Universal design – introduction to a design principle that challenges the idea of being human

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 By Ryhl, C. Eiriksson, M., Overby Sørensen, R.

Universal Design Hub, Bevica Fonden.

The fact that we are different and the fact that all people experience one or more functional limitation during their lifetime is at the heart of universal design. The concept was developed by American architect and wheelchair user Ron Mace in the 1990s, and despite different theoretical approaches and interpretations, the essence is to develop inclusive solutions by integrating human differences.

Everyone will experience changing needs and demands of their surroundings at some point in their life. Universal design breaks with the notion that users with special needs must have separate solutions. Instead, the value-based design concept aims to create solutions that, as a starting point, works for all people despite different abilities. The goal is for everyone to be able to participate and for no one to be left behind. A goal that is also reflected in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in the recurring pledge to ”Leave No One Behind”.

The aim of universal design is to avoid dividing people into groups with and without impairment. Instead, the idea is to make the notion that people are different the starting point, and by embracing diversity create solutions that consider everyone’s needs. The thesis is that, a solution that is necessary for some, can add value for everyone at the same time; sometimes we need to bring a stroller or a suitcase with us, or we break a leg or a foot and experience changes in our abilities for a period of time. And if it does not apply to us personally, it could apply to someone we know and would like to accompany us to a concert, a birthday party, on holiday or in an educational setting.

The man behind the concept

The concept was originally defined by the American architect Ron Mace. Mace had his own design studio and lectured at the School of Design at North Carolina State University (NCSU), and he was a wheelchair user himself. In his practice, Mace found that solutions defined as “accessible” or “barrier-free” in the American context often ended up stigmatising and exposing users, despite having the opposite intention.

By focusing on the special needs of a particular user group, the solutions were not integrated into the design process. “Accessible” or “barrier-free ” solutions were practiced and interpreted as so-called “add-on solutions” added to the final design at the end of construction, or after it had been completed and which, contrary to the intentions, exhibited and exposed people rather than include them.

Such solutions are often neither equal nor integrated, and in response to this, Mace developed and defined the concept of universal design.

The original definition of universal design reads:
“Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” – Ostroff 2001

Mace defined and developed the concept as a design concept aimed at architects and designers. In 1997, he appointed an interdisciplinary American expert committee who developed a set of seven design principles that served as an operationalisation tool. Each of the seven principles is accompanied by 3-5 guidelines.

  • The 7 Principles of Universal Design

  • Principle 1: Equitable Use. 

  • Principle 2: Flexibility in Use.  

  • Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use. 

  • Principle 4: Perceptible Information.

  • Principle 5: Tolerance for Error. 

  • Principle 6: Low Physical Effort. 

  • Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use.

Interpretations and approaches

Initially, Mace was focused on universal design being more than just a design solution. Over time, other researchers have further developed his concept.

American researcher Edward Steinfeld, who also helped to formulate the seven design principles, has continued to work on the application and interpretation of the concept with his colleague Jordana Maisel. Steinfeld and Maisel have formulated a new definition that emphasises process and inclusion as objectives. They say that:

“Universal design is a process that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness and social participation,” – Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012

Steinfeld and Maisel have in their development of the definition also designed an implementation tool titled ‘The 8 Goals of Universal Design’. In their development of the concept, the interpretation is emphasised as a process rather than just a solution.

No one has ownership of the concept. It has become a dynamic concept which is understood and interpreted a little differently depending on the geographical, professional, or sectoral framework.

Therefore, it can also be understood and applied as a vision, a principle, a strategic approach, and a concrete design solution.

Over time, the concept has spread and branched out and is now used in many professional and interdisciplinary contexts. Universal design is, both in its intention and in its value-based starting point, closely related to “inclusive design”, “universal design” and “design for all”.

The differences in the four concepts primarily come down to tradition, geographical or professional preferences.