Universal Design: Tangible and empathetic?

A group of students are on the grass outside the university building. they have several large cardboard shapes and appear to be arranging them in some kind of format.Students rarely get to practice on real clients, and this means they are left with just an academic understanding of issues such as inclusion and universal design. Using age as a lens for thinking about designs is one way to help architecture students understand diversity. The Department of Architecture at Buffalo challenged students through various exercises related to the extremes of age to empathise with, and ultimately design for, small children and frail older people. The article explains their process and is titled:  Age-Focused Design – A Pedagogical Approach Integrating Empathy and Embodiment. Several pictures and graphics help with explanations.

Abstract: Architects seldom design for themselves, yet in the course of studying architecture one is rarely presented with the opportunity to design for a real client. The abstract nature of this education model leads to a focus that typically prioritizes formal or technical design exploration and de-emphasizes the role of the user. While Universal Design centers human bodies within design practice, the broad and often vague ambition of universality is difficult for students to engage within an academic context. We argue that approaching Universal Design through the lens of human age emphasizes the physical, sensorial, and cognitive modes of spatial understanding of the young and old and offers a focused perspective through which to address difference and diversity in architectural education. In this paper we outline a pedagogical approach that prioritizes human embodiments, over physical bodies, and integrates empathic understanding as critical to an inclusive, human-centered design methodology. We will discuss how the approach emerged from design seminars and studios taught in the Department of Architecture at the University at Buffalo and was tested through exercises that challenged students to research, empathize with, and ultimately design for the specific needs, abilities, and desires of individuals at the limits of human age.

The article is from the proceedings of the UDHEIT 2018 conference held in Dublin, Ireland, an open access publication.