What is UD?

Universal Design (UD) is an approach to design that increases the potential for developing a better quality of life for a wide range of individuals. It is a design process that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness, and social participation (Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012). It creates products, systems, and environments to be as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation. Other terms for Universal Design used around the world include Design for All, Inclusive Design, and Barrier-Free Design. UD terminology and meanings differ from one country to another and often reflect each nation’s societal values. Cultural differences influence how the movement has been adopted in different countries. However, the common goal of social inclusion transcends national laws, policies, and practices.

Universal design is not a fad or a trend but an enduring design approach grounded in the belief that the broad range of human ability is ordinary, not special. Universal design addresses barriers faced by people with disabilities, older people, children, and other populations that are typically overlooked in the design process. UD reduces stigma and provides benefits for all users. For example, building entrances without stairs assist equally someone who moves furniture, pushes a baby stroller, or uses a wheelchair. UD can increase usability of an environment or product without considerably increasing its cost by reducing the need for design modifications later when abilities or circumstances change.

A competitive and global nature of modern business, the flourishing communications technology industry, the international disability movement, and the rapidly growing aging and disabled populations all over the world are driving the increasing demand for more universally usable products, environments, and services.

Universal design is not a synonym for accessibility standards. The UD process differs from one complying with accessibility standards by integrating accessible features throughout the overall design. This difference in process is important because integrating these features throughout results in better design. Additionally, it prevents stigmatization often associated with accessible features that have been added on late in the design process or after it is complete, as a modification. Universal design also differs from accessibility requirements in that accessibility requirements are usually prescriptive whereas universal design is performance based. Universal design does not have minimum requirements but instead addresses usability issues.

The Principles of Universal Design, published by the Center for Universal Design in 1997, were originally developed to articulate the breadth of the concept and provide guidelines for designers.

Principles of Universal Design

The Principles of Universal Design and their guidelines were developed by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers as part of a project coordinated by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. The seven Principles that describe characteristics that make designs universally usable are:

  1. Equitable Use
  2. Flexibility in Use
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use
  4. Perceptible Information
  5. Tolerance for Error
  6. Low Physical Effort
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use

Goals of UD

The IDeA Center has developed a new conceptual framework for universal design that expands the original usability focus to social participation and health, and acknowledges the role of context in developing realistic applications. Complementing the Principles of UD, the Goals of Universal Design© define the outcomes of UD practice in ways that can be measured and applied to all design domains within the constraints of existing resources. In addition, they encompass functional, social, and emotional dimensions. Moreover, each goal is supported by an interdisciplinary knowledge base (e.g., anthropometrics, biomechanics, perception, cognition, safety, health promotion, social interaction). Thus, the Goals can be used effectively as a framework for both knowledge discovery and knowledge translation for practice. Moreover, the Goals can help to tie policy embodied in disability rights laws to UD and provide a basis for improving regulatory activities by adoption of an outcomes-based approach.

© Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012