What is universal design?

Slide at a universal design conference with the words, good design enables. Bad design disables.Universal design is understood internationally as a means of achieving an inclusive society. It is a simple idea. Why not design for the most number of people who can use a product, place, building, service or website? But is it actually that simple? Given the number of myths that have arisen in the last 50 years since the term was coined, probably not. The term Universal Design is recognised internationally, but there are others including, Inclusive Design, Design-for-All, Human Centred Design, Accessible Design.

There are several posts on this website that can help you understand, or help your colleagues understand it a little better. They are listed under What is Universal Design on this website. For quick reference here are some links to the posts on universal design, each with their own way of presenting the concept:

10 Things to know about Universal Design lists key benefits and dispels myths

Universal Design: Creating inclusion for everyone is a magazine article

Meet the Normals: Adventures in Universal Design, and Universally Designed Digital Life are two videos explaining the concepts well.

Victorian Health and Human Services Building Authority promotes universal design in public buildings. 

Diversity of Explanations of UD lists some of the everyday words that can be used to help explain. UD is about diversity so why not have a diversity of explanations.

8 Goals of Universal Design express the principles in a practical way. They can be adapted to any context by using terms and language that suit.

7 Principles of Universal Design are often quoted, but not always the best explanation for people new to the topic. 

Principles of Inclusive Design by the Commission for Architecture and Built Environment (CABE) in UK. 

Hobsons Bay Universal Design Policy is a very useful example of how to devise a policy for an inclusive community. 

Digital and web accessibility have their own section on this website. 

 

Diversity of Explanations of UD

a series of black icons on white background depicting people of all shapes and sizes, including a baby in a stroller, a person with a can and a wheelchair user Working with diversity is a key element of universal design thinking. So having diverse ways of explaining universal design seems appropriate. Wikipedia and universal design websites will have many of the standard explanations. But understanding universal design is more of a continuous conversation. Different words can be utilised in different discussions.

In common use are “inclusive design”, “design-for-all” and “design for the lifespan”.  Other words and terms could be:

Provocative design: doing things differently, challenging the status quo.

Fragile design: designs that require community agreement to hold them together.

Careful or caring design: taking care to be inclusive in design thinking and processes.

Everyday design: designing more things to be ubiquitous, accepted and normal.

Thoughtful design: the opposite of thoughtless design where some people feel left out.

Empathetic design: similar to careful/caring design and thoughtful design, by putting yourself in the situation of others.

Looking to the future design: looking at how trends are developing and factoring this into designs.

7 senses design: factoring all our senses into designs.

Collaborative design: in some cultures this is a significant part of the design process – without it the product, service or building won’t be used.

Acceptable design: similar to collaborative design, but perhaps some compromises have to be made.

Disruptive design: changing the way things are done, challenging the status quo of designs, using environments or products in new ways.

Intergenerational design: family structures are diverse – recognising that not every family is a nuclear family whether at home or in the community.

Liveable design: being functional for everyone as well as looking good

Universal usability: focusing on how people use things – used mostly in relation to mobile technology, particularly to include older people

Interaction experience: trying to pull together usability, user experience and accessibility under one umbrella – relates mostly to ergonomics

Download the one page Word version or one page PDF version for reference.

In line with the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disability and the WHO Age Friendly Cities and Communities program we should continue with universal design. The term is understood internationally as a concept for physical, social, economic and cultural inclusion.

As an aside to this list, academia seems keen on adding and own yet more terms for what is essentially the same thing – wanting to be more inclusive with designs. Do we really need any more terms? 

For a crash course on the basics of universal design, sign up to CUDA’s free online learning, Introduction to Universal Design.

Jane Bringolf, Editor

Universal Design Fact Sheet

Aerial view of Melbourne Park Tennis Precinct.The Victorian State Government has an easy to read two-page fact sheet on universal design. It relates to sport and recreation, but the content is applicable to other areas of the built environment. It’s based on the classic seven principles of universal design and shows how they can be interpreted and applied in sport and recreation. 

The first page briefly explains universal design and how it is different to accessible design. Costs, if any, are also explained. It is a good document for government procurement purposes where suppliers are required to adhere to universal design principles in their design and supply. The fact sheet is available on the publications and resources section of the Victorian Government website. There’s also the Design for Everyone Guide with an accompanying video.

 

Meet the Normals: Adventures in Universal Design

Stick figures represent the family members. The video is in black and white. This is one frame from it.Having trouble convincing others that universal design is for everyone and not ‘disabled’ design?  A 6 minute video shown below takes you through an everyday family activity of leaving the house and catching a bus. It goes through the process of how to design for everyone. “For many of us we don’t think twice about how we use technology, travel, move in and out of buildings or use the web…” The video explains how universal design is good design for everyone.

The video was produced by the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in Ireland. It is a good example of both closed captions and audio descriptions. 

 

Universally Designed Digital Life

Opening frame of the video: Universal Design of ICT - a better digital life.This short video about universal design and communications technology is powerful in its simplicity. The concepts can be applied to anything. One of the best explanations around. Great for introducing the idea of inclusion and universal design to others. A good example of a universally designed video and universally designed explanation as well.

 

Principles of inclusive design

page from the booklet with the explanation of how developments will turnout if inclusive design principles are used.Universal design is diverse in its terminology and explanations. Those who prefer “inclusive” design will also have their take on this. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) describes inclusive design as: 

“Inclusive design is about making places everyone can use. It enables everyone to participate equally, confidently and independently. Inclusive design is everyone’s responsibility. That means everyone in the design and construction process”. CABE has a booklet explaining each of the principles of inclusive design in more detail and with photos:

1. Inclusive design places people at the heart of the design process.
2. Inclusive design acknowledges diversity and difference.
3. Inclusive design offers choice where a single design solution cannot accommodate all users
4. Inclusive design provides for flexibility in use.
5. Inclusive design provides buildings and environments that are convenient and enjoyable to use for everyone

CABE says, if the principles are applied, developments will be:

Inclusive so everyone can use them safely, easily and with dignity.
Responsive taking account of what people say they need and want.
Flexible so different people can use them in different ways.
Convenient so everyone can use them without too much effort or separation.
Accommodating for all people, regardless of their age, gender, mobility,
ethnicity or circumstances.
Welcoming with no disabling barriers that might exclude some people.
Realistic offering more than one solution to help balance everyone’s needs
and recognising that one solution may not work for all.

At the heart of all explanations is the quest for inclusion – to include as many people as possible in every design. The list above has similarities with the classic 7 principles of universal design and the 8 goalsBarclays Bank also has a set of principles for inclusive design for the digital world

Designing for Diversity

A mosaic of many different faces and nationalitiesDan Jenkins says that inclusive design is often confused with designing for people with disability. It is true that inclusive design, or universal design, is not just about disability. But it should also include people with disability. After all, it is about designing for as many people as possible. Dan Jenkins makes an important point in his article – the number of excluded people is often underestimated and capability is frequently thought of in terms of “can do” and “can’t do”. However, this black and white approach doesn’t cater for those who “can do a bit” or “could do more” if the design was tweaked.

Editor’s comment: Many have written on this topic, but it is good to keep the conversation going. I hope his ideas do actually include people with disability and older people. “Diversity” is often thought of in terms of ethnic and gender diversity. If not careful, this can exclude a much wider range of people, including children, older people, and people with health conditions. 

It would be a pity if “universal design” were to be interpreted as “disability design” and “inclusive design” as designing for non-disabled groups of people. Disability covers all ethnic and gender groups as well. Dan Jenkins is based in the UK where the term “inclusive design” is used more than “universal design”. 

Quotable quotes on universal design

Wall banner saying The essence of universal design lies in its ability to create beauty and mediate extremes without destroying differences in places, experiences and thingsUnfortunately the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture has deleted their page on quotable quotes. There are other resources on their site including case studies and tools. 

“Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.”
Steve Jobs, former CEO, Apple

Editor’s note: The picture is a photo I took at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA) located at the University at Buffalo in 2004. Jane Bringolf.

The text reads, “The essence of universal design lies in its ability to create beauty and mediate extremes without destroying differences in places, experiences, and things”. It is attributed to Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick, Designers. 

Slide at a conference with the words, good design enable. Bad design disables.The universal design conference held in Dublin 2018 began with the words, “Good Design Enables. Bad Design Disables. The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design has a good, but wordy description of universal design.

What’s in a name? Is it the same?

Pictograms of people and access symbolsWhich name or label to use when talking accessibility, universality and inclusion in design? This is a question in an article on the Adobe Blog site. Is it just semantics? Maybe. But they are intertwined and in the context of ICT and websites it might make a difference to some. Matt May writes that “Accessibility is the goal to ensure that products support each individual user’s needs and preferences. “Universal design is for everyone, literally, and inclusive design expands with your audience as new design ideas emerge. He cites the definition of inclusive design from the Inclusive Design Research Centre in Toronto: “design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference”. Is this not how universal design is explained? Better to accept that universal design is about diversity and therefore we can expect a diversity of explanations. As long as the aim is for social and economic inclusion for all then the meaning is in the doing and the outcomes. It’s worth noting that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities uses the term “Universal Design” and interprets it as an iterative approach to achieving equity and inclusion. 

5 Accessibility problems solved with UD

A suburban house in UK. The ramp makes several zig-zags up the front of the house. It looks ugly.Explaining that universal design is more than accessibility is sometimes difficult for people who have heard of accessibility, but not universal design. A neat article from the US lists five points to help understanding. Briefly listed below are the five points:

  1. Accessibility is not always inclusive. Steps plus a ramp to a building means some people have to take a different route to get in.
  2. Accessibility puts burden on the individual. More planning is needed for every trip, even to a restaurant – not to make a reservation – but to find out if you can get in.
  3. Separate accessible features are not equal. Sometimes they create extra hurdles and more effort.
  4. Accessibility provides limited solutions to a broad problem. This is because it is often an “add-on”. 
  5. Accessibility is not designed with style in mind. It is usually just designed to just serve a purpose.  

The title of the blog article is, “5 Problems with Accessibility (And How Universal Design Fixes Them)”.

Note: the picture of the house with the ramp shows four out of the five points. Different route, separate, limited solution, no style.