7 Principles of Universal Design

black and white photo of Ron Mace. He is wearing glasses and has a beard. He is wearing a light coloured shirt and a dark neck tie
Ron Mace

A group of architects, product designers and engineers devised the 7 Principles of Universal Design in the mid nineties. The late Ron Mace led this team and is often referred to as the “father of universal design”. The 7 principles are a good starting point for thinking about design from an inclusive perspective. They can apply to any building, open space, service, product, phone app, website or document.  Briefly they 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

Access to the built environment was a relatively new idea in the 1990s. It was soon realised that access for wheelchair users was good for everyone. It’s a universal good. Hence the the term “universal design”.

It is more than buildings

Although the original focus was on buildings, access and inclusion in all areas of life have evolved within the universal design movement. However, many still believe universal design is only about the built environment. Others believe universal design is a one-size-fits-all approach which means designers cannot be creative. Indeed, it requires a good deal of thought and creativity. 

There is one other important misconception and that is, universal design is about access standards. Building, product and web standards are about compliance. Universal design is about creative designs that include compliance to relative standards. 

The concept of universal design is applicable to anything that is designed. That includes basic things such as the layout and readability of a Word document. 

Some disability advocates argue that to make everything inclusive for everyone will make people with disability invisible. This is not the case because it does not make other groups invisible on the basis of gender, background or age. 

A world comfortable for all

The video below covers people at home, in public transport, in the street, at an airport, at a computer, at the entrance door and in the parking space. “Universal Design is the design of anything (city, service, thing) to make the experience of using it comfortable for anyone”.

A great little video for anyone new to universal design, or for others wanting to share their understanding. It’s 2 minutes long and great for education purposes. 

The  United Nations supported the making of the video. It was created in the framework of the joint Programme “Promoting Mainstream Policies and Services for People with Disabilities in Ukraine”. 

Further reading

Steinfeld and Maisel devised an update to the 7 principles of universal design in 2012. The 8 Goals of Universal Design are more action based than the principles, and include cultural inclusion. 

In 2006 Steinfeld and Danford also ‘cross-walked’ the principles to the ICF.  This is a handy reference for academics utilising the ICF for activities and participation. You can download a copy of their slideshow.

To help policy makers, CUDA has devised a generic Universal Design Position Statement. 

Evolution of Universal Design

The term universal design evolved from the barrier-free movement in the 1960s and 1970s. It was realised that designs for wheelchair users were good for everyone – hence they are universal. 

Universal design has itself gone through many iterations. It is no longer just about access to buildings, but access to anything and everything for everyone. 

The latest thinking and practice is co-designing with users – a really iterative design process that shares the design power between users and designers.

Jane Bringolf briefly explained the evolution of universal design in a keynote presentation for the Melbourne Design Week 2022. 


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