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 prescriptive codes and standards for people with disabilities. UD is performance-based and addresses usability issues for people of all ability levels.

Historical Context

Over the last 40-plus years, a great deal of effort has been devoted to making the built environment accessible. Accessibility laws, such as the Architectural Barriers Act (1968), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Fair Housing Act Amendments (1988), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) specify minimum requirements to ensure that the built environment does not discriminate against people with disabilities. Experience with accessibility laws led Ron Mace, Ruth Hall Lusher, and others to recognize the need for a different approach to design of the built environment, which they termed “universal design.” The premise for this new approach was that the environment could be much more accessible than laws could realistically mandate on the basis of nondiscrimination.
A multidisciplinary group of experts wrote The Principles of Universal Design in 1997 to clarify the scope of universal design, as it was perceived in the mid-1990s, and to provide guidance in both design and evaluation activities (Center for Universal Design 1997; Connell et al. 1997).
Principles of Universal Design:
  1. Equitable use. The design does not disadvantage or stigmatize any group of users.
  2. Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  3. Simple and intuitive use. Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  6. Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
  7. Size and space for approach and use. Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility
However, experience has proven that there is a need to clarify the concept further and provide more extensive information resources for all the design disciplines. Over the years, nine criticisms of the Principles have been developed suggesting that the Principles be evidence-based and tied to a body of knowledge and consensus on best practices.
1. Fit with needs in the field. Even as the Principles were being developed, several of the authors argued that they were more suited for product design than other design disciplines and that they were not readily applicable to specific design problems because the Guidelines lack detail. Since the Principles were published, many variants have appeared in the literature, suggesting that they do not quite fit all stakeholders’ needs.
​2. The issue of appearance. Universal design requires more than just functional benefits. It extends the concept of inclusion to consumer “appeal” and benefits to people beyond those who have disabilities. Universal design would not be successful if other users found its appearance to be stigmatizing, if it made the user look awkward, or if it attracted undesirable attention.
3. Language. The Principles should be clear and translate well into other languages. The Principle called “Tolerance for Error” seems to imply that errors should be tolerated; the intent of this Principle was to reduce errors in the use of a product and environment. The “Equitable in Use” Principle translates literally in at least one language (Japanese) to “equal opportunity,” which is a legal term and thus confuses a voluntary design practice with legal mandates. The “Flexibility in Use” Principle seems to imply that objects should bend during use.
4. Goals. The Principles and guidelines lack clarity of purpose. The “Equitable in Use” Principle focuses on a social justice goal; “Flexibility in Use” is a design strategy; and the rest focus on human performance goals. Some Principles overlap in objectives.
5. Scope. The Principles do not explicitly address several important issues, such as health promotion and disease prevention. The “Equitable Use” Principle addresses only two social participation issues in a limited way—segregation and stigma. Other social participation issues, such as social interaction and friendship formation, support for social role engagement, and accommodation of cultural differences, are missing.
6. Fit with context. The Principles do not address the constraints imposed by context. There is a need to address contextual issues, such as historic preservation, sustainability, and urbanism, and constraints, such as available finances, human resources, and construction technology.
7. Narrow focus on personal empowerment. The Principles focus on human performance and ignore personalization and customization, which address broader diversity issues and social identity in a more inclusive manner.
8. Difficulty for benchmarking. The Principles and guidelines do not provide metrics or standards against which one can measure whether an environment, product, or service is indeed a good example of universal design. The terminology is not amenable to benchmarking. Thus, it is difficult to compare a universal design to one that is not and to establish best practices other than by professional judgment.
9. Lack of an evidence base. The lack of a body of evidence tied to the Principles is a serious barrier to their use in practice. Terminology related to established domains of knowledge would overcome this gap. The problem becomes apparent when trying to do an Internet search for information on “Flexibility in Use,” “Tolerance for Error,” or “Equitable Use.”

Goals of Universal Design

From this point of departure and reflecting on the critique of the Principles, 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.
​We developed the Goals of Universal Design© in order to 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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