Universal design as critical design

Four pictures of workshop outcomes explained in the article. Universal design as critical designWhat happens if architecture, interior design, engineering and product design students spend a week together to investigate the design of the built environment by making it impossible to use? By turning design upside down and deliberately creating designs that were impossible or difficult to use, students learned about universal design. This method is known as ‘critical design’.

A paper by Ann Britt Torkildsby describes a week of critical design workshops that provoked reflection, awareness, empathy and action among the next generation of designers involved in the built environment. The paper provides details of the workshops and the processes, and the outcomes for the students and their designs. The picture above shows four of the designs discussed in the article.

The students felt the workshop was a great learning experience. Although the workshop method needs some perfecting, it shows that students approach universal design in a more thoughtful way. 

Editor’s note: I liked the narrow doorway with a sticky floor that made entry difficult. The designs went on exhibition so that others could experience first hand the difficulties and frustration people with different disabilities might have with a design. Critical design is a real challenge to design problem solving. 

The title of the paper isEmpathy Enabled by Critical Design – A New Tool in the Universal Design Toolbox. The article is from the proceedings of the UDHEIT 2018 conference held in Dublin, Ireland, an open access publication. 

Finland Universal Design Conference: Selected papers

Selected papers Finland Universal Design Conference front cover.The 5th International Universal Design Conference was held in Finland earlier this year. This is a relatively academic affair and papers are published in an academic book. That’s great for other academics but not so good for practitioners who want the bottom line. So it’s good to see a more consumable version of 25 selected papers.

The original papers from the conference were published by IOS Press Ebooks, titled, Universal Design 2021: From Special to Mainstream Solutions. It runs to 400 pages and is open access. Each paper is downloadable separately. However, it is a lot of scrolling to find titles of interest.

The Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Universal Design, is in one document with shorter versions of the original papers. The content covers the breadth of physical and digital environments, health and education. It also shows how far universal design thinking has come in the last ten years or so. 

The papers are grouped into the following themes:

      • Design guidance
      • Accessible cities
      • Urban design
      • Accessibility and universal design
      • Access to culture and mobility
      • Environments for older people
      • Sensory environment
      • Wellbeing and health
      • Higher education
      • Digital tools
      • Assistive devices

The conference attracted delegates and speakers from 20 countries. This is a good document for introducing new people to the breadth of universal design.

The call for papers closes 31 October for the next conference in Brescia, Italy in September 2022.

Diversity and Inclusion in the Design Studio

aerial view of three people at a desk looking at a set of construction drawings. Diversity and Inclusion Design Studio.We live in a complex and fast-changing world – the pandemic has told us that. Designers have to keep up and that means design educators also need to keep up. But it’s not just content that matters, it’s the way it’s taught in the design studio. So, universal design meets universal design for learning. Understanding indigenous ways of knowing is just one aspect of diversity and inclusion for teachers and students. A book chapter explains.

Experiential learning is a popular way for students to practice skills and apply knowledge. In their book chapter, Sandra Abegglen and Fabian Neuhouse discuss their interdisciplinary design studio course. Bringing together planning and architecture students is not new. However, bringing them together with a traditional Knowledge Keeper is different. This makes it cross-cultural as well. 

The authors describe the setting for the students, the methods and the task scenario. The intention of the course was to engage with Indigenous ways of knowing and living. In this way students could develop proposals that pay respect to traditional stewards of the land. Considerations for accessibility and inclusion were also part of the task. 

Lessons Learned

At the end of the chapter, the authors offer their reflections. 

“As instructors and researchers, we aim to enrich the quality and breadth of learning for our students. We also strive to create learning experiences that meet the demands for future professional practice. … Students learned a lot about Indigenous culture and cross-cultural approaches to design through the inputs of Hal Eagletail, Tsuut’ina Elders and Indigenous design professionals. They learned to work with others, and to appreciate different views and approaches. At the same time, through their projects, they explored what it means to develop ‘inclusive’ design proposals.”

“The outcomes demonstrate that a cross cultural approach in both course instruction and course content supports an inclusive practice. It is a setting that all learners can access and participate in meaningfully, modeling the idea of UDL and projecting it through studio practice onto the work produced by students.”

In our studios, Universal Design was implied and fostered through UDL practice, challenging the traditional one-size-fits-all model. However, for this approach to be successful, instructors need to actively support and foster collaboration and, especially online, allow enough time for a meaningful exchange.”

The title of the book chapter is, Diversity and Inclusion in the Design Studio (chapter 4). It’s open access.

The title of the book is, Incorporating Universal Design for Learning in Disciplinary Concepts in Higher Education Guide. You are likely to find other chapters of interest. 


Doing plain language is a process

An empty page in a notebook with a pencil and sharpener. Doing plain language is a processAccessibility and universal design have arrived in written language. People who can read and write well, think that everyone else has that capability. But writing a document or webpage in plain language takes a lot of thought. Doing plain language is a process. This point is well made in a blog article.

Kelsie Acton writes about her plain language experiences in a blog post. As with any new idea, we grow with practice. That’s also one of the tenets of universal design: do the best you can with what you have at the time. Then do it better next time – it’s a process of continuous improvement. 

Acton’s article is a great example in itself. It isn’t plain language as such, but it is very easy to read. She explains how she thinks about plain language and the difficulties it poses sometimes. For example, words feel flat – it’s all about facts and less feeling. 

Having more than one version of a document is important. Writing in a way to make people think or to express values are difficult to do in plain language. Acton gives an example of this where she takes an emotive paragraph and turns it into plain language.

Acton says that plain language uses:

      • The most common vocabulary possible so that readers aren’t stopped by unfamiliar words
      • Active voice, so it is clear who is doing what
      • Short sentences
      • Headings, lists, bullet points, and white space to make information clearer
      • Definitions to introduce readers to complicated vocabulary

It makes you think

There is no doubt that writing complex ideas in a straightforward way takes time and effort. Acton says the process makes her think about her own understanding of a topic. Writing in an active voice makes her think about who is doing what. It also makes her think about her relationship to the topic.

So, doing plain language is more than a case of clever wordsmithing. It’s a learning process as well. Kelsie Action’s short article is on the Critical Design Lab website and worth a read. Note the design of the webpage for easy access and reading. 

Universal Design in Architectural Education

Two student models of a housing development incorporating universal design.
Two examples of student designs

Ageing is a fact of life. It’s something we know happens but don’t want to think about. But policy-makers and designers need to think about it as many of us live longer. Yes, it is a good thing, but also a challenge. Two things need to change – designer attitudes and skills, and building codes. So what are architects doing about it? We need universal design in architectural education if we are to leave behind the age-unfriendly designs of last century.

A paper from Ireland discusses many of the housing issues faced across the world. That is, homelessness, affordability, social housing, and ageing safely at home. The crisis in homelessness led to more funding for local authorities to tackle the issues. Hence, an opportunity to try something different. 

The Cork Centre for Architectural Education (CCAE) embarked on a “Live Project” for architecture students. This type of learning allows creativity to meet the real world. It also encourages students to take a moral and social approach to design. 

The authors discuss the real life project which was to design a housing development for older adults. It covers the site and the teaching methods related to universal design. Working with the local authority gave students awareness of different housing provisions. It also changed their perceptions of families similar to their own experience. 

One of the outcomes was that students found it harder to combine both the effective overall site strategy with an equally well-considered scheme for the interior of the houses. However, this was likely due to the limited time frame they were working with. But there is much more in this paper. 

The title is, Universal Design in Architectural Education: Community Liaison on ‘Live Projects’.  The paper is from the 2018 Universal Design Conference held in Dublin.    


The infusion of Universal Design principles into existing courses in
architecture should become evident in any project work undertaken. ‘Live project’ is a term used to describe projects that engage the academic world with real-world groups/organizations.

CCAE sees such projects as valuable exercises in a student’s education, particularly, the practical experience of interaction with ‘user-experts’. In 2016 Cork County Council approached CCAE with a proposal to promote age friendly housing as part of their age-friendly initiative.

CCAE developed this into a ‘live project’ for Year 2 architecture students, continuing the integration of UD into the curriculum. This helps students to identify the negative disabling aspects of ageing and show UD principles can be seen as commonplace. For their part, the County Council were able to expand their own thinking, availing of the less constrained ideas that students brought to their schemes.

An approach to achieving the adoption of UD is to consider the Vitruvian definition of architecture as having ‘commodity, firmness and delight’. From this, the aesthetic integration of features to benefit users of limited ability can be achieved without stigmatising anyone as being old or disabled. Now in its second year the project is being run in West Cork.

The chosen site in Bantry town centre, has interesting challenges for the students to incorporate UD principles. This paper will present imaginative but viable projects as examples of student’ responses to the challenges of designing housing solutions and will report on their ability to integrate age-friendly features at different scales.

Resource for architecture students

A long flight of stairs with a handrail leading to a large concrete column. A resource for architecture students.
Note the left hand rail leads into the column

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance created a video of all the access problems at a new student learning centre. The Alliance chair, David Lepofsky narrates the video which has captions. If you are looking for design examples, this is an excellent resource for architecture students and upcoming access consultants. The obstacles that sloping columns create are clearly shown in the video along with other issues.

Some aspects of the video could make a comedy sketch if they weren’t so critical to getting around the building. Elevator controls with three different messages are a case in point. The video shows everything from large scale design issues, such as the sloping columns, to the fine detail – where is the sign? Amazingly, the building won a design award.

Full version of 30 minutes is worth the watch especially if using as a teaching resource. With captions on you can watch at a faster speed. However, there is a shorter version of 12 minutes.

Shorter version of the video at 12 minutes below.


What does Co-design mean? How does it work?

Two men look at a document. One is a doctor the other is a patient. The term co-design is being used more frequently, but what does co-design mean and how does it work? Well, that depends on the context. It could mean a design group working together. Nothing difficult about that concept. Or it could mean involving end users in the design process. This is where it gets more tricky and more questions arise.

At what point do you involve users? Which users do you involve? Will the users have the required knowledge and experience to contribute constructively? Will designers have the skills to be inclusive and listen to users? Participatory action research incorporates both designer and user learning. But these projects are necessarily long and usually have research funding attached. However, they usually produce knowledge and results useful in other settings. 

A related concept is co-design in quality improvement, for example, in a hospital setting. Both staff and patients have a role to play in advancing quality improvement. Differing levels of understanding between staff and patients can lead to tokenism. So how can we equalise knowledge so that everyone’s contribution is constructive? 

A research team in a Brisbane hospital grappled with this issue. Their research report is written in academic language and not easy to read. Nevertheless, they conclude that effective patient-staff partnerships require specific skills. Briefly, it means adapting to change, and generating new knowledge for continuous improvement.

A framework

The researches developed a framework that includes ten capabilities under three key headings. 

Diagram of the Co-design Framework.


    1. Personal attributes:
      • Dedicated to improving healthcare
      • Self-aware and reflective
      • Confident and flexible

2. Relationships and communication attributes:

      • Working and learning as a team
      • Collaborating and communicating
      • Advocating for everyone

3. Philosophies/Models:

      • Organisational systems & policy
      • Patient and public involvement best practice
      • Quality improvement principles.

These nine points are connected with the overarching theme of sharing power and leadership.

Title of the article is, “Co-produced capability framework for successful patient and staff partnerships in healthcare quality improvement: results of a scoping review”.

Other posts on co-design include The right to participate and co-design, and Co-design is another skill set

Example of a plain language summary

What’s the point of academic research if only other academics can understand it? Governments often fund research, so we should all have access to this new knowledge. But if you want to rise in the ranks of academia you need to follow the “rules” for publishing. You also need to show that you know the language and jargon. There is no need to change this. What we need are additional plain language summaries. The picture below shows an example. 

The front page of the academic article showing how the Accessible Summary is presented.

Academic papers begin with an abstract – an outline of what the paper or article is about. It usually says what the problem is, what they researched and what they found. A plain language summary of the abstract gives the same information but in less words. So what does a plain language summary look like? 

A good example is the article, Co-designing the Cabriotraining: A training for transdisciplinary teams. It begins with an “Accessible Summary” followed by the regular abstract.  This is how it reads:

Accessible summary

    • The research was conducted by a team of researchers. Some of the researchers have experience of living with a disability.
    • The researchers created training for other research teams that include experts by experience.
    • The training has six parts. To decide what happened in the training, the researchers read articles and asked the research teams they trained about what problems they had and what they wanted to know about.
    • The article tells why and how the training was made. It also says what training is needed for researchers with and without disabilities to learn and work together in a way that feels safe and useful.
    • In developing and providing the training, it was very crucial to search for a safe and welcome space for all people involved (Figure 8). As we don’t know what is “safe” for the other, this means we have to search together, in respect and with enough time to get to know each other.

Editor’s note: Great to see an academic paper translated into key points that many more people can understand. From my experience, writing succinctly and plainly is a rare skill in academia. I was delighted to see this example. It’s universal design!

See previous post on Plain Language Communication.

Are architecture educators teaching universal design?

Architecture blueprint with rule and pencil. Are architecture educators teaching universal design.Some government funded projects require designers to show how the project will embody the principles of universal design. But what do architects think about universal design? How are they dealing with the implementation? And are architecture educators teaching universal design? 

A survey of architects, educators and technologists were asked those questions. The aim of the survey was to find out:

1. How inherent is Universal Design knowledge to current building design practice?

2. What are the current Universal Design education and training needs of Architects and Architectural Technologists practising in Ireland?

3. Which Universal Design themes and topics are of most interest to Architects and Architectural Technologists practising in Ireland?

4. To what extent does existing CPD for Architects and Architectural Technologists practising in Ireland address Universal Design topics?

5. What can motivate Architects and Architectural Technologists practising in Ireland to access Universal Design CPD?

6. What are the most effective means by which to deliver Universal Design CPD to Architects and Architectural Technologists practising in Ireland?

There is still work to do with the data, but the initial findings are that face to face works best rather than online sessions for CPD. Respondents wanted to know more about people with mental health conditions and people with hearing impairments. They also wanted to know more about applying universal design to specific building types. 

The title of the article is Universal Design and Continuing Professional Development for Architects: An Irish Case Study. It is an open access article.

Promoting universal design in education

Some design tutors perpetuate negative attitudes towards changes to design thinking or processes. This was one finding in Promoting Universal Design in Architectural Education. Consequently, practices don’t change. The article discusses ways that design schools can include universal design into their courses. For example, working with other disciplines such as occupational therapists who can explain the functionality of designs. The article also discusses the ‘critical eye’ and the ‘appreciative eye’.

Critical Eye and Appreciative Eye

It’s easy to see the barriers and missing design features. These stand out. The ‘critical eye’ tells us what not to do, but doesn’t tell us the remedy. The ‘appreciative eye identifies the positive aspects which provide good examples. 

Good inclusive design, done well, is inconspicuous and needs a trained eye to notice it. A walkway that is flat and barrier free can be taken for granted. But we do not know how much design effort it took to make it so. The trained eye also needs to see what is not there – what is missing. A handrail or contrast stair nosings, for example.

Unfortunately this paper is published in a small Italic font and is difficult to read. 

Also see Students’ Attitudes to Universal Design in Architecture Education, by Helen Larkin, Kelsey Dell, and Danielle Hitch. It was published in the Journal of Social Inclusion, 2016.

See also Hitch, Dell and Larkin from Deakin University, who also review some of the related literature. The title of the article is, Does Universal Design Education Impact on the Attitudes of Architecture Students Towards People with Disability? Published in the Journal of Accessibility and Design for All.

Plain Language Communication

A young woman with long curly hair has her hands to her face and looks stressed. It’s assumed that by the time students leave school they can read and write. However, even with remedial work, some students will leave school without a working level of these skills. More than 40% of Australians do not have the literacy skills for everyday living. Included in this group are people with English as a second language. This is why plain language communication is important – and good for everyone. It is a universal design approach to communication.

Governments now are producing Easy Read documents as adjuncts to their main documents. But other fields of endeavour are not catching up. In particular, academic writing has always been exclusive to those who can read at this level. The bottom line is, if you want your document and information read by as many people as possible, write in plain language. Alternatively, provide a plain language summary. But this is another skillset.

A short study on teaching plain language gives an example of how to go about the task. It is based on health and exercise information. Presented in a poster format, the paper explains how the study was done. The example of writing a participant consent form illustrates the task. After several iterations they reached 8th grade (US grading) reading level. The example is shown in the poster presentation. There is also a link to an explanatory video.

The title of the poster is, “Are Kinesiologists Ready to Communicate? Merits of a Practicum Course on Plain Language Communication”. There are links to the authors other work on the topic.  

Black and white logo for easy read, has a tick and a open bookWe are seeing more accessible formats for people who are blind/low vision and Deaf/hard of hearing. So, we need plain language and Easy Read too. 

Cathy Basterfield presented a paper on this topic at UD2021, and also see a previous post on plain language.