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Breaking Down Universal Design

Bright lights, contrast controls on your TV, volume control, language choices at the ATM, closed captioning, wide-handled spoons, deep dishes, and flat-paneled light switches. These are all aspects of Universal Design that most of us don’t even think about. They might be things we use every single day without ever realizing the intricate and encompassing design that went into that light switch you turn on every morning.

That is Universal Design (UD): an approach to design of all products, from buildings to silverware, which makes those products accessible and usable by as many people as possible. Take that large flat light switch: You, the “average” person, along with the “non-average” person who does not have a normal ability to grip things, will both find it easy and accommodating.

The UD movement grew out of the acceptance that all people, regardless of age, situation, or ability, are equal and that designing to accommodate non-average people does not just benefit them, but everyone at the same time. An easy example of Universal Design at work include building entrances with ramps. They not only help the wheelchair-bound but also furniture movers, parents with baby strollers, and others.

There are several factors that are driving the Universal Design movement. These include; the global nature of modern business, the international disability movement, vast improvements in the telecommunications industry, and, because of increasing life expectancy, the rise of aged and disabled populations all over the world.

Universal Design is reliant upon an integrative mentality. In other words, the key to achieving a structure or product that benefits all is by incorporating the Universal Design model from the beginning. Therefore, Universal Design is not synonymous with accessibility standards. Such standards promote modifications and design feature that only appear after the fact. This often becomes stigmatizing and disrupts the overall flow and effectiveness of the building’s design.

According to the Center for Universal Design, there are Seven Principles of Universal Design.

  1. Equitable Use. This guideline means to provide the same means of use for all users. This aims to avoid segregation of certain people by equally providing safety, security and appeal. An automatic, sliding door at the supermarket is a prime example of the Equitable Use principle.
  2. Flexibility in Use. This principle is designed to promote products that accommodate a wide array of individual preferences and abilities. Take, for example, scissors or shears that work comfortably for both left and right handed people.
  3. Simple and Intuitive. Design products that are easy to understand regardless of experience, knowledge, language skills, or concentration level. Basically, products developed under the Universal Design paradigm will be without unnecessary complexity, consistent, and accepting of a wide range of literacy. As an example, consider the assembly directions for your new set of shelves or your new gas grill. Those instructions are likely in several languages, have multiple visual aids, and are arranged consistently with importance.
  4. Perceptible Information. A design should communicate information effectively to the consumer, regardless of ambient conditions or the individual’s sensory skills. This includes making important information easy to read, visually stimulating, and compatible with techniques or devices often used by those with sensory disabilities.
  5. Tolerance for Error. In other words, minimize hazards and adverse consequences for accidental actions. This is most notable in the world of computers. The “undo” button is a perfect example of this principle in action. Other services steeped in this principle are warnings of hazards or errors (virus scanners) and other fail safe features.
  6. Low Physical Effort. The design should be usable with little effort and in a comfortable way. The user will be able to maintain a neutral body position, use reasonable force, do well without sustained physical work. Examples include doorknobs, self-flushing toilets, etc.
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use. Provide a clear line of sight and a comfortable reach for any seated or standing individual. Allow for variations of hand and grip size and provide adequate space for assistive devices or personal assistance.

These principles, developed by architects, designers, engineers, and researchers, are incorporated into nearly every product and building constructed these days. Although, in different countries or areas of the world you will find different versions and terminology. Nonetheless, Universal design (Barrier-Free Design, Design For All, and Inclusive Design are three variations) is a world-wide phenomenon. This relatively new paradigm has achieved such success because it is inclusive and, when integrated into design from the beginning, very cost-effective.

Universal Design, quite simply, is merely an acceptance of the wide range of humans, with a wide range of abilities, all living in the same space.


Universal Design, Wikipedia

Universal Design Education Online

Center for Universal Design

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