What is Universal Design?

Universal Design

What is Universal Design?

Today we will answer the question: What is universal design?

I’ll tell you about the seven principles of universal design, and share a good amount of examples of Universal Design.

This term was first coined by Robert Mace, who’s an architect, he defined universal design as, “designing products and built environments to work for the widest range of people and if possible for everyone, regardless of their age, ability or their status”.

In addition to Robert Mace. Selwyn Goldsmith architect as well is a pioneer of universal design, and he’s most well known for creating the curb cuts on street corners.

Now in 1997, at North Carolina University, a group of architects, researchers and designers came together to create seven universal design principles. These principles were created to give designers and architects a way to make sure that they were achieving universal design when creating built environments and products.

Universal design does not focus on designing for the average person, rather designing a product or a built environment that works for everyone.

The goal of universal design is that the final deliverable works for everyone, or at least the most people as possible.

So there’s so many public places that anyone can use, and all types of people will use them. Think about an airport, all types of people go there, including people with disabilities, all ages and statuses.

Everyone also goes to schools, churches, they use bathrooms, and they use public transportation.

So if we’re always designing for the average, there’s always going to be groups of people who aren’t being included in designs.

And so universal design was created so that those groups of people are being included in the designs.

Now as I talk about the principles and share examples, I want you to think about how many of these examples you use on a regular basis and find helpful regardless of what your ability is.

Now I’ll go over the principles of universal design.

1. Equitable Use

The first principle is equitable use. This means that everyone has an equal opportunity to use a designer service, including access to buildings and being able to get around.

A good example of this would be ramps or elevators that give access to people who wouldn’t be able to use stairs. For example, people wheelchairs or people who have limited mobility or they’re pushing something around, such as a stroller cart. If a building was restricted to stairs, these people wouldn’t have equal access to the building.

Another example would be using lever door handles instead of a typical door handle that has to use the motion to open it. Now a lever door handle can be opened in many different ways other than using your hand to turn it, which gives access to more people.

2. Flexibility in Use

The second principle is flexibility in use. This means that a design can be used in more than one way it can be adapted or modified for a person’s needs.

Some good examples of flexibility in use would be a desk or chairs that can adjust the height so that it works for people of varying heights and also people in wheelchairs.

A second example would be a sandal that has adjustable straps that make it easy for people to adjust it to their specific means for their feet.

A third example would be public restrooms. So if there’s places with female, male, gender neutral bathrooms, bathrooms that are accessible by wheelchair, or other physical conditions, and as well as having a space for families to go to the bathroom together, and people who have caretakers being able to take their people to the bathroom regardless of their gender.

3. Simple and Intuitive Use

The third principle is simple and intuitive use. This means that regardless of someone’s ability, their experience or their language skills, they would be able to understand and easily use your design.

An example of this would be instruction manuals for anything that you would need to put together or a document at school or work that people will be used. It needs to have information that’s digestible, and can be understood by anyone.

Another example would be signage in a building that helps the user get around. Whether it’s a map or a directional sign to help you get to a specific room. Regardless of the ability of the user to understand the language and read the text, they can either look at pictures or icons to help them. There’s Braille and raised tactile letters to help those who can’t see, and then there’s words that are easy to understand. This would also include using icons such as arrows that are universally understood to help people get around.

4. Perceptible Information

The fourth principle is perceptible information. This means that a designer can effectively communicate all the necessary information that a user might need when using a product or trying to navigate an environment. And they’re able to do so regardless of their sensor abilities. A good way to achieve this is by considering all the senses and not just visuals.

For example, when designing a building, you might consider other senses than vision, you could have a fountain that makes sound or have something that has a smell, you could use wind chimes, or something that establishes a landmark that helps people who cannot see be able to know where they are if they hear that specific sound or smell. This not only helps people who are visually impaired, but it creates a landmark for people to remember to help them recognize where they are and where they need to go as a point of reference.

5. Tolerance For Error

The fifth principle is tolerance for error. This refers to safety and trying to avoid hazards or accidents that might happen in an environment or through a product. Some examples of this would be providing a safety feature for your product to make it so that it can be avoided to have an accident, such as something that could be dangerous if something is done in the wrong way.

Another example of this could be in a building, avoiding fully transparent walls or doors that could be easily mistaken or missed by someone who’s visually impaired or providing a ramp so in the event that an elevator isn’t working, people in a wheelchair has access to leave the building.

6. Low Physical Effort

The sixth principle is low physical effort. This means that your users have to use minimal amount of effort as possible to use your design.

A good example of this is automated doors, or doors that can be opened by a handicap button. This way people in wheelchairs, people with low mobility, or even people who are carrying something in their arm, or struggle to open the door are able to go in and out of a building with ease.

And as mentioned before, ramps are a great example of this as well. It makes it easy for people in wheelchairs. But it also helps people who have canes, walkers who can’t lift their feet up all the way. This also helps people who are pushing the cart or stroller. This helps people who are blind who use a cane, and they have to navigate that way. Because if they’re going up a gradual ramp is going to be easier than using the stairs, because it can be hard to tell where stair begins and ends. Even if they’re not using a cane. This can also help people with hearing impairments because it gives them the capability to sign and talk to someone while walking, when it would be more difficult or hazardous to try to sign while going up or down stairs.

If you think about it, the average person really doesn’t have to exert very much energy or be fatigued to try to get around a building or to use a specific design. So this principle is referring to the fact that you want to create designs that create minimal effort for people of all abilities.

An example would be automated censored lights that turned on when you enter a room. Regardless of who you are, the sensor can tell that you come into the room and it will turn on. So you don’t have to have the ability to know where the light switches. You don’t have to have the mobility to turn it on, or anything like that. And it’s just convenient for everyone.

7. Size and Space for Approaching Use

The seventh and final principle of universal design is size and space for approaching use. This could include having wide doorways that are easy to access by anyone, we’re having things within reach. Regardless of being short or tall, or being in a wheelchair.

It’s also important to consider people who don’t have the mobility to bend over or jump up in order to use a design. So you wouldn’t want to put something up high on a bookshelf or something that only a select amount of people could reach.

Affordances are a good example because they provide a way for users to understand how to use a product. An affordance is a way to help the user understand how to use a product.

That is all the principles of universal design but if you want to learn more about other approaches to being inclusive to those with disabilities within design you can learn about Inclusive Design and Accessibility Design.


Kat Holmes, 2018

Story, Mueller, & Mace, 1998