The Art of Universal Design

Designing for the 21st Century II Pre-Conference

Providence, Rhode Island, June 14, 2000

Universal design envisions a world where shared experience is possible, where special effort to gain full access to facilities and programming is never needed. As defined by the National Endowment for the Arts, universal design goes beyond the mere provision of special features for various segments of the population. Instead it emphasizes a creative approach that is more inclusive, one that asks at the outset of the design process how a product, graphic communication, building, or landscape can be made both aesthetically pleasing and functional for the greatest number of users. Designs resulting from this approach are more likely to serve a wider array of people: individuals who have temporary disabilities, people with permanent disabilities, and everyone whose abilities change with age.1

As public art moves into the twenty-first century, the message universal design advocates would like to convey is that far from a restrictive burden, its precepts offer an unprecedented creative opportunity for the benefit of the broadest audience. Significantly, universal design goes well beyond providing mere access. When it works, it does so through well-conceived buildings and spaces, easy for all to use and beautiful to behold.

On June 14, 2000, a day-long symposium entitled Arts in Universal Environments was held in Providence, Rhode Island, as part of the preconference sessions preceding Designing for the 21st Century II: An International Conference on Universal Design organized by the Institute for Human Centered Design, USA. Its intent as described in the program was to bring together distinguished artists, designers, and arts administrators to discuss the elements necessary to create a universal setting for the arts. In broad terms, the session accomplished what it set out to do, although besides the invited speakers, some of whom indeed were artists, it was a group made up largely of administrators and designers. The lack of artist participants points clearly to the challenge faced by universal design advocates as they attempt to build bridges to the professional public art community.

What does universal design mean in the context of public art? As more than one speaker pointed out, the most prevalent misunderstanding equates universal design with access as defined through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Boston artist Jerry Beck, for example, visionary leader of the Revolving Museum, a quintessential example of successful consensus building and audience development at a grassroots level, acknowledged his own misconceptions prior to his participation.

While the issues of access are related, sometimes intimately, universal design proposes solutions far beyond the basic requirements for physical and communications access set forth in ADA policy. In fact, an important point made early and repeated often at the conference may come as a surprise to many who have been so committed in their support of ADA guidelines: seen from the vantage point of universal design's goals, one realizes that ADA requirements can be scrupulously met yet fail to enhance the environment or a person's experience of it, disabled or not. Sadly, it happens all the time.

Recognizing this failure is what makes universal design's ideals simultaneously exciting and troubling as they redefine the ground rules for the design of our built environment. In her introduction to the session, Ann-Ellen Lesser, universal planning consultant and conference coordinator along with Very Special Arts, Rhode Island, stated, "Universal design is about finding a new paradigm, a new way of thinking. It assumes it is possible to create environments everyone can use. It breaks down isolation. It is good for everyone because it is inclusive. Universal design is in the details and in the thought."

The seven principles established by the Center for Universal Design and presented by Paula Terry, NEA AccessAbility coordinator, provide further clarification. They are 1) equitable use, 2) flexibility in use, 3) simple, intuitive use, 4) perceptible information, 5) tolerance for error, 6) low physical effort, and 7) size and space for approach and use. In other words, what is proposed is an approach to design that makes sense for, and is sensitive to, the broadest population. The paradox is that while universal design's aspirations are indeed universal, its practice to date is not. Its principles are far from routine, and the design professions are still often tentative in their embrace.

What does this mean for the business of public art? The implementation of basic ADA requirements has already become an integral part of the design process for permanent works of public art, i.e. bricks and mortar projects most commonly the result of percent-for-art programs, and most public artists and public art administrators are aware, or fast becoming so, of its legal imperative. Yet for temporary public art, its scope increasingly recognized as a laboratory for innovation and cutting edge activity, the idea of additional regulatory layers is viewed with apprehension at best, even though many artists will agree that making their work accessible to the broadest possible audience is worthwhile.

As with ADA, universal design is viewed with skepticism by artists who fear its impact on creativity and freedom of expression. Are the goals of the public artist and universal design incompatible? Will successful advocacy for universal design in public art result in less interesting, less challenging, less meaningful art? Plainly put, is quality endangered? As one might predict, the answer given by conference participants was an unequivocal "no."

The prevalent opinion in Providence was that, if anything, the intelligent process advocated by universal design precepts might do much to increase quality within a field where the lack of standards and the resulting proliferation of mediocre work is increasingly of concern. How everyone involved in the implementation of public art projects is educated in universal design so that the world it envisions is achieved is the challenge. If not done with care and patience, the immediate confusion may indeed result in a curtailment of creative activity, if for no other reason than that the funds necessary for compliance will reduce the available resources otherwise going to public art itself.

To date, most progress in universal design seems to have been made by museums. In the United States, the Smithsonian Institution has taken a leadership role. Janice Majewski, in charge of the Smithsonian's accessibility program since 1978, presented an overview of their achievements, which include guidelines for universal design comprising not only physical access, but accessibility to the institution's collections at all levels, including object labels, exhibition design from concept formulation to maintenance, publications, educational pro-grams, and the Internet. Majewski stresses, "These are all works in progress," stating what might be considered an eighth principle of universal design: it is an open process you go back to and improve continuously.

A fine example of a successful universal design planning process was presented in an NEA-funded film chronicling the creation of new workspaces for artists at the Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz, New York. Making the case as eloquently as anyone actually present at the conference, artist Michael Singer describes in the film the rich creative atmosphere that led to such sensible and aesthetically pleasing results. Walkways and doorways are accessible to all; inside, counters, shelves, and sinks accommodate people at all height levels and are pleasingly integrated into the overall design of each room.

The outcome of this project contrasts strongly to the reality depicted in The Resilient Spirit, presented by film-maker Sharon Greytak. In it she interviews various individuals living with disabilities, including Italian artist Marino Crivellari and Brazilian writer Marcello Paiva. A clearer example of obliterated potential and opportunities lost when access is diminished or altogether denied cannot be imagined.

An impressive aspect of this preconference was the strong collective commitment to universal design based on actual experience. To demonstrate that the field is far from theoretical and that its principles are increasingly applied, two designers presented work of notable distinction.

Coco Raynes of Coco Raynes Associates in Boston described her firm's work with museum exhibitions and offered a logical compliment to the standards set by the Smithsonian. Particularly compelling is the system of Braille and infrared-activated sound railings developed by this firm to help those who are blind navigate and participate in museum exhibitions. In conjunction with the careful placement of objects and thoughtful attention to flow patterns, the result is a particularly welcoming environment.

Laura Solano, principal at Michael van Valkenburgh Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts, described her work with artist Ann Hamilton on the Allegheny Riverfront Park in Pittsburgh, a project commissioned by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and completed in 1998. Here, while the artist did con-tribute certain elements, such as handrailings and an embossed pavement design of bulrushes inspired by the early work of Piet Mondrian, her larger contribution was as an integral voice on the design process from start to finish. As reported by Solano, Hamilton aptly described her role this way: "Think of my contribution as water, washing over everything and leaving its trace," a fitting metaphor for the ideal universal design strives to achieve.

Deborah Kaplan and Slobodan Paich of San Francisco's Arts Ship articulated three reasons why universal design may be poised to have an increasingly significant impact on future policy decisions: its goals can be seen as integral to the civil rights of individuals; a large, aging mass of baby boomers will press for environments that allow more people to live independently into old age; and the emergence of a distinct "disability culture" with shared values, visions, and customs manifested especially through the arts will exert additional pressure.

As an introduction to universal design and the positive role it might play in public art in general, the preconference was an important milestone. Future meetings will need to examine in greater depth and with more specificity what the universal design guidelines for public art projects are and how they might be met. The examples of projects described by the various speakers clearly point to a growing body of solutions born of real life examples, most notably the inclusion of Braille and audio technology for the interpretation of the visual arts.

Where possible, art objects should be available for tactile examination. Wheelchair access, so much a part of ADA requirements, is also important, but universal design aims for more integrated, more aesthetically pleasing solutions that facilitate access for everyone including people of various sizes and ages. Critically important in this discussion is the contribution of public artists whose work will be most affected. Still in its infancy, this participation is clearly welcome and will help establish ownership in the arts community.

Achieving universal design's goals will also continue to be a process of selling its benefits to design professionals and to the policymakers at the local, state, and national levels of government. Because universal design promotes a new way of thinking, it will take time for a majority of practitioners to embrace its precepts. It is worth remembering that artists who have chosen to work in the public domain understand compromise is a part of the process, a challenge that brings meaning to what is created. If experience to date is a guide, it can easily be argued that the high level of thought and analysis required by universal design leads to richer, more interesting creative solutions.

That those who have used its principles successfully are loath to return to old practices is revealing. These artists are the reconnaissance team who already understand that universal design is an opportunity waiting to happen. Certainly this was the enthusiastic message of the preconference participants who came together in Providence.

For more information on universal design, refer to Strategies for Teaching Universal Design, edited by Polly Welch (Boston: Adaptive Environments Center, 1995).

Ricardo Barreto is the Director of the UrbanArts Institute at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, Massachusetts.

Originally published in Public Art Review FALL/WINTER 2000 [ Volume 12, Number 1 ]

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1. As defined by the Institute for Human Centered Design. [ Return to text ]

Ricardo Barreto