Universal Design : The 5 W’s and How

If you happen to be in Hyderabad, you might want to visit a restaurant called as ‘Dialog in the Dark’. It is a restaurant run by the blind. Few of my friends who visited the restaurant last year were in loss of words for what they experienced there.

“You must go there. Not for the food or anything, but just to feel how just a few minutes into their (sic) world feels like. After we came out from the restaurant, we all looked at each other, only to realise that we all were teary-eyed from the experience. Hats off to those who are specially abled and yet live each day with zeal and enthusiasm!”

Empathy is a word which makes an architect stronger. We as architects must feel empathy for every user of the space which we will design. Be it a baby, a person with disabilities, an old person, a specially-abled person or anything. This foresight makes us better designers.

What is Universal Design?

Universal design simply means designing all products, buildings and exterior spaces to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible. Universal design is not a design style, but an orientation to design, based on the following premises:

  • Disability is not a special condition of a few;
  • It is ordinary and effects most of us for some part of our lives;
  • If a design works well for people with disabilities, it works better for everyone
  • Usability and aesthetics are mutually compatible.

A worldwide movement promoting design as a support for independence and participation has evolved in response to an expanding demographic and social reality: more people living with a wide array of disabilities and chronic health conditions than ever before and the longest lifespans in history. 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 inclusive design, design-for-all, lifespan design or human-centred design. The message is the same: if it works well for people across the spectrum of functional ability, it works better for everyone.

Why should it exist?

The great architect Louis Sullivan once said ‘Form follows function’. We use this phrase in or day to day life to refer to our own designs or to constructively criticise someone else’s design. Usually, the idea of a ‘function’ in architecture depends on ‘activity’. But what also consists a function are also the intangible and the unseen circumstances which may arise in a design irrespective of the basic activities that will anyways happen.

Architecture is the bridge that links engineering and art. It is also called the mother art. A mother always takes care of all her kids and doesn’t leave out the specially abled. As architects, we are the outlet for this care and empathy towards each user who may inhabit our space. In the process of a magnified and larger than life structure, befitted with the latest technology and the perfect finishes we rush through our design process. We rush, to arrive at a point where our design would be applauded, or sometimes the more ambitious of us might want it to be a milestone in our career for the sake of it’s ‘different than your’s’ approach. But in this high speed of thoughts and ambitions, we tend to miss out on the aspect of design, that design is ‘for all’.  Universal design is not a concept, it is a way of life, it is a way of design that needs to exist in each and every square inch of space designed on the planet.

How to make a design Universal design complacent?

At the Centre for Universal Design (CUD) at North Carolina State University, a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers established seven principles of UD to provide guidance in the design of products and environments. Following are the principles of UD, each followed by an example of its application:

  1. Equitable use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. For example, a website that is designed to be accessible to everyone, including people who are blind and use screen reader technology, employs this principle.
  2. Flexibility in Use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. An example is a museum that allows visitors to choose to read or listen to the description of the contents of a display case.
  3. Simple and intuitive. Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. Science lab equipment with clear and intuitive control buttons is an example of an application of this principle.
  4. Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities. An example of this principle is captioned television programming projected in a noisy sports bar.
  5. Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. An example of a product applying this principle is software applications that provide guidance when the user makes an inappropriate selection.
  6. Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently, comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue. Doors that open automatically for people with a wide variety of physical characteristics demonstrate the application of this principle.
  7. Size and space for approach and use. Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility. A flexible work area designed for use by employees who are left- or right-handed and have a variety of other physical characteristics and abilities is an example of applying this principle.


When to include universal design in your design?

Universal Design must be included right from the inception of the project. For larger projects, including universal design in site planning and landscaping is crucial. Ramps and curbs should be provided at every junction to facilitate the seamless movement for all users.

Where to include Universal Design?

It is impossible to contain the area specific rules for Universal Design in a write-up. Still, for our convenience we can think of following pointers to facilitate the same in common areas:

  • Allow enough floor space to accommodate a stationary wheelchair and also enough room for a smooth U-turn: at least 1965 mm (78 inches) by 1525 mm (60 inches).
  • Include tables or counters that are a variety of heights to accommodate standing, seating, and a range of different tasks.
  • Provide shelves and a medicine cabinet that can be reached by persons seated in a wheelchair.
  • Make sure entry doors to rooms are at least 815 mm (32 inches) wide.
  • Mount bathroom sinks no higher than 865 mm (34 inches) from the floor.
  • Install grab bars in the shower and beside the toilet.
  • Provide a full-length mirror that can be viewed by all people, including children.
  • Avoid shag carpets, uneven brick floors, and other floor surfaces that could pose slipping and tripping hazards.
  • Design a room so deaf people can accomplish tasks while facing the room’s centre. Mirrors are a poor solution to universal design.

May it be a small room design or a massive urban planning project, we as Architects and more so, citizens of the same community, must take an oath to make Universal Design as a part of our design so that our design is 100% functional apart from being aesthetic and green as well!

About the author:

Tejashri Deshpande, an Architect by profession and an animal lover by obsession, has her own design practice in Pune by the name of Design Doobki.

One thought on “Universal Design : The 5 W’s and How

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *