Universal Design, Defined

Universal Design, Defined

“Universal design seeks to encourage attractive, marketable products that are more usable by everyone. It is design for the built environment and consumer products for a very broad definition of use.”

Ron Mace, FAIA (1941-1998), creator of the term ‘universal design’ and Founder of Center for Universal Design

Universal design, also known as inclusive design, considers and adapts to the widest range of human needs and abilities. This approach seeks to create environments that people of all abilities can use in the same way to the greatest extent possible without assistance. Greater independence leads to a more dignified experience, a desirable outcome for all.

Addressing Inequity

Designers of places and products have traditionally considered the needs and capabilities of the average user. This practice has given us a world that works well for some. However, it inadvertently creates barriers for others, including 61 million people in the U.S. today with some form of disability.

Society is gradually acknowledging this inequity. Ground-breaking civil rights laws, including the Architectural Barriers Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, have helped. These laws establish minimum standards for physical and program accessibility for people with a specific range of disabilities.

At the same time, the disability community is advancing a broader concept of accessibility to include all users, with or without disabilities. This approach follows the Principles of Universal Design to create more inclusive environments.

The universal design movement recognizes that diversity in human ability is ordinary, not special. The way human beings perceive and interact with their environments changes over a lifetime. They experience a range of physical, sensory, and cognitive abilities that may lead to functional limitations. The ability to perform comfortably, effectively, and independently profoundly affects whether a person is more, or less, disabled in a given context.

Universal Design in Practice

Universal design is a way of thinking about how people experience their environment. It is best to follow this approach from the beginning of a project, rather than later in development.  Early design decisions can lead to effective, often simple, and affordable solutions that enable everyone to move through a space in the same way. Early and deliberate planning of thoughtful details can eliminate the need for redundant elements intended to serve differently-abled populations.

The following guiding Principles of Universal Design, developed in 1997 by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, address the design fundamentals for making spaces and places that can be used effectively by people of all abilities:

  • Equitability – The design provides for the same experience for all users of diverse abilities, identical whenever possible, equivalent when not. The design does not segregate or stigmatize any user group. Provisions for privacy, safety, and security are equally available to all users and the design appeals to all users.
  • Flexibility – The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities and provides choices in methods of use, including adaptability to different precision and pace of use.
  • Simplicity – The design eliminates unnecessary complexity and use is easy to understand regardless of the user’s knowledge, language skills or personal experience. The design should arrange information consistent with its importance and embrace intuitive use consistent with user expectations.
  • Perceptibility – The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of the user’s sensory abilities. Different media, pictorial, audible and tactile, are used to present essential information with maximum legibility. Elements of an environment should be differentiated in ways that can be described for ease of instructions or directions.
  • Mobility – The design provides for the appropriate size and space for approach, reach and manipulation regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility. Space is provided for assistive devices or personal assistance.
  • Safety – The design arranges elements to minimize hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions, and provides warnings and shields to hazards with fail safe features.
  • Suitability – The design can be used efficiently and comfortably with low physical effort appropriate to the environment and with a minimum of fatigue. The design minimizes repetitive actions and sustained effort.


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