my left foot hit the ground first. Tumbling from a horse can feel like the world has turned into a kaleidoscope. I was ejected in a particularly spectacular fashion by a buck that flipped me over my horse’s head. I sat up in the dirt and took stock. My head was OK, as were my neck and back. My horse, too, was fine. My trembling leg was not.

An x-ray revealed I’d dislocated my tibia and broken my ankle in three places. My leg was repaired with eight screws, a plate, and a high-strength polymer cord known as a tightrope fixation. In an instant, I went from an athletic 33-year-old to someone who moved through the world on crutches, casted foot held aloft like a flamingo’s. Beyond the immense pain, my environment became a fun house, the simplest tasks distorted. Getting from my bed to the couch felt like a marathon, and every room I entered became a dangerous obstacle course. As I fumbled with faucets while struggling to balance on my crutches and stumbled over uneven carpeting, it became clear that the world is not designed for everyone. Which means, in Moore’s view, that it’s designed poorly.

I began corresponding with Moore shortly after my accident. I apologized for having to interview her over Zoom from an “unconventional location”—code for my bed, where I spent most of my days with my leg elevated. “I can relate,” she said. “There’s a video somewhere of me delivering a keynote in my hospital bed, heavily drugged, after being hit by a car in Wellington.” She, too, had broken her leg. “One of my peeps tried to kill me,” she said, laughing. “She was 82, and she ran a light.”

There’s great camaraderie in the Broken Leg Club. Naturally, Moore and I compared hardware. Screws, a plate, and a cadaver bone allow her to walk today. When I asked for more specifics, Moore launched into the whole tale, from the ugly blue shade of the car that hit her to the “Adonis” of a nurse assigned to her. “He looked like the Rock and had all these tribal tats,” she said. She imagined her bone donor was a man named George, so that’s what she nicknamed her repaired leg.

Moore rarely gives a straightforward answer to questions, preferring stories to sound bites, and tends to race off on lively tangents. This isn’t to say her time isn’t precious. MooreDesign Associates is pursued by a range of clients, many of them tech companies. When she’s at home in Phoenix, Arizona, Moore wakes up at 6 am, watches Today, and then holes up for the workday. She typically works for 11 hours, wrapping up in time for dinner. From 1982 until the Covid-19 lockdown, she traveled 250 days out of the year. Even with her reduced schedule, over the course of my reporting she flew to Norway, the UK, Ireland, New York, Ohio, and California. She rarely takes days off.

These days, Moore doesn’t just design; she interrogates ideas. Take, for instance, her recent appearance at a consortium of autonomous car companies. “Everybody was crowing about their wonderful vehicles,” she said. Then it was her turn. “They expected Mommy to say, ‘Oh, you get a gold star, here’s your T-ball trophy,’” she said. Instead, Moore asked: If someone isn’t ambulatory, and an autonomous vehicle arrives to take them to their doctor’s appointment, who is getting that person out of the house and into the car? “I just looked around the room, as I’m paid to do,” she said. “They not only wanted me out of the room, they wanted me out of the building, out of the country.”

Moore’s clients bring her onboard for any number of reasons. Her astute eye. Her belief in the power (and profit) of empathy. Her fame. And, of course, her knowledge about a rapidly aging population. Today’s elders are living longer than ever before—the median age of Americans is the highest it has been in history—yet there’s a scarcity of professional caregivers. What’s more, technological progress has become so rapid, and so integrated into everyday living, that it’s threatening to leave whole groups of people behind. “A huge industry needs to be born, and quickly,” Moore said.

“With each passing year, we need more and more stuff in order to maintain our autonomy and independence,” Moore said.

Photograph: Jesse Rieser

Still, as we talked, it became clear that Moore doesn’t see design as an aging problem. “What’s age got to do with it?” she said. “At the end of the day, often very little.” Nor is it a problem of disability—a word Moore hates because it implies exclusion. “It’s lifestyle that design needs to focus on,” she said. And lifestyle can change at any age, at any time. “You and I are living with bodies changed by events,” she told me. “We are living in a very fragile shell. And that means some days we’re more able than others.”

Over the course of getting to know the Mother of Empathy, I found real-world empathy in short supply. Young and middle-aged people blocked my way while I was aboard crutches or in a wheelchair, dashed to cut me in line, shut doors in my face. Public restrooms became the bane of my existence: often illogically designed, and with seemingly able-bodied people constantly occupying the accessible stall when others were clearly available. What was wrong with these twerps? Yet I’d been one of them not long ago. Perhaps not so brazen and uncaring, but naive to what the world could be like. The privilege of living in a healthy body had come so easily. In retrospect, I felt ridiculous.

Older people, however, went out of their way for me, offering help and striking up conversations. I commiserated with elderly folks about frustrating pharmacy hours and, gosh, what was with the lines? One woman stopped me on the street and, without asking what was wrong, said, “Broken leg? Oh, dear, I’m sorry.” These elders understood the difficulty of enduring everyday activities that others took for granted. My husband joked that I’d get out of this injury with just elderly friends. (If only.) As I tried to be a good patient when even getting out of bed to brush my teeth felt like a Herculean task, my mother-in-law remarked, “You will make a good old person.”

Moore, too, was a good young-old person. She grew up in a multigenerational home with her sisters, parents, and grandparents. She has a black-and-white photograph of herself, no older than 2, standing at the bottom of some stairs. According to family lore, her father asked her to climb up. No, she said, she couldn’t, and it wasn’t fair; the stairs were impossibly big. In the photo, she scowls at the camera. “My distaste for discriminatory design started young,” Moore said.

Moore had an affinity for art and enrolled in the Rochester Institute of Technology. “I was going to study medical illustration so I could be a fine artist and suffer through a day job of drawing body parts,” she said. Instead, a professor suggested she might be a good fit for industrial design. She graduated in 1974 with a BFA, wed her college sweetheart that weekend, and took a job offer from Raymond Loewy. Moore was the firm’s first female industrial designer. Loewy had her back. His daughter was around her age, and he saw a spark in Moore. At the company, Moore helped create the first full-body CAT scanner and the first mobile x-ray unit.

In those days, designers created sleek products and then told customers how they should be used. Rama Gheerawo, director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, described the mindset as: “You tell them what they need.” Moore didn’t understand that way of working; for her, they—the people actually using the products—should tell you—merely the designer—what they need, and only then can you create it. After the eye-opening meeting about refrigerator doors, Moore’s grandparents became the metric by which she’d determine whether a design was usable. “My fellows thought I was a stark raving mad bitch,” she said. But Loewy listened, and he allowed Moore to study biomechanics and gerontology as a part-time student.

Not long after she started dressing up as Old Pat, Moore left Loewy for a more flexible job designing private jets. She also got divorced. (That husband was the first of three, all of whom became disillusioned, she said, with her ambition and obsession with work.) Reeling from heartbreak, Moore threw herself into the role. As long as she finished her outings as Old Pat with enough time to complete her work and school projects, nobody asked questions. She pulled all-nighters fueled by coffee and M&M’s. She felt it was worth it for the time spent walking around the city and riding the subway in what she called the “Elder Empathetic Experiment.” Whenever she traveled, she’d add a day to let Old Pat explore.

Her body modifications made getting around difficult, even painful. With the balsa wood behind her knees, she waddled. “When I climbed stairs to board a bus, I’d have to step sideways,” she said. “It took a long time, and I had to hang on for dear life.” More than once, strangers yanked her out of the path of oncoming cars because she moved too slowly. Her stiff fingers struggled to unwrap cellophane from candy. “I looked at it, rather philosophically, as a trade-off: no pain, no gain, as the saying goes,” Moore wrote in Disguised. “I should have expected problems galore, and I got them.”

It wasn’t only the costume that taught her about living in a changed body. Strangers treated her differently as Old Pat, shouting at her as if she were hard of hearing or trying to short-change her at shops. She experimented with different personae. Appearing poor rendered her nearly invisible. Yet a middle-class version of Old Pat could chat up a group of old folks and become instant friends. One elderly woman tearfully confided in her that her adult daughter hit her. A lonely widower wooed her from a Central Park bench. Very young children sidled up to her as if she were their grandmother.

She didn’t tell her family about the project until it consumed so much of her life that she had to spill. “My poor daddy couldn’t bear to see me in character,” she said. “My grandmother was already dead, and I looked just like her.” Her grandfather told her to be careful. An NYPD officer warned her that the elderly were often targets of muggings; she could be hurt, even killed.

And then she almost was. Moore typically planned to get home before dark, but one day she stopped for a bite to eat. Dusk fell as she left the restaurant. To get to the New York subway as quickly as possible, she cut through an empty playground. “I heard sneakered feet running,” she said. “Then someone had their arm around my neck and their knee in the small of my back.” A group of boys jerked her to the ground, grabbed her purse, and repeatedly kicked her in her stomach. With the restrictions on her body, she couldn’t flee. The boys continued to taunt and beat her. She lost consciousness.

When Moore came to, she was bleeding and thought she might die. She heard her grandma’s voice telling her, Not yet. She used her cane to stagger to her feet and stumbled toward a street where she could flag down a cab. Bruises covered Moore’s body, and she sustained sciatic nerve damage. For years, two fingers remained numb. During her second marriage, she would learn that the beating also rendered her unable to have children. 

Yet even after “the attack,” as she came to call it, she kept dressing up as Old Pat. She felt she wasn’t done learning from the experience. Increasingly, Moore found it difficult to get out of character and return to her life. A cloud of guilt followed her for being young and, as such, part of a demographic that was unkind to elders. She stopped going to parties or getting drinks with friends. She experienced extreme physical tolls, too. Her skin bled from being rubbed by the constraints, the latex made her face swell, and her back throbbed from being stooped. “It was like a full-body hangover of pain,” Moore said. Eventually, she developed bleeding ulcers and was hospitalized for exhaustion.

Finally, the physical discomfort of being in character became too much. More than that, the interactions she had with others stopped feeling illuminating. She woke up one October in 1982 and realized she was done. After three years, Old Pat had taught her all she could. Moore got into costume and took one last trip around the neighborhood, to Bloomingdale’s, to Central Park. Then Moore peeled off her latex skin and wig and accessories, and tucked it all away in boxes, like the artifacts of a long-dead loved one. Young Pat resumed control. “It’s not a sad parting, though,” Moore wrote in Disguised. “I expect to see her again—in the mirror—in about 50 years!”

Although Moore never dressed up as Old Pat again, her career came to be defined by the ways she continued to put herself on the line for research. She is coy about mentioning certain brands and products, constrained by the many NDAs she has signed over the years, but she still has countless public-facing accomplishments. In her post-Loewy career, she led design for the first home dialysis system and the first automatic breast release mammography unit. (The latter saved patients many moments of pain—previously, technicians had to manually unclamp breasts.) She helped design the Honolulu metro light-rail vehicle and led design for the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport train system. She worked with Wounded Warriors to improve prosthetics and helped draft the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. She designed hundreds of physical rehabilitation facilities, including ones fashioned like streets and grocery stores so that elders could practice real-world skills after falls, strokes, or surgery. She teaches and gives speeches all over the world. She won the prestigious Cooper Hewitt National Design Award and the World Design Medal, among many other honors.

Moore led design for the first automatic breast release mammography unit.

Courtesy of Patricia Moore

Aside from her experiment as Old Pat, Moore is most commonly associated with a simple, yet transformative, kitchen item: Oxo Good Grips. In 1989, a businessman named Sam Farber set out to create a group of kitchen appliances that would make it easier for his arthritis-stricken wife to peel produce. At the time, Moore was married to her second husband; they both consulted on the design for Farber. Bicycle grips were the inspiration for the Oxo product’s famously squishy black handles. “The delicate detailing and the slices at the thumbprint on the handle helped you hold it even better,” Moore said. She pushed Farber to think about how the Good Grips might be comfortable for anyone rather than just marketing to those with specific needs.

Moore at the grand opening of Independence Way, a rehab unit she designed for the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Courtesy of US Department of Veteran Affairs

That first line of ergonomic, chunky-handled kitchen tools hit the market in 1990 as Oxo’s flagship product. They were three times as expensive as traditional kitchen devices, but sales took off, proving for the first time that universal design could be profitable and even elegant. Four years later, the Oxo vegetable peeler was added to the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. The upside of a failed marriage, Moore said: “It brought me into an iconic project that defined, finally, what universal, inclusive design looks like.”

The train system at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, which Moore helped design.

Photograph: Alamy

As iconic as Oxo Good Grips became, though, there’s another story from earlier in Moore’s career that I think better exemplifies her work: the time she peed in a meeting room.

It was the early 1980s, and Moore was helping Kimberly-Clark design one of the first incontinence products for adults, which would become Depend. Regardless of the fact that Moore had dealt with incontinence since being attacked in New York City, she felt it was her responsibility to test out products herself. So, before a long day of meetings with Kimberly-Clark executives, she pulled the prototype on under her skirt. She took her seat in the conference room and, when the urge hit her, she urinated. Then stood up to check her skirt, rather publicly, for stains.

Moore also paid a group of women, each of whom cared for elderly family members, to come in to talk about incontinence. After Moore revealed her own struggles to the group, they opened up. “You know what’s coming next,” she told me. “Every woman at that table admitted to some level of bladder incontinence.” These women had given birth, aged, or gone through menopause. “There was giggling about, ‘I can’t sneeze anymore without having to run into the bathroom.’” These women were not the company’s original target, but suddenly a huge demographic opened up for the products.

One of Moore’s mentees, Michael Seum, now the vice president of design at Kohler, summed up Moore’s mentality this way: “We’re not going to focus on the design. We’re going focus on how to understand all the issues, and then we’ll start designing.” Inspired by Moore, Seum has had executives and employees don gear to simulate cataracts or mobility impairments. “And then I had them read magazines, brush their teeth, sit on the toilet and flush it,” Seum said. “I had no objective other than to just let them experience life through a different lens.”

I arrived at a restaurant to meet Moore and tugged at the door. Locked—it was one minute before opening. Had this been just a month earlier, the short wait would have been excruciating; my leg had pulsed with pain anytime I stood. By this point, I had weaned off crutches, though I still walked with a limp.

When the hostess let me in, I gave her the reservation name. “The other guest is already seated,” she said.

That was impossible. The restaurant wasn’t open yet.

“She’s been here awhile,” she explained.

Indeed, there was Moore, waiting at a table with a bottle of Pellegrino. She wore one of her signature outfits, a black long-sleeve shirt beneath a crinkly brown dress the texture of a fashionable paper bag. This she paired with clogs. She looked up from her phone and smiled. She’d been dropped off earlier and passed the time by making conversation with the staff.

At design events, Moore has overheard people call her “tiny.” She considers it with amusement—what size did they expect her to be? But it’s the difference between her 5'2" stature and her room-filling personality that makes the contrast so stark. It’s also easy to see how she could disappear into the role of little old lady without getting caught.

Moore laid out a few handmade gifts on the table. First, a trio of origami shamrocks. (Moore folds origami for neighbors and people she meets during her travels.) An abstract ink drawing of intertwined orbs. (She said I could look at it to ease writer’s block.) I unwrapped the third gift and discovered black fabric inside.

“A pot holder?” I asked.

Yes, woven from American Airlines socks. “Unworn,” she reassured me. She told me she’d given one to the chief curator at the Henry Ford Museum. He framed and hung it in his office.

Moore had recently sorted through her archives for the museum, where her materials will be held in its permanent collection. Every artifact in her archive—a photograph, a product prototype, a letter from an old colleague—represents a unique path of her life’s story. She sent more than 200 boxes to the museum, including one that contained the Old Pat costume: bloodied, dirtied, and torn from the attack. “I’m glad I kept it,” she said. Then, with pain lacing her voice, “It’ll be interesting seeing that mannequin.”

Moore readily talks about the attack, but she still has nightmares of being beaten. When she hears sneakered feet running, she feels the flicker of panic. She experiences neuropathy in her legs, which can burn so severely at night she often sleeps with them elevated against a wall.

Then there’s the impact of her infertility, something Moore said defined much of who she became. As she looked through her archive, she found the letters she’d collected from students, mentees, and colleagues, many of whom send her Mother’s Day cards each year. She calls herself “the Mutha” as a joke, but she takes the role seriously. “She brings that level of parenting love to her craft or profession,” said Joel Kashuba, another Moore mentee and head of design at Nike Valiant Labs. “Love that may have otherwise gone into her children she has learned to, in an extraordinary way, give to others within the field.” Though it seems patriarchal to focus on a woman’s ability to bear children—and, in some ways, absurd to mourn the absence of motherhood when she’s accomplished so much—it’s also a truth to Moore. “Certainly, I would not work like I did if I had children,” she said. “Instead, I’m defined by work. But I bristle when people say, ‘Oh, you would have been such a good mother.’ Because I am a good mother. I define motherhood in much broader terms than just giving birth.”

“My distaste for discriminatory design started young,” Moore said.

Photograph: Jesse Rieser

Moore’s pace remains relentless because the stakes are so high; she sees suffering around her and knows that not enough has been done about it. Of the 10 colleagues of Moore’s whom I interviewed, most expressed worry about who would continue her legacy. For all she’s taught the next generation of designers, there’s no one they feel is quite as compelling, knowledgeable, or invested. Moore jokes that she will die while in the middle of work. (“When I travel, I put a little card on the nightstand that identifies me, my American Airlines number, and my sister’s number, you know, in case they find me dead,” she said. “I don’t want housekeeping to just toss me in a black plastic bag.”)

Of course, as Moore ages, her mission has become more personal. “I am not an optimist about what my next 10 or 20 years looks like, and I’m really sad to say that,” she said. She worries about living if design and technology can’t rise to the occasion. Then she hesitated, caught off guard by her own admission. “I’ve never said it out loud.” In the public eye, she tries to be a positive force, but behind closed doors with her friends, “we’re all scared to death.”

Moore believes technology will be critical in helping more people age gracefully, especially single elders like herself who want to age in place. “With each passing year, we need more and more stuff in order to maintain our autonomy and independence,” Moore said. “Nothing gets Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, all these players excited like, ‘Ooh, Pattie says they want to live independently. We can make stuff.’” But what stuff, exactly? The wiggling robotic seals meant to keep elders company in nursing homes “are one piece of a much bigger puzzle,” she said. She envisions a future world where toilets analyze our urine for health changes, shoes monitor our gait, and charming humanoid robots supplement human caregiving by feeding and dressing elders. “I want him, in a British accent, to say, ‘Darling, would you like some tea?’” Moore said.

In the shorter term, she believes wearables can play a bigger role. “I wear glasses, earrings, watches, necklaces,” she said. “All of that stuff should be informing us, keeping us safe, and letting the good guys know where we are if we go missing.” While many of today’s elders are tech sophisticates who order from Amazon and chat on FaceTime, nearly a third of those over 65 don’t have smartphones. Those individuals are being locked out of using wearables that pair with phones—or even simple things like using QR codes to read electronic menus. Moore now spends much of her time consulting on wearables, including as a board member for a new startup called Nudge, which is developing a bracelet that sends alerts through a closed network rather than a smartphone (or even Wi-Fi).

At the end of the meal, Moore and I both needed to use the restroom, which happened to be down a flight of stairs. Moore noted that she would be slow. Not because of her age, but because of George, her injured leg. “Being hit by a car did change everything,” she said. She took the stairs sideways, holding on to the banister and placing both her feet carefully on each step before proceeding. I thought about Old Pat struggling up bus steps, and about Moore as a toddler at the bottom of that staircase: the way life cycles back around.

I also thought about my own injury, and felt guilty. Soon enough, I’d be fine. My limp would largely vanish. I’d have no problem on stairs. But I also knew a time would come when I’d be unable to walk again. If it wasn’t walking, it would be something else. That point will come for you too, if it hasn’t already. When it does, I hope the world will be ready.

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