What is Universal Design?

Universal Design is the process of designing products and environments to be useable by everyone, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design. Universal Design incorporates the needs of women and men, people with disabilities, older adults, children and young people, people who are left handed or people who are right handed, and more.

There are no ‘universal designs’and there are no ‘universally designed products,’ rather Universal Design is a continuous improvement process in the design of products and environments.

Seven Principles

The following 7 principles of Universal Design were developed by the Centre for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, United States of America (USA). These principles were designed in collaboration with a consortium of Universal Design researchers and practitioners from across the USA.

The authors (a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers) collaborated to establish the following principles of Universal Design to guide a wide range of design disciplines including environments, products, and communications. These seven principles may be applied to evaluate existing designs, guide the design process and educate both designers and consumers about the characteristics of more usable products and environments.

  • 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

(For more information on the Principles of Universal Design, see: http://universaldesign.ie/What-is-Universal-Design/The-7-Principles/ )

Designers must also incorporate other considerations such as economic, engineering, cultural, gender and environmental concerns in their design processes.

The principles offer designers guidance to better integrate features that meet the needs of as many users as possible.

Whilst working in the access industry, a very important distinction must be made between Universal Design and accessible design. The former is the process of designing services and facilities to be used by everyone, not just people with a disability, with the aim being to provide one solution that can accommodate all people, including people with a disability, as well as the rest of the community.

Accessible design is usually based on minimum legislative requirements or accepted Standards that define how access should be provided to buildings, facilities and products, so they can be used by people with a disability. Often these have a tendency to lead to ‘different’ or ‘separate’ facilities. For example, a wheelchair accessible toilet or a ramp installed to the side of a stairway at an entrance to a building.

When buildings and products are designed with consideration of the needs of as many users as possible, it will not only encourage and allow for greater involvement by all the community, it will greatly reduce the need for modification and the inevitable additional expense. Incorporating the principles of Universal Design will support future proofing of all environments.


‘The course notes alone provide the value, let alone an insight into best practice.’ — Gary Finn, Sydney Access Consultants

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