Universal Design: a diversity of explanations

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 userAfter spending time with Professor Ed Steinfeld, Professor Rob Imrie and Dr Kim Kullman at various events, workshops and meetings in 2015, I’ve expanded my thinking about universal design. A key thought to emerge from one workshop is that we should embrace the diversity of ways in which universal design is expressed instead of getting frustrated about the various terms used. UD is after all, a concept that embraces inclusion and diversity. So why not embrace the various ways that people come to and express this concept? UD encourages inclusiveness in approach to design, including communication!

Wikipedia and universal design websites will have many of the standard explanations. But perhaps universal design is much more of a continuous conversation where many different words can be utilised in the discourse and discussions. In common use are “inclusive design”, “design-for-all” and “design for the lifespan”.  But other words and terms might 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

Perhaps we should be using many different words in different situations to suit the understanding and perspective of different individuals?

However, in keeping with the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disability and the WHO Age Friendly Cities and Communities program, I believe we should retain ‘universal design’ as a generic term as this is understood internationally as a concept for physical, social, economic and cultural inclusion.

Download the one page Word version or one page PDF version

Jane Bringolf, Editor


The Real Meaning of Inclusive Design

Jeremy_Myerson.head and shoulders shot. He is wearing glassesThe Co-Founder and Director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Jeremy Myerson, is asked questions about inclusive design and how it can be achieved in this article from Metropolis Magazine. He stresses that it is a shift in design thinking and the way designers are taught as well as moving away from a legislative approach. In the article’s concluding paragraph Myerson says:

“The bigger challenge is adapting to a more democratic, participatory approach, rather than being the top-down experts. Industrial designers have taken to it extremely well, but architects are struggling. There was a fantastic project by students at the Royal College of Art who rethought the little figures on architectural models. So there was the pregnant mom with the cigarettes, the teenage mother, the drunk, the violent football hooligan—all these social outcasts. They were trying to make architects think about real people in real social scenarios. That’s what inclusive design is about. It’s not just including people in the built environment or the use of products, it’s including people in the process.”

Logo for the Helen Hamlyn Centre: purple upper caseThe Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at London’s Royal College of Art is a major research centre for inclusive design focusing on: Age and Ability, Health Care, and Work and city. In this magazine article Jeremy Myerson responds to the interviewer’s questions:

  • How far have we come
  • Are we finally moving away from a legislation-based model?
  • What are some of the tools you’ve used to make inclusive design more participatory?
  • What else has changed in how we think about accessibility
  • How should we be addressing cognitive disabilities?
  • How much can we expect industry to take on in terms of inclusive design?
  • How does it translate to public policy and the urban realm – the things that are not in the hands of corporations?
  • If we had to think of a new disability discrimination act, what would be some of the key considerations?

8 Goals of universal design

Logo for the IDeA Center at BuffaloThe Seven Principles of Universal Design (NCSU, 1997) are well known in the universal design fraternity and have been used as a baseline for designing a range of goods, services and policies across the world. The IDeA Center at the University at Buffalo has taken these principles and expanded them to focus on social participation and health. Complementing the Principles of Universal Design, the Goals of Universal Design© define the outcomes of UD practice in ways that can be measured and applied to all design domains within the constraints of existing resources. Briefly, the Goals are:

  1. Body FitEd Steinfeld holding his book next to his face.
  2. Comfort
  3. Awareness
  4. Understanding
  5. Wellness
  6. Social integration
  7. Personalization
  8. Cultural appropriateness

The IDeA website adds that “they encompass functional, social, and emotional dimensions. Moreover, each goal is supported by an interdisciplinary knowledge base (e.g., anthropometrics, biomechanics, perception, cognition, safety, health promotion, social interaction). Thus, the Goals can be used effectively as a framework for both knowledge discovery and knowledge translation for practice. Moreover, the Goals can help to tie policy embodied in disability rights laws to UD and provide a basis for improving regulatory activities by adoption of an outcomes-based approach.”

Ed Steinfeld writes more on universal design generally and the eight goals, in an article published in Modern Health Talk in 2014 as a lead up to the publication of his book written with Jordana Maisel, Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments.

The goals were devised by Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012 ©


Universal Design from the perspective of Mace

ron_maceRon Mace is often attributed the title of “Father of Universal Design” and is recognised as the founder of the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. However, little is actually written about him and the groundbreaking work he achieved. Jacob Aronoff’s dissertation, “Catering to All: Disability and Universal Design in the Built Environment” begins with a well researched history of Mace’s work and then uses the subways of New York, London and Tokyo as case studies. In using Mace’s perspective and understanding, Aronoff provides an easy to read story of universal design, its dissemination, acceptance, and its applications.

Here is a quote from the latter part of Aronoff’s dissertation:  “I initially thought of Mace as a purely radical figure. While I have realized that Mace is more measured than I originally anticipated, I believe the case can still be made, that he made a revolutionary transformation in the understanding the disparate approaches to disability and humanity within the Urban Environment. Compared to the world in which Mace was born, there has been tremendous progress, but it was Mace himself, who helped to radicalize the process in developing Universal Design.”

For those who have been following UD this is a good reminder of where universal design has come from, including the work of Selwyn Goldsmith. For those who are new to the ideas, it provides a context for current and future work. Download the dissertation here. 


Redefining the Principles of Universal Design

Steinfeld Danford 2006 ICF presentation

In 2006 Ed Steinfeld and Scott Danford re-worked the classic seven principles of universal design to make them more understandable. They also ‘crosswalked’ the principles with the ICF (International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health) which is an international system that can be used as a basis for research world-wide. Download the presentation to the 2006 ICF Conference held in Vancouver.

Briefly the redefined principles are:

Body fit; Comfort; Awareness; Understanding; Identity; Social integration; and Cultural appropriateness. These formed the 8 Goals of Universal Design – a more practical approach than some of the classic 7 Principles.



Universal Design: Is it Accessible?

This opinion piece by Jane Bringolf published by Multi:The RIT Journal of Plurality and Diversity in Design was written in 2008, but is still relevant. 

Abstract: Designing products and environments to be usable by the majority of people is the underpinning concept of universal design. In some aspects, however, universal design fails to meet some of its own principles. This has resulted in a lack of understanding of the concept, which in turn, has allowed the terms “accessibility” and “disability” to inhabit the language of universal design. This means universal design is now bounded by concepts of accessibility, regulations and disability rights, rather than the intellectual challenges inherent in designing for the whole of the population bell curve. The universal design movement recognizes that making headway is proving difficult and is seeking ways to improve its position. Market research, however, indicates universal design is now branded as a disability product and this has implications for consumers, practitioners, and for the universal design movement in general. Discussed are the influence of terminology on the direction and perceptions of universal design, and the dilemmas of applying a regulatory framework as an implementation strategy.



10 Things to know about Universal Design

The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in Ireland has developed a comprehensive list that covers all the myths and misinformation about the purpose of universal design. Briefly, it covers:

1: Universal Design strives to improve the original design concept by making it more inclusive

2: Universally Designed products can have a high aesthetic value

3: Universal Design is much more than just a new design trend

4: Universal Design does not aim to replace the design of products targeted at specific markets

5: Universal Design is not a synonym for compliance with accessible design standards

6: Universal Design benefits more people than older people and people with disabilities

7: Universal Design can be undertaken by any designer, not just the specialists

8: Universal Design should be integrated throughout the design process

9: Universal Design is not just about ‘one size fits all’

10: A Universally Designed product is the goal: Universal Design is the process

See more detail about 10 Things to know about Universal Design


Benefits and Drivers of Universal Design

The CentrUDGC-persona-homepage3.pnge for Excellence in Universal Design in Irelanoutlines the benefits and drivers of universal design for individuals, and business in a changing market. It covers increased customer expectations, participation in society, and in compliance with legislation and standards. Although this list was created a while ago, the Benefits and drivers of universal design remain current.  


7 Principles of universal design

ron_maceThe seven principles of universal design were devised in the mid nineties, but still hold today. They remain a good reference point or framework for designing any building, open space, product, phone app, or document. They were developed by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers led by the late Ron Mace (pictured).

A good example of explaining the principles can be found on the website of the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in Ireland. Briefly the principles are:

  1. Equitable Use
  2. Flexibility in Use
  3. Simple and Intuitive to Use
  4. Perceptible Information
  5. Tolerance for Error
  6. Low Physical Effort
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use

An update to this list was published in 2012 by Steinfeld and Maisel as the 8 Goals of Universal Design. They are more action based than the principles, and include cultural inclusion.

In 2006 Steinfeld and Danford also ‘crosswalked’ the principles to the ICF – a handy reference for academics utilising the ICF for activities and participation.


What is Universal Design?

Picture of Berrigan Library Building“Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits. By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples’ needs. Simply put, universal design is good design” (from the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design) .

“UD is an increasingly important feature of nations states seeking to develop a fairer society for people unable to access and use, with ease, the designed environment. It is based on the premise that the design of products and environments ought to ‘be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design’ (Mace, 1988: 1).” (From Universalising Design website)