DESIGN SPACES: What is universal design?

Universal Design allows people of all ages, with all types of skill sets and physical challenges to live, work, and interact easily in safe, accessible built spaces.

For the Pioneer |

Ben Franklin would have championed universal design.
Ben Franklin would have championed universal design.

Universal Design allows people of all ages, with all types of skill sets and physical challenges to live, work, and interact easily in safe, accessible built spaces. Part of universal design is the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990) which mandates minimum standards for physical accessibility, eliminating physical & cultural barriers in built environments.

Principals for Universal Design (also known as Lifespan Design), from the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University:

1. Equitable: the design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

2. Flexible: the design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences.

3. Simple and intuitive: the use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level.

4. Perceptible: the design communicates necessary information effectively to the user.

5. Safe: the design minimizes hazards.

6. Physically easy: the design can be used efficiently and comfortably with minimum fatigue.

7. Easy to navigate: appropriate size and space are provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use regardless of the user’s body size, posture or mobility.

In one of my design/communication classes we were asked to attach different things to our bodies so that we could see what accessing different areas of buildings would be like for people with various challenges. Our choices were a wheelchair, crutches, coke bottle glasses, a blindfold, or Popsicle fingers (you tape Popsicle sticks on your fingers to give the idea of how fingers don’t work for people with arthritis). We teamed up with a partner who took notes describing our ease or difficulty in maneuvering around campus – we had to open doors, get on and off elevators, take the stairs, and attempt to read signage and we had to do it within a certain time span.

This exercise really showed me what people are up against and how easy it is to be unaware of what others face just trying to get around in the world. It made me think of Interior Design in a whole new way – one that is more inclusive of all abilities and skill sets.

Universal Design also personalizes the people it serves. It views the person as a noun and the challenge or disability as an adjective. It adapts spaces and products to people as individuals, allowing users to see themselves as capable and independent.

Benjamin Franklin, an American statesman, ambassador, inventor, historian, and prolific designer was not bound by physical challenges. He suffered from severe gout and could not walk. He designed a sedan chair that could take him from place to place – it was carried by 4 convicts. This mobility allowed him to function in the built environment and it also allowed him to do his life’s work. I believe he would have championed Universal Design.

Universal Design, when used well, is a starting point for creating good design that is accessible for the greatest number of users throughout their life spans.

Linda Brooks is owner of Design Consulting and has an Interior Design Degree from NDSU. She lives in Bowman. You can view Linda Brook’s design blog via the Pioneer’s website,

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