What is Universal Design?

A short summary on the meaning and history of ‘Universal Design’

Person holding a globe in their hands.

Universal Design is design for everyone.

Now, you might think, “There’s nothing special about that. Aren’t most things designed for everyone, just with variants on function, style, and price tag?” Well, actually, the answer is no.

Most things are designed for the ideal consumer, a person who is presumed to have 20/20 vision, full use of their legs and hands, perfect cognitive function, and financial means. These presumptions on who will use a product, service, or environment exclude a group that is the size of China. People with disabilities cannot be ignored.

Universal Design aims to meet the greatest number of needs through one, intuitive design – and that’s not just the disabled! A popular example of Universal Design is the ‘curb cut’ which you probably take for granted every time you see it – but it’s actually one of the first examples of the founding principles that would go on to establish Universal Design. What is a ‘curb cut’? That’s the short slope you often see between sidewalk and road, where pedestrians are meant to cross to the opposite side of the street. This was implemented in reaction to the increase of wheelchair users after World War II, before the term ‘Universal Design’ came into being. The curb cut not only made transportation for disabled veterans easier, but was also appreciated by people with strollers, shopping carts, and cyclists. Universal Design doesn’t just solve problems for one sort of user, but makes an improvement for everyone.

The term Universal Design originated in the USA out of the Civil Rights Movement, driven by Vietnam War veterans. The initial focus was on disability and the physical, built environment. It later spread to affect all areas of design, from product design to public transportation. Today, it plays an important role in guiding businesses, policy makers, and designers in ensuring that goods, services, and environments can be accessed by everyone. Greater access to these things results in a stronger economy and society.

Universal Design benefits everyone.


Author: nchitty

Inclusive designer based out of Toronto.

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