10 Things to know about Universal Design

Centre for Excellence in Universal Design logo. 10 Things to know about universal design.The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in Ireland has a comprehensive list that covers all the myths and misinformation about the purpose of universal design. Briefly, the 10 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 these 10 things and other resources on the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design website.

 There are more explanations in the What is Universal Design section of this website. 

7 Principles of Universal Design

Ron Mace sits at a drawing board in his power wheelchair. He is wearing a white shirt and a dark tie.
Ron Mace at work

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. 

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. 


Universal Design Guidance and the ICF

icfThe 7 Principles of Universal Design emerged from the built environment, but things have moved on since the 1990s. The 8 Goals of Universal Design were devised to be more practical. They emerged out of work carried out to link the concepts  with the World Health Organisation’s, International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF).

For anyone interested in ICF related research, Universal Design Guidance and the ICF demonstrates how universal design can be applied to develop 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.

Universal Design: Is it Accessible?

A blank sheet of paper with an eraser, two pencils and a light globe. Universal Design, is it accessible?This opinion piece, Universal Design: Is it Accessible? critiques the 7 Principles of Universal Design. Several aspects of universal design are questioned including the terminology and inherent difficulties in understanding the concepts. Jane Bringolf argues that the 7 Principles of Universal Design are not themselves universally designed. 

The article was published by Multi:The RIT Journal of Plurality and Diversity in Design. It is also available on ResearchGate

The article was written in 2008 before the 8 Goals of Universal Design were devised by Steinfeld and Maisel in 2012. These goals have a more practical focus. More recently, the concept of universal design has evolved to embrace diversity and inclusion in their broadest sense.

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


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. Consequently, universal design is 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 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.