What is universal design?
Universal design is the process of designing products and environments to be used by everyone, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design. Universal design is a process, not an outcome. Universal design assists everyone, not just people with a disability.
Universal design is different to accessible design. Accessible design is usually based on minimum legislative requirements or accepted Standards that define how access should be provided to buildings, facilities and products, so they can be used by people with a disability. Often these have a tendency to lead to 'different' or 'separate' facilities, for example, a wheelchair accessible toilet or a ramp installed to the side of a stairway at an entrance to a building.
The aim of universal design is to provide one solution that can accommodate all people, including people with a disability, as well as the rest of the community; universal design incorporates the needs of older adults, children and young people, women and men and people who are left handed or right handed.
What are the principles of Universal Design?
The Universal Design Principles were developed by the Centre for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, United States of America (USA). These principles were designed in collaboration with a consortium of universal design researchers and practitioners from across the USA.
The authors, a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers, collaborated to establish the following Principles of Universal Design to guide a wide range of design disciplines. The group developed seven principles that may be applied to evaluate existing designs, guide the design process and educate both designers and consumers about the characteristics of more usable products and environments.
The seven Principles of Universal Design are as follows (note that all principles may not be relevant to all designs):
Principle one: Equitable use
The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. Ideally the means by which people use the setting should be the same, for example, providing one means of entry to a building that works well for everyone, not a mix of stairs and a ramp.
- Provide the same means of use for all users, identical whenever possible, equivalent when not.
- Avoid segregating or stigmatising any users.
- Provisions for privacy, security and safety should be equally available to all users.
- Make the design appealing to all users.
Principle two: Flexibility in use
The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. The setting should allow people to use elements in more than one prescribed way, for example, providing a countertop orientation map that is viewable from either a seated or standing position.
- Provide choice in methods of use.
- Accommodate right or left-handed access and use.
- Facilitate the user's accuracy and precision.
- Provide adaptability to the user's pace.
Principle three: Simple and intuitive use
The use of the design is easy to understand regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level. The building should make it easy for everyone to understand the purpose of each element and how to use it, for example, providing a bathroom basin tap that makes the method of operation readily apparent and relatively easy to use.
- Eliminate unnecessary complexity.
- Be consistent with user expectations and intuition.
- Accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills.
- Arrange information consistent with its importance.
- Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.
Principle four: Perceptible information
The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities. The setting should provide all essential information in a variety of modes, for example, written, symbolic, tactile and verbal.
- Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.
- Provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings.
- Maximise "legibility" of essential information.
- Differentiate elements in ways that can be described (that is, make it easy to give instructions or directions).
- Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.
Principle five: Tolerance for error
The design minimises hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. When potentially dangerous conditions are unavoidable, people should receive warnings as they approach the element, for example, providing proximity warnings in a variety of sensory modes near the top of stairs.
- Arrange elements to minimise hazards and errors, most used elements, most accessible, hazardous elements eliminated, isolated or shielded.
- Provide warnings of hazards and errors.
- Provide fail-safe features.
- Discourage unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance.
Principle six: Low physical effort
The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
The setting should employ design features that require little or no physical force to use them, for example, replacing a traditional door knob with a lever handle that does not require the ability to grasp and turn the wrist.
- Allow user to maintain a neutral body position.
- Use reasonable operating forces.
- Minimise repetitive actions.
- Minimise sustained physical effort.
Principle seven: Size and space for approach and use
Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture or mobility. A setting should provide an adequate amount of space that is appropriately arranged to enable everyone to use them, for example, providing knee space under a washroom lavatory* to enable use by someone in a seated position.
- Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user.
- Make reach to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user.
- Accommodate variations in hand and grip size.
- Provide adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.
Designers must also incorporate other considerations such as economic, engineering, cultural, gender and environmental concerns in their design processes.
These principles offer designers guidance to better integrate features that meet the needs of as many users as possible.
What are the benefits of Universal Design?
Universal design benefits all people. If buildings and products are designed with consideration of the needs of as many users as possible, there will be a greatly reduced requirement for modification and the additional expense related to this, as individual needs change.
In addition, the ability of more people to participate in sport and recreation is greatly enhanced when the Principles of Universal Design are incorporated into buildings, facilities and products.
In Australia, the benefits of universal design are becoming more widely understood and recognised. The Australian Commonwealth Government has acknowledged the Principles of Universal Design in its National Disability Strategy 2010-2020. In addition the National Rental Affordability Scheme assesses affordable housing initiatives against a number of universal design criteria for funding eligibility.
The voluntary Livable Housing Design Guidelines, developed by the National Dialogue on Universal Housing Design also recognises the benefits of universal design principles in the development of housing for everyone.
Sport and Recreation Victoria supports and encourages use of the Principles of Universal Design in the planning, design, development and upgrade of all sporting and recreation facilities.
For further information in relation to universal design go to:
- Global Universal Design Commission - USA
- Center for Universal Design (North Carolina State University, USA)
- Center of Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (University of Buffalo, USA):
- Livable Housing Design Guidelines - Australian Government Department of Families, Housing Community Services, and Indigenous Affairs
- National Disability Strategy 2010- 2020 – an initiative of the Council of Australian Governments