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Universal Design is for Everyone (not just people with a disability)

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23 November 2015

Universal Design is a philosophy that uses principle based thinking within the design and planning process. It is based on seven recognized principles that were developed in 1997 by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers, led by the Centre for Universal Design, North Carolina State University, USA.

You may have heard the term ‘Universal design’ used and wondered if it was something that was relevant for your projects…

Well the short answer is yes.  Below is a brief outline:

Universal Design is a philosophy that uses principle based thinking within the design and planning process. It is based on seven recognized principles that were developed in 1997 by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers, led by the Centre for Universal Design, North Carolina State University, USA.

The Principles were developed to “guide the design of environments, products and communications to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (Mace 1985). They include:

Principle 1:    Equitable Use

Principle 2:    Flexibility in Use

Principle 3:    Simple and Intuitive Use

Principle 4:    Perceptible Information

Principle 5:    Tolerance for Error

Principle 6:    Low Physical Effort

Principle 7:    Size and Space for Approach and use

Universal design aims to create environments that can be used and experienced to the greatest extent possible by all people, regardless of their age, size, ability (or disability). Sounds ambitious, yes, but it is an approach that can be applied to a greater or lesser extent to anything that can be designed: the built environment, external domain, products, services, information and communication technology, education, transport, events, exhibitions, programming etc.

Universal design involves a shift in the way we often think about accessibility. It avoids the idea that barriers need to be ‘removed’ or that ‘assistance’ needs to be provided to use a product or to navigate an environment. Because the approach focuses on the user and recognizes human diversity from the outset, it pushes the ‘mainstream’ so that as much as possible within a design is ‘standard’ to suit as many people as possible and ‘customization’ of the design where an ‘exception’ is necessary to suit a particular need is minimized. It is an inclusive design approach that has benefits for everyone including older people, children, families, people with a disability, people from other cultures, people unfamiliar with the product or place etc.

Universal design is not the same as compliance with access regulations. The approach is not prescriptive and it doesn’t include technical standards or specifications. Rather, it is a way to move beyond compliance and consider best practice aspirational outcomes within a design such as; inclusion, comfort, awareness, understanding, wellness, safety, comfort and choice.

As with any philosophy, Universal design requires reflection and understanding to find practical ways to implement the principles into design and realization.  For this reason it has to be considered in the early stages of the design and planning process so that it becomes part of the strategy eg. this could be done through workshops with consultants and user groups to discuss key opportunities.

Inclusion is part of good design and this can enhance a person’s wellbeing and quality of life with many social, health and economic benefits to our communities that are becoming increasingly diverse. This is being recognized across many sectors through recent changes in government policies and planning.  The concept of universal design is part of good design. It encourages developers, architects and designers and builders to be innovative and think creatively about solutions that can better accommodate the needs of people while also making good business sense.

There are numerous established Universal Design Centers across many countries of the world including; USA, Japan, UK, Europe, Norway, Ireland that provide valuable networking, literature and information including ongoing research, education and other projects all related to universal design. The importance of universal design is gaining momentum in Australia too and there is talk on establishing an Australian Centre for Universal Design in the not too distant future.

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