The Principles of Universal Design: relevant or redundant?

BUSINESS & MANAGEMENT   |   5 minutes  |   December 10, 2018

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As our world rapidly evolves, issues of diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility influence how structures and services are formed. Only since the 20th century has there been a focus on social conditions, civil and human rights, and anti-discrimination legislation.1 When concepts of inclusivity became increasingly considered in society, design responded by forming and standardising the accessible products, social structures, services, and environments we know today.2

The term “universal design” came into existence in the late 90s as a by-product of inclusive, assistive, and accessible design.3 The principles were created by a working group of Architects, Product Designers, Engineers, and Environmental Researchers. Twenty years later and the term’s official definition from the research paper still rings true in the structures of our society; “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaption of specialised design.”4 As diversity and social inclusion has grown in emphasis, the definition has adapted slightly. BDG Accessible Committee refers to universal design as, “a process that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness, and social participation”.5 While the newer definition still considers diversity and disability, it’s more focused on process, rather than a set, unwavering end product. In such a rapidly advancing society, design and innovation need to be characterised by fluidity and the ability to adapt, otherwise it may bear the risk of becoming forgotten.

In such a rapidly advancing society, design and innovation need to be characterised by fluidity and the ability to adapt, otherwise it may bear the risk of becoming forgotten.

The 7 principles of universal design

The ethos persists today; universal design is driven by its environment, and aims to develop a better quality of life for all.6 Defining elements of the design principle are now commonplace features within society; the automatic sliding doors in shopping centres, buildings that have ramps and no step entrances, multi-sensory interactive public maps and directory systems, and various levels at counters.7 Universal designs reduce the stigma that disability has garnered, and equalises society to a shared platform of usability. This design process also positively impacts the economy; special programmes and services shouldn’t have to be specifically designed for society, as a universal design focuses on universal usability.8

In the mid-90s, the Center for Universal Design at the North Carolina State University acknowledged the need for greater inclusivity. The organisation asked 10 leading industry professionals to identify the principles and requirements of universal design.9 The result has been used globally ever since:

  1. Equitable Use
    The design needs to be useful and marketable to individuals with diverse capabilities, and should provide the same means for all users. It should still be appealing and avoid segregating or stigmatising its users.
  2. Flexibility in Use
    The design should accommodate a wide range of user preferences and user abilities. There should be a choice in the methods of its use, and should facilitate accuracy and precision, as well as provide adaptability according to the user’s pace.
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use
    The design should be understandable, regardless of the user’s experience, skill-set, or concentration level. It shouldn’t be unnecessarily complex, and needs to be consistent with expectation, information, and provide effective feedback.
  4. Perceptible Information
    The information the design communicates should be effective, regardless of the space, conditions, or user’s sensory abilities. It should be legible and utilise different modes, (pictorial, verbal, tactile) and be compatible with techniques and devices.
  5. Tolerance for Error
    The design should minimise hazards or any unintended actions. This can be achieved by arranging elements by the most used and most accessible, with any harmful elements eliminated. Warnings should be provided.
  6. Low Physical Effort
    Minimum fatigue should be achieved during the design’s use. It should be efficient, comfortable, and avoid repetition or any forced uses.
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use
    Appropriate size and space need to be provided for its use, regardless of the user’s mobility or size. Clear sight levels should be facilitated, appropriate levels for reaching, accommodate variations in grip, and provide sufficient space for the use of assistive devices and external help.

Universal designs reduce the stigma that disability has garnered, and equalises society to a shared platform of usability.

Although these principles of design have been formed with global accessibility in mind, designers and advocates of universal design need to be aware not every product and environment will suit every person in the world, rather, it’s the services, management practices, and policies that can benefit from the design thinking.10 This is why the adapted definition is arguably better; design should be considered a process, not a final end product.11

Universal design criticism

Despite its aim for the holistic betterment of society, universal design has not avoided criticism. It continues to recognise usability, however usability evolves as technology and society do. The Whole Building Design Guide published a report titled, Beyond Accessibility to Universal Design; it identifies a barrier against universal design, and modernity as a whole, is within the preservation of cultural resources such as historical buildings.12 Adapting a building can be limiting when the focus is on its authentic preservation. Another barrier to universal design’s adoption discussed in the report, is that it’s perceived as expensive, idealistic, and an imposition of Western values.

In addition to considering its users, market, and environment, design needs to address and respect cultural values too.13 It’s realistic to acknowledge that designs and their processes will alter according to cultures, however in some environments, this may be unachievable.

Perhaps the biggest misconception of universal design is that it’s been placed in the bubble of design-for-disability.14 Yet, when you think of the simplistic principles, it seems practical for every house, building, and social construct to consider accessibility, comfort, integration, and cultural appropriateness.

The accessibility universal design strives for shouldn’t be restricted to a particular market. Every individual benefits from the ease of usability. Automatic doors not only help disabled users, but also general shoppers with bags and children. Ramps assist those with strollers, delivery staff, and also serve a purpose for recreational sports like skateboarding. The disabled population makes up one billion people; that’s 15% of the world’s population more likely experiencing adverse socioeconomic outcomes compared to persons without disabilities.16 Making things more accessible doesn’t constrict a design to a specific market, it opens itself up to its current users, as well as the one billion others.

…design should be considered a process, not a final end product.

Despite its critique, an analysis of the current social landscape will reveal it’s scattered with universal designs. Neither are these designs and processes relegated to the world of products; universal design is increasingly seen in education, instruction, software, and technology.17

Its firm foundation suggests if successfully implemented, the design needs no adapting, however this rigidness may pose problems in such a rapidly-changing world. What is the capacity for change in universal design? And if it strives not to change, will it then become redundant?

A conclusion to this argument comes down to the definition of universal design. The original 1997 description focuses on the design of products and environments, while the slightly more modernised one emphasises a process of empowerment through design. Good design is no longer enough, it needs to be inclusive, and the quest for improved accessibility and inclusion will never be abandoned. It culminates to recognising that, although society will evolve, and designs may become outdated, the embedded principles of simple usability and inclusivity are timeless, and consistently relevant.

  • 1 (2014). Retrieved from Universal Design.
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  • 4 Connell, B, et al. (1997). ‘The Principles of Universal Design’. Retrieved from NC State University.
  • 5 Maisel, J and Ranahan, M. (Oct, 2017). ‘Beyond accessibility to universal design’. Retrieved from WBDG.
  • 6 Maisel, J and Ranahan, M. (Oct, 2017). ‘Beyond accessibility to universal design’. Retrieved from WBDG.
  • 7 Maisel, J and Ranahan, M. (Oct, 2017). ‘Beyond accessibility to universal design’. Retrieved from WBDG.
  • 8 Maisel, J and Ranahan, M. (Oct, 2017). ‘Beyond accessibility to universal design’. Retrieved from WBDG.
  • 9 Connell, B, et al. (1997). ‘The Principles of Universal Design’. Retrieved from NC State University.
  • 10 Maisel, J and Ranahan, M. (Oct, 2017). ‘Beyond accessibility to universal design’. Retrieved from WBDG.
  • 11 Maisel, J and Ranahan, M. (Oct, 2017). ‘Beyond accessibility to universal design’. Retrieved from WBDG.
  • 12 Maisel, J and Ranahan, M. (Oct, 2017). ‘Beyond accessibility to universal design’. Retrieved from WBDG.
  • 13 Maisel, J and Ranahan, M. (Oct, 2017). ‘Beyond accessibility to universal design’. Retrieved from WBDG.
  • 14 Maisel, J and Ranahan, M. (Oct, 2017). ‘Beyond accessibility to universal design’. Retrieved from WBDG.
  • 15 Burgstahler, S. (2015). ‘Universal Design: Process, Principles, and Applications’. Retrieved from University of Washington.
  • 16 (Sep, 2018). ‘Disability inclusion’. Retrieved from World Bank.
  • 17 Burgstahler, S. (2015). ‘Universal Design: Process, Principles, and Applications’. Retrieved from University of Washington.