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 principles were devised at a time when the focus was on the built environment and designers were responsible for getting it right.

However, some people find the 7 principles a good starting point for thinking about design from an inclusive perspective. With thought 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

Universal design in 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”. Universal design has evolved and recognised as an inclusive design thinking process. Consequently it applies to all things designed including processes and policies.

It is more than buildings

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. This is where the term “universal access” belongs – it is not the same as universal design. Building, product and web standards are about compliance. Universal design is about creative designs that include compliance to relative standards.  

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. 

More resources

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

Universal design has 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.

The Danish Design Ladder takes universal design thinking yet another step forward. It shows how to apply universal design thinking to organisations and business strategies.


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