In One Sentence: Universal design is a way of configuring an environment so that anyone — with or without a disability — can access it easily and fully.
Universal design is a way of designing an environment or product — whether physical, virtual or instructional — to ensure ease of use for everyone. Though it’s often discussed as a way of increasing disability inclusion and access, we think that if executed correctly, universal design’s benefits can extend far beyond the disabled community.
We most often think of universal design in terms of the built environment — as a consideration for architects and interior designers. And that’s true; for universal design to be most effective, it should begin with a space’s conception and construction. If a building doesn’t have an elevator or ramp built in, for instance, it can’t be universally designed. Those elevators and ramps, importantly, aren’t just for wheelchair users — they’re also helpful for people carrying heavy loads or pushing strollers.
And while elevators and ramps are classic examples of ways to universally design a space, they’re just a starting point. Here are some other examples of ways universal design could be incorporated:
- Mounting cabinets or shelving at a height reachable for people who are short and tall, standing and sitting.
- Designing an open floor plan and wider hallways and doorframes, allowing greater access to people using mobility devices and people communicating using sign language.
- Incorporating signage that is easy to interpret for anyone — including people with reading disabilities or who don’t speak English.
- Installing non-slip floor tiles in a bathroom.
- Using non-fluorescent lighting that is more accessible to those with epilepsy or sensory disorders, who may be triggered by bright lights.
These examples, and many more, are based on the Seven Principles of Universal Design, created in 1997 by Ron Mace and a team of designers at North Carolina State University. The principles are included below, with examples of each.
Principle 1: Equitable Use
The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
- Provide the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not.
- Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any users.
- Provisions for privacy, security, and safety should be equally available to all users.
- Make the design appealing to all users.
Example: A push button that opens a door.
Principle 2: Flexibility in Use
The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
- 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.
Example: Scissors that can be used by either right- or left-handed people.
Principle 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.
- 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.
Example: IKEA directions that rely on pictures rather than words.
Principle 4: Perceptible Information
The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
- Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.
- Provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings.
- Maximize “legibility” of essential information.
- Differentiate elements in ways that can be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions).
- Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.
Example: A video that plays with captions and/or translations.
Principle 5: Tolerance for Error
The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
- Arrange elements to minimize 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.
Example: A computer dialogue box that asks if you’re sure you want to exit a document without saving it first.
Principle 6: Low Physical Effort
The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
- Allow user to maintain a neutral body position.
- Use reasonable operating forces.
- Minimize repetitive actions.
- Minimize sustained physical effort.
Example: A door that opens using a handle as opposed to a knob, making it easier for people with fine motor difficulties to open.
Principle 7: 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.
- 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.
Example: Sinks or water fountains placed at several different heights.
“About Universal Design for Learning.” CAST, http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html#.XA2KwGhKg2w.
Burgstahler, Sheryl. “Universal Design of Instruction (UDI): Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples.” DO-IT, University of Washington, 2015, http://www.washington.edu/doit/universal-design-instruction-udi-definition-principles-guidelines-and-examples.
Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University, 2008, projects.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_ud/udprinciples.htm.
“What Is Universal Design.” Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, universaldesign.ie/What-is-Universal-Design/.