Universal Design: Is it Accessible?

A blank sheet of paper with an eraser, two pencils and a light globe.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. Several aspects of universal design are questioned including the terminology and inherent difficulties in understanding the concepts. 

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.

You can also find the article on ResearchGate

The article was written before the 8 Goals of Universal Design were devised by Steinfeld and Maisel in 2012. These goals have a more practical focus. So is it time for a product recall on the 7 Principles of Universal Design?

The beginnings of the universal design movement are attributed to Ron Mace, a polio survivor who went on to be an architect. 


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, the ten things to know about universal design are:

    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 another name 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 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

7 Principles of universal design

ron_maceThe seven principles of universal design were devised in the mid nineties, but still hold today. They are a good starting 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. Universal Design is about accepting and celebrating diversity, so there are many ways in which to explain universal design. This list gives a good idea of what it is about – the underpinning philosophy.

In 2006 Steinfeld and Danford also ‘crosswalked’ the principles to the ICF – a handy reference for academics utilising the ICF for activities and participation. Or you can download a copy of the slideshow.

What is Universal Design?

Library building with wide level paved pathway to the entrance. Picture taken in Berrigan NSW.“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 nation 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 which also has more information on homes.) 

Universal Design Guidance and the ICF

icfFor anyone interested in ICF related research, Universal Design Guidance and the ICF demonstrates how the World Health Organisation, International Classification of Functioning, Health and Disability (ICF) can be applied to the development of design guidance standards. It uses a set of linking rules together with related classifications to represent the interaction of human functions, activities, and environmental factors. 

See also a slideshare of Steinfeld and Danford’s crosswalk of UD principles with the ICF. It shows the process they went through to translate the 7 Principles of Universal Design to the 8 Goals of Universal Design, as well as relating them to universal design and the ICF.  All other references have been removed except a review of the ICF conference which includes Ed and Scott’s paper.