What is Universal Design?

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  • Written By: Sonal Panse
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 October 2019
  • Copyright Protected:
    Conjecture Corporation
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Universal design is design that can be easily understood, used and accessed, as far as possible, by people of all sizes, shapes, ages, skills, abilities and disabilities. Universal design is applied to products, spaces, buildings, education, entertainment and information media. Some related design terms are ergonomic design, adaptable design, transgenerational design and barrier-free design.

The concept of universal design developed first in the architecture field. Designers wanted to be sure that the facilities they designed could be easily accessible to a wide swathe of population. Universal design is not about fitting one size to all, rather it is about considering a wide range of similarities and differences in preferences, characteristics and abilities, and accommodating these.

Architects, engineers, designers and researchers from North Carolina State University's Center for Universal Design (CUD) have thought up seven main design principles. These are meant as a guideline for users. The principles are equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use.

The emphasis in this type of design is on broad social inclusion. Different people should be able to use, understand or adapt the design according to their specific concerns. This makes such design, as has been described, an evolving process rather than an end. Designers can take a variety of creative approaches.


People have similarities and differences rendered by age, ability, education, intelligence and so on. Universal design considers different possibilities caused by differences in thinking, remembering, understanding, learning, seeing, hearing and physical abilities. It also considers factors like aesthetics, engineering options, environmental issues, safety concerns, industry standards and production costs.

If all these issues are not considered beforehand, the design may run into user-related problems later on. It may become necessary to alter or adapt design features to make them more user-friendly. Making such changes at later stage would not only be time-consuming, it could also prove expensive. So it is better to consider potential users from the start.

Universal design can benefit both disabled and non-disabled people. Automatically opening doors, for example, are convenient for people in wheelchairs or on crutches as well as people with arms full of groceries or packages or someone holding a baby. Clear legible fonts help people with vision problems as well as people with normal vision.

TV and movie captions help in making programs more accessible to a wider audience. Self-learning educational material is an example of universal design. Other examples include multimedia programs and websites, museum exhibits and programs with language choices.



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