Universal Design, Human-Centered Design for the 21st Century

At the start of the new millenium, it is time to reflect on a changed reality with potent implications for design. Never before in human history have humans lived so long or survived illness and injury so much. The old assumptions about users - that most fell within average norms and a small and readily identifiable percentage had special needs - must be put aside. Science, medicine, and technology have succeeded in dramatically extending our lives. It is time for design to catch up. Variation in ability is not special but ordinary and effects most of us for some part of our lives. It makes sense now to design products, environments, and communications to work seamlessly for the widest possible spectrum of users.

The expansion of life expectancy in the last century is the most dramatic shift. Examples from a 2001 report shows the following examples: life expectancy in Japan, 80.7; in Hong Kong, 79.5; in the United Kingdom, 77.7; in the United States, 77.1; and in Taiwan, 76.4. Even mainland China has achieved an average of 71.4 years. In 1900, comparable averages were all less than 50 and many substantially less. Throughout most of history only one in ten people lived past 65; now, 80% do.

The way we define and understand disability has also changed. Disability was once assumed as a way to characterize a particular set of largely stable limitations. Now the World Health Organization is moving toward a new international classification system that emphasizes functional status. The new system is not just about people with traditionally acknowledged disabilities but about all people. It assumes there is a continuum of relative degrees of ability and acknowledges that many disabilities are not apparent but are based upon chronic health conditions - like arthritis, heart disease, back problems - that impact function. It also recognizes ability as a contextual variable, dynamic over time and circumstances. The substantial growth in the world's aging population is a good example. Even with a general improvement in health status among elders, people are different physically, psychologically, and mentally as they age.

A worldwide movement, called universal design, has evolved in response to the new demographic and social reality. Universal design is the design of products, environments, and communication to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without adaptation or specialized design. The concept is also called design-for-all or lifespan design. The message is the same: if it works well for people with functional limitations, it works better for everyone.

The evolution toward universal design began in the 1950s with a new attention to disability. In Europe, Japan, and the United States, barrier-free design developed to remove obstacles in the built environment for people with physical disabilities. It followed the companion social policy of moving people with disabilities from institutional settings to the community. Barrier-free design still tended to be segregated and special, pertinent to people with serious physical limitations, primarily mobility impairments.

By the 1970s, Europe and the United States had enough experience with community integration of people with disabilities that they moved beyond special solutions and toward the idea of normalization and integration. Increasingly, the terminology of choice was accessible design. The disability rights movement flowered on the heels of other civil rights movements. It argued for equality of opportunity and against paternalism and care-taking. For the first time, design was a topic for civil rights. The legal standards used the term accessible design. The laws specified the responsibilities of designers, owners, and public agencies. Almost exclusively, those accessible design requirements focused only on the needs of people with mobility problems and applied to the built environment and almost not at all to products.

Also for the first time in the 1970s, an American architect, Michael Bednar, introduced the idea that everyone's functional capacity is enhanced when environmental barriers are removed. He suggested that a new concept beyond accessibility was needed that would be broader and more universal.

A number of trends converged in the 1980s. People with disabilities were sufficiently organized in many nations to be appropriately termed the "disability community" able to articulate shared perspectives. They were increasingly concerned about an evolving dichotomy of "us" and "them" that rested on false assumptions about disability being a rare and static condition related largely to mobility and sensory impairments. They suggested that laws governing accessible design had reduced design to a set of minimum requirements. The laws offered invaluable protections but had the unintended consequence of diminishing attention to the creative potential of design to enable users.

In 1987, a group of Irish designers succeeded in getting a resolution passed at the World Design Congress that designers everywhere should factor disability and aging into their work. In the U.S., Ron Mace, an architect who had polio as a child and used a wheelchair and a ventilator, started using the term universal design and figuring out how to define it in relation to accessible design. He made the case that universal design is "not a new science, a style, or unique in any way. It requires only an awareness of need and market and a commonsense approach to making everything we design and produce usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible." Ron, who died suddenly in 1998, recognized that the term universal was not ideal. It could be interpreted to promise an impossible standard. No matter how committed the designer and how attentive to anticipating all users, there would always be a small number of people for whom an individual design just wouldn't work. More accurately, universal design is an orientation to design in which designers strive to incorporate features that make each design more universally usable.

Interest in the concepts of universal design grew in the 1990s. Without question, the most enthusiastic discipline within design was industrial design. Industrial designers assume the validity of focusing on the needs and preferences of users and are more attuned to market opportunity than other designers. The changed demographic reality established a clear, commonsense case for universal design.

For any new idea to flourish, it needs principles that establish practical clarity and help to support efficient dissemination. Ron Mace led a group of designers and advocates in the mid-90s to create a set of seven principles of universal design:

  1. Equitable Use: The design does not disadvantage or stigmatize any group of users.

  2. Flexibility in Use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

  3. Simple, Intuitive Use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

  4. Perceptible Information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.

  5. Tolerance for Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

  6. Low Physical Effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.

  7. Size and Space for Approach & Use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility.

The Principles are copyrighted to the Center for Universal Design, School of Design, State University of North Carolina at Raleigh [USA].

Since 1998, regional and international conferences on universal design have proliferated. Competitions such as the Industrial Design Society of America's 2001 competition included universal design as a criterion. Japan is hosting their first international universal design conference at the end of 2002. The Institute for Human Centered Design, with approximately fifty collaborating organizations, is planning the third Designing for the 21st Century, An International Conference on Universal Design in the Caribbean. There is still a long way to go to integrate the concepts of universal design into good design. Talking to one another across the globe is the surest route to success.

Valerie Fletcher
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This article originally appeared in the February/March 2002 issue of the Taiwanese publication Design.