James Mitchell

Attributed to the architect Robert Mace in 1936, Universal Design relies on the concept that good design is not only stylish and functional, but also accessible to all, regardless of age or physical challenges. By using various assistive and adaptive technologies, Universal Design aims to blend aesthetics with a functionality that is inclusive of all.

Principles of Universal Design

Over the years, a unified set of principles was sought to guide designers in the concept of Universal Design. The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University condensed the multiple ideas and concepts into 7 principles:

Equitable Use

Design elements should be able to provide the same means of use, following the mantra “identical when possible, equivalent when not”. Avoid elements that create segregation and separation. The concepts of privacy, security, and safety should be made available to all users in equal measure. Design should be accessible as well as appealing to all.

Flexibility in Use

Provide an option for the design element to adapt to the user’s level of skill. Multiple choices in the method of usage should be provided. Even details like a user’s handedness should be considered, for ease of access.

Simple and Intuitive Use

Design element should be easy to use and understand. Whenever possible, eliminate unnecessary complexity. Usage should also remain consistent with user expectations. A wide range of literacy and language skills of users should be accommodated. Information should be arranged following its importance. Provide prompting and feedback to the user during and after tasks.

Perceptible Information

Use different mediums to present essential information. All information should be presented as legibly as possible, depending on the medium. Accommodate people with various sensory limitations by making the information compatible with a variety of devices or techniques.

Tolerance for Error

Design elements should minimize hazards and errors wherever possible. Follow the rule: the most used elements should be the most accessible. All hazardous aspects should be eliminated, or, at the very least, isolated. Provide clear and easily understandable warnings of hazard and errors; encourage alertness in tasks that require vigilance. Design element should have fail-safe features.

Low Physical Effort

Usage of design element should only require minimum physical effort. Users should be able to maintain neutral body positions. Design element should minimize responsive actions.

Size and Space for Approach and Use

Important design elements should be visible with a clear line of sight for any user standing or seated. Components should be easily reached from standing or sitting positions. Design elements should accommodate variations in hand size and grip strength. Design element should provide adequate space for any assistive and adaptive devices.

Universal Design Beyond the Physical

While mostly centered on physical space, the concepts and principles of Universal Design have been applied to other fields of study, most prominently in Learning and Education. By applying the same principles to how knowledge is presented to students, Universal Design ensures that no person feels stigmatized or alone.

With longer life expectancies, the increasing efficacy of modern medicine, and the variations in skill levels, the interest and need for Universal Design not only becomes necessary, but also aids in increasing the quality of life for older people, people with disabilities, and people of all levels of education. Universal Design is fast becoming the standard for most design trends.

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