Danish Design Ladder and universal design

Talking about universal design and inclusive practice helps individuals to understand the concept of inclusion. But the real change is needed in organisational culture. Everyone has to have the same universal design mindset. 

For an organisation to take inclusion seriously, it needs to be embedded into the culture. 

Design isn’t just for products and websites. Design thinking can also be used to design business strategies and operations. It shapes the brand and business concept. 

The Danish Design Ladder is useful for understanding the power of design within organisations. Universal design thinking comes onto the ladder at Rung 3 – Design as a Process. 

Rungs of the Danish Design Ladder

Rung 1 Non-Design:  Design is invisible, product development is done by untrained designers. The user or customer has no part in decisions.

Rung 2 Design as Styling:  After the product is developed it is given to a designer to make it look nice. 

Rung 3 Design as Process:  This is where design is not the result but a way of thinking. Customers are now the focus of the design process. 

Rung 4 Design as Strategy:  Design is embedded in the leadership team to shape the overall business.

Rung 5 Design as Systemic Change:  Design is a way of changing systems to solve complex social problems.

Rung 6 Design as Culture:  Design is a common mindset, as a way to innovate, a way to listen and and a way to lead. 

The Brisbane Olympic Games are less than 10 years away. There is talk of wanting them to be the most accessible games ever. The last three rungs of the Ladder, universal design as strategy, change and culture, will be essential for this outcome. 

An article by Bryan Hoedemaeckers, Are you getting the most out of Design explains more on this. The Ladder is a good way of conceptualising how universal design thinking can be woven into the fabric of organisations. 

Australian researchers used the Danish Design Ladder in an action research project. The title of their paper is, Climbing the Design Ladder; Step by step.  The researchers discuss other intermediate “steps” for bringing about culture change. 



Easy English: Same as Easy Read?

Girl sits with a book flicking pages and looking a little unhappy. She needs Books for Everyone.

Australian Easy English is for people with low or few literacy skills. It is not the same as Easy Read.

According to Cathy Basterfield, Easy English is not the same as Easy Read. Her comparison of the two highlights some important differences.

Australian Easy English assumes almost no literacy skill. Material is presented with just three or four short sentences of 5 words on a page. Each sentence is accompanied by a relevant picture or graphic. This means there is a lot of white space which prevents visual confusion caused by lots of words. The aim of Easy English is to tell the reader what to do. It is not about conveying information.

Australian Easy Read on the other hand has an average of 10 words in a sentence. The document includes information which can make if difficult to find the “what to do” instruction. This format assumes a reading level of Grade 4. Unlike Easy English, images are used without headings and there is little white space.

Rows of snack food line the supermarket shelves.

44% of Australian adults do not have the literacy skills for everyday reading tasks such as reading product labels.

Black and white logo for easy read, has a tick and a open book

Long documents often have an Easy Read version which makes it easier for competent readers as well. After all, why read a long and complex report when you can get the same information with less words?

Making a document easy to read and understand is not itself an easy process. The development of Easy English and Easy Read is a mix of language, sentence structure, images and user testing. It’s a design challenge to analyse each element to see what works best.

Comparing the two

The examples below show some of the differences between Easy English and Easy Read. Cathy Basterfield has a succinct three page comparison of the two styles with clear examples.

page from Access Easy English on COVID.
Example of Easy English
A screenshot of the homepage of the website.
Example of Easy Read

Universal design as ‘symbiosis’

Symbiosis is not a word usually associated with universal design, but it’s another way of looking at it. Symbiosis means interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association to the advantage of both.

An article from Malaysia uses symbiosis in the context of designs for the disabled body advantage the non-disabled body – it’s a win-win.

The article covers the usual introductory material about universal design and then moves into a discussion on indoor spaces. The research questions focus on the application of universal design to achieve integration.

The paper recounts three case studies to show how people with disability can get the same sense of belonging as non-disabled people. The use of materials, space function and space planning each have a role to play.

Case studies

Bill and Melinda Gates Discovery Center showing people looking at exhibits.

Bill and Melinda Gates Discovery Centre

The first case study is the Bill and Melinda Gates Discovery Center in Seattle. The centre fosters a collaborative working environment to educate people about global issues including disability.

The second case study is the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. This building is a studio of visual and accessible sensory experiences.

The third case study is Hazelwood School in the UK which transformed a school for children with disability into one for all children.

Hazelwood School

All three projects posed challenges to designers to find ways in which everyone could feel welcome and use the spaces. The article provides more detail on each case study and useful references.

The authors conclude that universal design played an important function in aiding architects to design for people with and without disability.

The purpose of universal design is to create symbiotic relationships between people

The title of the article is, Universal design (UD) in indoor space: Symbiosis between disabled bodies and abled bodies. The abstract uses some confusing language and terms, but the article follows universal design thinking. The links to the case studies are also worth a look.

Co-design in Health Care

Entrance to the emergency section of a hospital.. Co-design in health care.

An inclusive design approach means listening.

Health care is a service and like any service, you want the best for your customers. Customer feedback is common with most services, but knowing the problems after the event is not very effective. The first step is setting up a process that is going to get the most useful design decisions. That means co-designing from the very beginning – co-designing the research method.

A new paper documents the process of using an inclusive design approach to design the study. As a report of the process the paper necessarily includes many stories from participants. These stories are rich in information not limited by survey or interview formats and questions. It is up to the listener or researcher to guide these experiences into practical solutions. The methods in this study are applicable to any public service, such as transport or education.

Storytelling and research design

Storytelling often goes beyond describing the immediate barriers and difficulties in using a service to reveal the impact on a person’s life.

“The inclusive design approach to the study was not rigid because inclusive design is about diversity, variability and complexity”

Three design exercises

The study reports on three options for design exercises:

Design Exercise Option One: co-designers talk about any part of the health care service that needs re-design. Then the group imagines a future where the barrier no longer exists.

Design Exercise Option Two: co-designers discuss their own or another’s experience during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Design Exercise Option 3: co-designers use the research centre’s “virtuous tornado” exercise. The virtuous tornado is a diagram with three circles, In the centre is the statement, “Like and Use”. The next ring has the statement “Don’t like or have difficulty using”. The outer ring has the statement “Can’t Use”. See the diagram below.

Three rings of a circle indicating the three statements.

Figure 1 from the report with the three options for activities

Co-design is a hot topic at the moment and this paper adds to the research and ideas of how to run co-design processes.

The title of the article is, Co-Design as Applied to Accessibility in Health Care and comes from researchers based in Canada.

Design toolkit for social inclusion

Inclusive Signs Toolkit front cover.
Front cover of the Toolkit.

Social inclusion is a complex topic mainly because it’s not something you can make and touch. It requires a new way of approaching design that avoids bias, stereotypes, and established methods. Emilio Rossi has developed a card-based toolkit to generate creative inclusive design concepts. It’s titled Inclusive Signs and is based on a visual card system. One set has a different picture or symbol, and the second set has text labels. The cards are used to stimulate creative thinking in brainstorming sessions.

A short video on the welcome page of the online version on the toolkit provides a great overview of the basic concepts. 

The first part of the handbook explains the background and how to use the the toolkit. The second part has 180 cards and a worksheet. The toolkit is useful for both design practitioners and educators. It would also be good in co-design processes. The goal is to stimulate deep reflections on social inclusion in all design processes.


Although disability is one of the topics, design for social inclusion goes further. It tackles issues of social wellbeing, rights, human values, and inequalities.  Designers often struggle to create inclusive products and services beyond access codes. Rossi says moving beyond access codes is crucial for enabling solutions.

The key is gaining insights in the design conception stage. “Otherwise designers will continue to use biased concepts in their creative practice. That is, designing what is known, rather than what may work.”

You can download the 120 MB PDF document.  The 60 descriptive cards have current keywords relating to social inclusion. The aim of the 120 visual cards is to stimulate reflection, emotion, and lateral thinking. The images provide both negative and positive representations. 

Designers should find the content of the toolkit interesting even if they don’t use it in practice or teaching. 

The online version of the Toolkit is also available in several languages. Below are three examples of the text cards.

Card reading shared visions and ideas.

Card reading yes, with, together, visible, for all.

This card reads, participation.

Readability and colour choices

Colour contrasts can be deceiving because we are subject to optical illusions. The video below shows how two different shades of grey are actually the same. That’s why you can’t rely on judging contrast by eye. Fortunately there are colour checkers to help with colour choices especially for websites. And why do you need colour contrast checkers? Because more than 8% of the population has colour vision deficiency (colour blindness). 

A semi-trailer is stuck under a bridge with the warning "low bridge" in upper case. Colour choice is one factor in readability. Others include using sentence case. Using upper case or capitals does not convey important messages more urgently. The image shows that using upper case to indicate a low bridge did not stop a truck driver from driving under it. Upper case is harder to read because the shape of the words are unfamiliar. 

The most accessible websites are those that have an Easy Read option.  A good example is the My Allied Health Space. At the top of the home page is the symbol for Easy Read and this is where you click to turn it on

Screenshot of Allied Health Space standard format.
My Allied Health Space home page with option for Easy Read at the top of the page


Screenshot my allied health space in easy read format.
My Allied Health Space with Easy Read option turned on

Thanks to Dr Em Bould, Senior Research Fellow at Monash University for the inspiration for this post. She has great advice on this topic based on her research. 


Universal design and cognitive accessibility

Partial view of a bronze statue of a man with his head in his hand. It represents thinking. Universal design for cognitive accessibility.Universal design is most commonly associated with the built environment. This is where the physical barriers to inclusion are most visible. But the concept of universal design goes beyond this to include cognitive accessibility.

Emily Steel writes a concise article on how universal design informs cognitive accessibility standards. There are many types of cognitive disability and it would be difficult to have separate standards for each one. So the working group has adopted the Universal Design for Learning framework to promote better design for all people.

Brightly coloured strips lay on top of each other, each one with the day of the week. Universal design for cognitive accessibility.The working group has published two standards since forming in 2015. The first provides guidelines for the design of products to support daily time management. The second is about the design and development of systems, products, services and built environments. A third standard is under development. This one sets out the requirements for reporting the cognitive accessibility of products and systems. 

As an international standard, working group participants come from around the world and include people with diverse cognition. Online meetings replaced the face to face workshops during the COVID pandemic. 

The article, published in Design for All India Newsletter, provides more detail about how the group works. It’s Article 2 in the October 2021 edition. The online Newsletter is produced in Verdana Bold and is fully justified. It also includes a lot of Italicised text. 

You can directly download the article titled, Universal design informs cognitive accessibility standards

Interested in this work?

The working group is keen to integrate lived experiences into the guidelines and any revisions. If you are interested in this work you can contact the Technical Committee Secretariat

Dr Emily Steel is the Australian delegate on the International Standards Organization (ISO) cognitive accessibility working group. She also conducted a workshop at the Australian Universal Design Conference UD2021. Dr Steel is also a CUDA board member.

Understanding typefaces for accessibility

Example of typefaces images.
Image courtesy Medium

More people have difficulty reading than most people think. Low vision, dyslexia, low literacy, and learning disabilities are some of the reasons. Previous posts have covered the topic of plain language and Easy Read. But choosing the right typeface is also important for communicating successfully. Without understanding typefaces, things like colour contrast will make little difference. 

Gareth Ford Williams explains key elements in his article. He says claims of some typefaces being more accessible than others are not backed up by evidence. 

lower case 'i' and upper case 'L' and '1' look the same.
Gill Sans upper case ‘i’, lower case ‘L’ and ‘1’

Different typefaces provide different styles in how letters are formed. For example, Gill Sans upper case ‘i’ and lower case ”l’ and ‘1’ look the same. However, in Verdana they are distinct from each other. 

Mirroring is something than young children do. For example, muddling ‘b’ and ‘d’ and ‘p’ and ‘q’. However, the letter flipping effect can be lifelong. 

Spacing or ‘visual crowding’ is another consideration. Some typefaces have the same space between letters regardless of letter width. Helvetica is one example. Calibri has different spacing between letters. A wide letter like m has more space around it than an i or a t. In some cases the letters can look joined up such as ‘ol’ or ‘vv’. Tight letter spacing is not great for people with good vision either. 

The article has several good examples to illustrate points made. The title is, A Guide to Understanding What Makes a Typeface Accessible. Williams makes the point that there is no one right typeface. As always, it depends on your audience. However, this article provides great insights into yet another aspect of communicating accessibly. The article is technical in some places.

Thanks to Dawn Campbell on Linked In for alerting me to this article.

Beyond compliance with occupational therapists

A graphic depicting aspects of rules, right and wrong, and tick boxes. Going beyond compliance with occupational therapists.Accessible built environment advisors and practitioners know that it’s an uphill battle to get clients to go beyond compliance. However, if the client agrees, it might be time to go beyond compliance with occupational therapists. 

Occupational therapists (OTs) and universal design have much in common, say James Lenker and Brittany Perez. In their paper they argue the case for including the skills and knowledge of OTs across the spectrum of design disciplines and in research activities. Inter-disciplinary collaboration is the key.

The title of the Lenker and Perez article is, The role of occupational therapists in universal design research. This three page paper is easy to read and promotes the importance of collaboration for the best universal design outcomes.

OTs are involved in home modifications, but rarely considered in the public domain. They hold key information about how our minds and bodies interact with the built environment. So they can sometimes bring new solutions to the table with universal design. 

Guide for OTs on universal design

Apeksha Gohil has devised a universal design guide for OTs. The aim of the guide is for OT practitioners to offer universal design solutions. The guide is a three stage stepwise process to reach universal design solutions beyond compliance and prescriptive standards. 

Graphic of a handshake with purple hands. The hands have words on them such as cooperate and connect

Gohil agrees that stakeholders are primarily interested in what is required by the law. However, it is important to create awareness about user participation and co-design a part of the design process. One of the aims of the guide is to create awareness about role of OTs in universal design and create best practice examples. 

The Universal Design Consultation Guide for Occupational Therapy Practitioners is structured as a step by step guide. The document is available on ResearchGate, or you can download directly as a PDF document

You can also find out more from Elizabeth Ainsworth and Desleigh de Jonge about the relevance and application of universal design in occupational therapy practice on the ResearchGate website. 


Guide for body shape and size

A page from the Guide for body shape and size.How much do our body shapes and sizes differ? A lot. But if you only know a few different shapes and sizes, how will you know if your design is inclusive? A guide for body shape and size is a useful reference.

The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in Ireland has a set of information sheets on body shape and size. They guide designers in how to apply these factors in their work to achieve more universally designed products and services.

The overview of the guideline project explains the importance of considering body shape and size in designs. For governments and other institutions it helps with the selection and procurement of everyday products such as street furniture. Designing for the extremes of body shape and size affords extra convenience for all users. It also helps avoid user discomfort, embarrassment and even harm. There are five fact sheets

A related academic paper from 2014 takes body size and shape further and applies it to mobility devices. The guide to the circulation requirements for various wheeled mobility devices is from Denmark. It includes research on the spatial needs for parking as well as toilets and building entries as well as accessible paths of travel.

Charts with dimensions of the various mobility types is included and includes tables for children and the bariatric population. The guide also discusses the need to think to the future of mobility devices and not assume that the size and styles will remain the same.