Universal Design

Designing for All Types of Users

What UDL brings to curriculum design, one might say, Universal Design brings more broadly to environment and product design.
A precursor and inspiration for UDL, Universal Design originated in the field of architecture. The focus on making built environments usable by a full range of people of all ages and abilities has profoundly influenced approaches in many areas including product design. Like UDL, it is not so much a theory as it is a set of principles to keep in mind:
  • 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
While it certainly pays attention to accessibility, the overall scope broadly considers how to design for all types of all users. Hence, the use of the term Universal.
Story, M. F., Mueller, J. L., & Mace, R. L. (1998). The universal design file: Designing for people of all ages and abilities.  

UD Resources

RL Mace Design Institute Logo

The RL Mace Universal Design Institute

The Ronald L. Mace Universal Design Institute (The Institute) is a non-profit organization based in North Carolina dedicated to promoting the concept and practice of accessible and universal design.

Center for Universal Design NC State Logo

Center for Universal Design (CUD) at NC State

The Center for Universal Design (CUD) is a national information, technical assistance, and research center that evaluates, develops, and promotes accessible and universal design in housing, commercial and public facilities, outdoor environments, and products.

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The Universal Design Project

The UDL Project seeks to provide the easiest way for communities to implement universal design in areas not regulated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

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Applications of Universal Design

Examples of applying universal design principles to a wide variety of products and environments; Including instruction, websites, distance learning courses, software, multimedia, libraries, computer labs, career centers, advising offices, tutoring and learning centers, and conference exhibits. 

Universal Design Living Laboratory (UDLL)

Universal Design Living Laboratory (UDLL)

A One-Of-A-Kind UDL National Demonstration Home in Columbus, Ohio

Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (CEUD) Logo

Center for Excellence in Universal Design (CEUD)

CEUD is dedicated to enabling the design of environments that can be accessed, understood, and used regardless of a person's age, size, ability, or disability. 

The 7 Principles of Universal Design | Ed Roberts Campus

The 7 Principles of Universal Design | Ed Roberts Campus

Not As Easy As It Looks

Simply embracing Universal Design's principles of equity, flexibility, intuition, etc. at an abstract level does not always settle the matter. When dealing with products and spaces, the design process typically faces the challenge of how to balance form and function. We don't just want things that work; we'd like them to look pleasing too. And vice versa.
Even projects that try to adhere to Universal Design principles can still fail to achieve the right balance. A recent example of this sort of failure is the Robson Square staircase ramp in Vancouver, BC. The staircase design admirably includes a path of travel accomodating diversely mobile users, such as those in wheelchairs and those pushing strollers.  The switchback ramp weaves through the stairway very symmetrically. 

 Innovative outdoor staircase showing a mix of ramps, steps, and railed areas

However, in what was perhaps a bow to aesthetic purity, the ramp implementation lacks a safety railing. Moreover, the harmonious integration of the ramp as a geometric element potentially results in hazards stemming from visual confusion of the step and ramp boundaries in different lighting conditions.

Happily,  there are also examples of how Universal Design can successfully achieve a balanced result in this situation. Consider our local UC Berkeley stairway ramp installation done as part of the  2015 Lower Sproul Plaza renovation project.

Lower Sproul staircase and ramp seen from above.

Here the ramp (with railings this time) winds in between stairways to which it connects on landings at each side. And the terracing helps make the boundaries clear while also bringing some green to the setting.

Wheelchair traveling on path of Lower Sproul stairway ramp.

Johnson, J. (2019, August 22). The Robson Square steps are beautiful but are they safe? CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/robson-square-accessibil...