Architects and empathy: the key to inclusive design

A man wearing simulation gloves and glasses tries to open a sticky note padLoughborough University has a good track record for inclusive design research. The latest article reports on a study to find out if “empathetic modelling” could influence architects’ design thinking. Impaired vision and manual dexterity are the most common losses as people age. So these factors were used in the study to improve architects’ empathy and understanding of users.

The method involved using glasses and gloves that simulate loss of vision and loss of hand dexterity. Participants were given reading, writing and dexterity tasks while wearing the gloves and glasses.

The results show that the tasks challenged their traditional view of disability, seeing it more as a continuum and effecting a wider population. A summary of the key themes were:

• Inadequacy of the current building standard, Access to and Use of Buildings. It only recommends minimum access standards. Thee is no incentive for developers to go beyond minimum compliance.
• Developers often commission design briefs so the end user is often unknown.
• In the absence of knowing their end user, they tend to design for themselves.
• They feel there is a stigma associated with accessible designs and this reinforces the disability-centric concept of able bodied versus disability designs.
• It challenged their traditional view on disability and capability loss and the current polarised view within design, between ‘able-bodied’ and ‘disabled-users’.
• A lack of inclusive design training within their undergraduate and post graduate training and a desire to include more in their continuing professional development.
• Participants felt strongly that commercial, accessible design decisions, mainly addressed physical impairments.
• All participants reported an increased awareness of the psychological effects of the simulated capability loss, reporting frustration and fatigue.

The title of the article is, How ‘Empathetic modelling’ positively influences Architects’ empathy, informing their Inclusive Design-Thinking.  Arthritis is rarely recorded as a disability but it affects one in seven Australians. Opening packages, lifting the kettle and turning door knobs can be difficult and painful. 


Empathy is described in the literature as being the first stage in the Design-Thinking cycle. Architects and Design professionals should ‘Empathise’ with their users to understand their needs and gain insight into the exclusion barriers that many users face within the Built Environment. This paper presents the results of a study conducted with a cohort of Architects, investigating whether an ‘Empathetic Modelling’ intervention could influence their intrapersonal state empathy levels and inform their inclusive Design-Thinking. A validated empathy scale was used to measure Architects empathy levels, pre and post intervention. Visual acuity and hand dexterity were the two capability losses simulated, with participants performing common Activities of Daily Living (ADL) and two design tasks. Results showed that all participants empathy scores increased, when comparing pre and posttest measures. This was supported with qualitative data, with results suggesting that all participants gained unique and useful insights into how they can incorporate more accessibility, adaptability and inclusivity into future designs, to reduce user exclusion within the built environment. This increased awareness of incorporating an inclusive design philosophy, has positive implications for design professionals understanding the diverse needs of the wider user population and especially for the increasing ageing population, who want to maintain their independence and enjoy barrier-free access to the built environment.

Emergency Design: Designing as you go

A woman is sitting on the ground and is being helped by a person in protective clothing and a hi vis vest. The woman looks distressed.Designing FOR an emergency IN an emergency requires a different design approach to existing tried and true methods. When urgency is the driver of design, processes and methods need a re-think. COVID-19 is a clear case of designing for an emergency during the emergency. So how can “designing-as-you-go” be done?

Designs for emergencies, such as wars or an earthquake, are usually devised before the event. Or they are designed after the event in preparation for future events. The COVID pandemic arrived without notice and few countries were prepared. Hence the need to design for the emergency while it is happening.

A case study from Brazil shows how a totally different design approach was required. Rather than using standard methods the researchers took an organic approach to the problem. It was basically designing on the run. The process encouraged the inclusion of people who are often marginalised. While history tells us that Brazil is has not fared well during the pandemic, the study still has value for future situations.

Their approach is based on qualitative techniques. They relied on the knowledge of local people and processes of working together in a horizontal rather than hierarchical format. This approach also allowed participants to see how they could deal with the current situation as well as improvements for the longer term. 

“As a path, we point out the importance of identifying areas of convergence of interests, the creation of win-win policies and the daily encouragement of a culture of collaboration at the differing levels.”

The title of the paper is Design amid Emergency. It charts what they did, how they did it and what they learned from the process. Identifying areas of common interest and developing win-win policies to encourage a culture of collaboration was key. In summary, they found the co-creation design process the key to success. It can lead to improved quality of life in both the short and longer term. It also helps to embed resilience within the population. 

The government saw the value of co-design with citizens. It remains to be seen if they actually follow through on this networking approach to solving issues.


This article presents the process for the “Design of services under the COVID19 emergency social protection plan”, drawn up by a team of researchers and designers from Porto Alegre in collaboration with the Porto Alegre City Government, and directed at the provision of essential benefits to homeless and other vulnerable people during the pandemic. The process was developed in an unprecedented way for the designers involved: without prior notice, within very short time frames and completely remotely, using only digital platforms. As such, the process was developed to respond to the emergency and amid the emergency. In this regard, the objective of the article is to discuss how to design amid emergency. The experience was guided by the methodological principles of action research and research through design. In addition to presenting the design results: these being solutions aimed at the short, medium and long term, this article highlights the need, even in these circumstances, to aim for the prizing of difference, the suggestion of alternative views, social innovation, the systemic transformation of society and sustainability.

Universal Design includes DeafSpace Design

Two people walk down a ramp signing to each other.Ramps are not just good for wheeled mobility devices, they are good for people who communicate by signing. DeafSpace Design means a few extra tweaks in a universal design approach to design thinking. Examples of DeafSpace Design are few and far between. One reason they are hard to find is because the term “DeafSpace” is not used in design briefs and concept plans. Nevertheless, aspects of DeafSpace Design are sometimes included without fanfare. 

An article on this topic has lots of examples. The author explains which design aspects are particular to people who sign and/or lip read. Images help with the explanations. Julia Coolen explains how DeafSpace design is, or could be, integrated into general universal design principles. 

The example of the ramp is a case in point. But importantly, the ramp needs to be wide enough for two people to walk side by side so they can continue signing. Steps and stairways interrupt their vision and therefore their conversation. Coolen discusses three principles: Mobility and Proximity, Space and Proximity, and Sensory Reach.

The title of the article is, DeafSpace and Disability: A research into DeafSpace design and its peculiarities in relation to other architectural adaptations for disabilities.  It is an open access thesis, which is relatively short with text that is to the point. The university page has a link to the PDF at the bottom of the page.

If you prefer to get a quick grab of the concepts, watch the video featuring Gallaudet University. 


Throughout history the built environment has mostly been designed from an able-bodied perspective, which causes a set of challenges for people with disabilities. In the 20th century however, a growing attention for disability in architecture took place that resulted in a shift in architecture. This thesis focusses on DeafSpace design and how architecture has historically responded to the need to design for people with disabilities. This leads to the research question of this thesis: What makes design for DeafSpace so special compared to other architectural adaptations for other disabilities?

By analysing three buildings that follow the DeafSpace design principles, this thesis shows what makes DeafSpace special compared to other architectural adaptations for other disabilities. DeafSpace concerns design principles that go beyond the mere application of a ramp for wheelchairs. DeafSpace creates spaces that benefit ‘every-body’, it refuses the ‘normalisation’ and ‘standardisation’ of the able-bodied perspective. It is about creating awareness and it seeks to design and improve spaces to be functional for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. In saying so, it is to be concluded that, in contrast with its name, DeafSpace and its five design principles—Space and Proximity, Mobility and Proximity, Sensory Reach, Light and Colour, and Acoustics—are beneficial to ‘every-body’.

Disability and Planning Research

A book and notepad lay open on a desk in a library.Planning research has not yet evolved to include disability perspectives. Is it because the medical model of disability still prevails? Or is it mistakenly believed that disability is not a design issue? Some might say it’s because the needs of people with disability are fragmented across government departments. Practitioners in the planning field are required to engage with communities, but it seems the researchers are not keeping up. 

Two Canadian researchers took a look at the situation. A search of five prominent planning journals showed that people with disability largely remain invisible. The researchers found just 36 articles – most of which come from the US and the UK. Only 20 had people with disability as the central topic. 

The authors describe the content of the papers that go back as far as 1916. Attitudes towards people with disability clearly changed over the years but including them in research did not. Papers that did mention people with disability generally added them to a list of other groups considered vulnerable or marginalised. 

The paper concludes:

“Planning researchers and practitioners, therefore, must continue to question what knowledge, assumptions, and biases we may have toward PWD and experiences of disability that manifest through our environment. More broadly, planning scholarship can be strengthened by continuous questioning of self—on the processes through which certain knowledge is produced or a pursuit of certain knowledge is prioritised within the discipline. The development of critical discourse focusing on PWD can be a vehicle for such self-reflection.

The title of the article is, The Precarious Absence of Disability Perspectives in Planning Research. It is open access on cogitation press website, or you can download directly

Tokyo’s Olympic legacy acknowledges population ageing

The two mascots, one blue one bright pink for the Tokyo O,ympics.Although Japan has the oldest population in the world, creating accessible urban spaces is making very slow progress. The upcoming Olympic Games provides an opportunity to create legacy sites and urban surrounds that acknowledge population ageing. However, both the Olympic and Paralympic Games are promoted against a backdrop of youth and fitness.

Deidre Sneep’s book chapter (p91) discusses the issues regarding the urban design legacy in the Japanese context. Tokyo aims to have all of the parts of the city that linked to the Olympic venues, as well as public transportation, taxis and the city’s airports, completely barrier-free.

The title of the book chapter is, Discover tomorrow: Tokyo’s ‘barrier-free’ Olympic legacy and the urban ageing population. If you have institutional access you can access the journal article version.

One interesting aspect is that some argue that the government’s guide to promote a ‘barrier-free spirit’ makes it sound like an act of friendliness. Any kind of patronising attitude or slogan only serves to maintain marginalisation as the norm. Posters focus on young people and make barrier-free a special design. There are no older people in the pictures.

The implementation of the universal design concept is increasingly commercialised says Sneep. This is likely due to the history of universal design in Japan. One of the first international universal design conferences was held in Japan in 2002, and was led by giant product manufacturers such as Mitsubishi. The International Association for Universal Design (IAUD) remains active. 

In 2020 Tokyo will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games for the second time in history. With a strong emphasis on the future – Tokyo’s slogan for the Olympic Games is ‘Discover Tomorrow’ – Tokyo is branded as city of youth and hope. Tokyo’s demographics, however, show a different image: in the coming decades, it is expected that well over a third of the citizens will be over 65. Despite the focus on a youthful image, Tokyo is well aware of the fact that its demographics are rapidly shifting. Governmental bodies have been actively trying to find solutions for anticipated problems related to the ageing population for decades. One of the solutions that is being discussed and implemented is highlighted by the 2020 Olympics: the implementation of universal design in public spaces in the city in order to make it more easily accessible – in other words, making Tokyo ‘barrier-free’ (bariafurī). This chapter presents the concept of ‘barrier-free’ in a Japanese setting, critically analyses the history and current implementation of the concept, pointing out that it seems to be increasingly commercialised, and evaluates the purpose of implementing the concept in the light of the 2020 Olympic Games.


Community involvement for design in planning

A woman strikes a yoga pose alone in a city square with tall buildings around.Planning is also about design. And good design now includes users. Community involvement is a key part of planning processes. It must take account of our human diversity otherwise designs will unintentionally exclude. Community involvement in planning also introduces designers and planners to “other ways of being”. 

Design and planning go hand in hand, but design has been a subject to avoid in planning, particularly in the U.S. This is according to a journal article that challenges planners to move beyond policies of spatial organisation.   

The article covers climate change and climate justice, and social and racial justice. A workshop using collaborative processes is the basis of a case study highlighting the issues. Community involvement was pivotal to the success of the project and the research outcomes. The subject of the case study is an affordable housing provider. The aim was to move from standard cookie cutter designs to designs that suited the potential residents. The new design was applied to a prototype home. 

The author concludes that there are profound implications for planning research. Designers need to engage with planning because they can better address the social and environmental concerns. 

The title of the article is, Design in Planning: Reintegration through Shifting Values.  


Design is increasingly entering planning beyond the subfield of urban design. At a larger scale, designers are moving into the social sciences to apply design skills at intersections with the social sciences. This article offers an overview of research and practice at the forefront of both interpreting design fields and understanding their growing importance within planning. This transcends examinations of urban design to incorporate the potential of design more broadly in planning, with particular emphasis on community development and engagement.

The article does this through a case study of an existing design-based nonprofit (bcWORKSHOP) which leverages techniques across design and planning to generate new forms of community planning practice in the State of Texas. Ultimately, this case study begins to ask whether planning can fully address a number of issues (like social/racial justice and climate change) without understanding these issues from both design and planning perspectives simultaneously. It also emphasizes the importance of training planners to both envision and build alternate possible worlds, a skillset fundamental to design that could reshape planning education and practice.

Norway: A guide for UD is not enough

An aerial view of a hospital courtyard showing gardens, seating and children's play equipment.Guides give guidance, but you need to know the point of universal design. Knowing the point is a key success factor in taking a universal design approach. This is what the Chief Architect of St Olav’s Hospital in Norway said about the way the hospital precinct was designed. That’s why a guide for UD is not enough. 

The point is inclusion – it’s about society, not just design. This is what is lost in access compliance – few people know the point. An article in Citylab provides some examples of how Norwegian designers are embracing the principles of universal design. This approach is driven by the Norwegian policy Norway Universally Designed by 2025.

St Olav’s Hospital in Trondheim is a great example of how UD is deployed across the whole hospital setting. That’s from the outdoor and external features through to the internal design. The Chief Architect says, “Guidelines are not enough, you need clear intentions. You have to know what’s the point of this”. 

The Norwegian policy, which was launched in 2005, also includes transportation, open spaces and ICT and communications. Nicely written article by Marie Doezema.

Olav Rand Bringa was part of the early movement and wrote about the processes in, Universal Design and Visitability: from Accessibility to Zoning.  He also presented at the UDHEIT conference in Dublin.

The kerbside and mobility

A streetscape of the future with street plantings, outdoor eating and a driverless car in a 30 kph zone.
Image from the whitepaper depicting a future street

The idea of smart cities, driverless cars, and artificial intelligence is propelling us into the unknown. But there are some things we can predict. Everyday things will be seen in a new light. The kerbside for example. Other than kerb ramps most of us don’t think about the kerbside and mobility. But somebody else has.

The Future of Place webpage has a link to a report that looks at the Future Ready Kerbside. The publication by Uber and WSP explores what the future might hold in the context of shared mobility and liveable cities.

The kerb is the intersection between the pedestrian area and the road. How space is allocated each side of the kerb dictates who can access these spaces. The kerbside is not passive infrastructure so we need to prepare for its future use. It needs careful management by city leaders.

There are ten recommendations in the Executive Summary of the report and they include:

    • Co-design the vision for places in partnership with the community, businesses and governments. 
    • Move from general parking to pick-up/drop-off for people and goods to improve kerbside productivity and access to local places.
    • Take a people-and-place first approach so that new mobility is an enabler and not a detractor to realising the co-designed vision.
    • Street design guidelines must get ahead of new mobility and proactively focus on the best possible outcomes for people and places.
    • Prioritise walking to access local places, along with transit and
      micro-mobility, supported by funding for local infrastructure. 

The full report is titled, Place and Mobility: Future Ready Kerbside and has more technical detail.  Both the full report and the executive summary have interesting infographics and images depicting how the future might look. 

Pedestrians on Wheels: A new paradigm?

Personal mobility devices are shown as the Segway, Hovertrax, Ninebot Mini, Solowheel, Onewheel, and Z-board.Pedestrians are becoming more diverse. Moving through public spaces needs more design consideration by urban designers. It also means accessibility is more than having kerb ramps and level footpaths. Pedestrians on wheels is a new paradigm.

Mobility will become more complex as mobility choices increase especially with battery powered devices. Added to strollers, wheeled suitcases, mobility scooters and wheelchairs, are Segways, skateboards, hover-boards, unicycles, and scooters. Manoeuvring around all these different pedestrians is difficult enough, but then we need to add in people who are using umbrellas, carrying large parcels, pushing delivery trolleys, and those looking in shop windows and their smart phones. 

One of the seven Lime designs. A two seater tricycle.Micromobility is now accessible for people with disability thanks to seven new designs launched by Lime. They are not “disability” specific – just good design useable by more people. 

 An interesting study on personal mobility devices is reported in  Diversity of “Pedestrians on Wheels”, New Challenges for Cities in 21st Century“. In the conclusions, the authors discuss the need for regulations for users and on the use of the devices and using designs which can be easily detected by other pedestrians by using colour and sound. 


Traditionally, pedestrians were identified as singular entities with standard needs. Reality shows us that pedestrian diversity is a reality that is becoming increasingly complex. How does urban design face the changing reality of pedestrian typologies? In the same way that in the 20th century the car set aside horse carriages and pedestrians, in the 21st century pedestrians are returning to take centre stage with regard to motor vehicles, but with new formalizations that imply new considerations in the design of streets, many of they are still unsolved. Citizens strolling on scooters, skates, skateboard, segway, unicycles, are added to the already traditional baby strollers, wheelchairs, and suitcases with wheels … “pedestrians on wheels” that pose new challenges of coexistence and design. Own functional requirements to walk and maneuver, to see and be seen … functional requirements of coexistence with other pedestrians that make a different use of the street (people looking at shop windows, pedestrians with umbrellas, reading on the smartphone…) or changes of use of the same space when the conditions are different: snow, strong sun, fog, at night … These are considerations of Universal Accessibility and Design for all that we cannot leave out while our society progresses. This paper identifies some of these new needs and studies this new pedestrian mobility is carried out through a progressive analysis in three phases: 1 classification of the different user of the street, 2 study of the Personal Mobility Devices (PMD) and 3 the new accessibility barriers that arise with the use of PMD. As a result, some action strategies are pointed out to respond to the difficulties of accessibility derived from this new reality and to integrate them into the Universal Design of the urban public space.

The article is from the proceedings of the UDHEIT 2018 conference held in Dublin, Ireland. It is open access publication.


Adopting universal design: the view of architects

A floor plan drawing with a black penWe rely on designers to make the things we use, and to make them easy and convenient to use. But are users the main consideration or is it a case of impressing fellow designers? Design competitions rarely mention useability, if at all. When it comes to architects, adopting universal design seems to be a big problem according to recent research.

The research paper from Europe takes the case of Flanders to examine the barriers and drivers in architectural practice. While legislation and regulations aim to push for more inclusive designs, reluctance is still apparent. Data were collected from Flemish architects using a survey and seminars. Sceptical attitudes was a common barrier with both architects and their clients. One of the conclusions is that access regulations create tunnel vision regarding UD. Participant responses were generally dominated by the language of accessibility and not inclusion.

This research project has produced a lot of useful content in terms of real and perceived barriers to implementing UD. The title of the paper is, Barriers To And Drivers Of Adopting UD In Current Architectural Practice: The Case Of Flanders.  It is published in the Journal or Architectural and Planning Research

Purpose of the study:

“The current study, which investigated architects’ perceptions of UD barriers and drivers in current architectural practice in Flanders, Belgium, aims to add to the existing body of knowledge of the three main categories of UD barriers and drivers in two distinct ways. First, in contrast to previous research, this study specifically focuses on factors that affect the decision to implement UD at the beginning of the design process. The main reason for this focus is that the initial motivation or commitment to adopt UD as a design strategy at the very start of the process appears to be important in order to accomplish the goal of inclusion (Bringolf, 2011; Ringaert, 2001).”