50 over fifty: Barbara Beskind

Although I like to present 50 over Fifty subjects you don’t already know, there’s a good chance you’ve recently read about Barbara Beskind—a 91 year-old part time industrial designer at Silicon Valley’s uber-hip IDEO design studio (they designed the Apple mouse.) 

 Now 91, Barbara still shows up at IDEO's Palo Alto studio most Thursdays.  Nicolas Zurcher/Courtesy of IDEO

Now 91, Barbara still shows up at IDEO's Palo Alto studio most Thursdays. Nicolas Zurcher/Courtesy of IDEO

I admit, I may have almost been the last guy to learn of Barbara, when I got a Twitter message from the 3% Conference’s social maven @LaurelLu about her. As I noted to Laurel Stark Akman, perhaps the world of product design is ahead of the ad world, when it comes to seeking seniors’ input, because when a product doesn’t work, its failure is clear and unambiguous. When ads fail, they do so silently.

The backstory on Barbara Beskind is, she was an early specialist in design for injury rehab, who rose to the rank of Major in the U.S. Army. After an equally long career in the private sector, and long after ‘retiring’ she applied for a job at IDEO when she heard that they were researching design for the aged. That was in June, 2013 when she was already nearly 90 and living in an assisted living facility.

The Wall Street Journal quoted IDEO’s Gretchen Addi, “She’s a designer here, and she does get paid for some of the work that she does.” I recently called the firm’s Palo Alto office and confirmed that Barbara still comes in most Thursdays. Her role includes  consulting and developing personal projects. 

But there’s something else going on, too. And it’s that Barbara Beskind has become an internet meme. The first journalist to pick up the story was the Journal’s Tim Hay, who is based in the Bay Area and covers tech stories. He wrote about her on the Journal’s Venture Capital blog last April.

His original reporting was cited a few times, but Barbara’s story didn’t get real traction until she was interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered early this year. The NPR story was, in turn, reposted (read: plagiarized) by dozens of bloggers and web sites, and—as I write this—there’s no sign of this meme losing steam.

The underlying personal story’s interesting and inspiring. “Most days, I feel 20 years younger [than I really am],” says Barbara. “On days I go in to IDEO, I feel 30 years younger.” 

But, what fascinates me is that, as this 90-year-old-with-job-at-hip-agency story has such a life of its own. People—including people far younger than her—have a real appetite for a story about someone who, despite age and macular degeneration, still has a vigorous and curious mind.

I suppose more and more people are starting to actually imagine being old, and wondering what it will be like. If they’re lucky, their lives will be like Barbara Beskind’s.

 Are you kidding me?  I also love the way she describes herself in the last paragraph: "I… ambulate well." You go, girl.

Are you kidding me?  I also love the way she describes herself in the last paragraph: "I… ambulate well." You go, girl.