What is Universal Design?

Universal Design (UD) 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

Universal design (UD) is not a fad or trend but an enduring design approach grounded in the belief that the broad range of human ability is ordinary, not special. Supported by the Goals of UD, UD addresses barriers faced by people with disabilities, older adults, children, and other populations who the design process typically overlooks. UD reduces stigma and provides benefits for all users.

Universal design is not a synonym for accessibility. Accessibility usually refers to minimum compliance with with prescriptive codes and standards for people with disabilities. UD is performance-based and addresses usability issues for people of all ability levels.

Goals of Universal Design

The IDeA Center expanded the conceptual framework of universal design beyond usability to include social participation and health, and acknowledges the role of context in developing realistic applications. 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. They encompass functional, social, and emotional dimensions. 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.

exhibit display at the of hand dryer mounted on a wall at different heights

Body Fit

Accommodating a wide a range of body sizes and abilities

Aeron chair


Keeping demands within desirable limits of body function and perception

tactile guide strips in a hotel lobby


Ensuring that critical information for use is easily perceived

NYC subway training stop identification system


Making methods of operation and use intuitive, clear, and unambiguous

NYC streetscape with focus on a bikelane


Contributing to health promotion, avoidance of disease, and protection from hazards

people sitting, walking and talking along a boardwalk

Social Integration

Treating all groups with dignity and respect

closeup of an iphone screen showing multiple apps


Incorporating opportunities for choice and the expression of individual preferences

individuals pulling portable water carriers

Cultural Appropriateness

Respecting and reinforcing cultural values and the social and environmental contexts of any design project

© Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012

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