The Future of Universal Design

Universal Design

This bathroom looks elegant but it also has all the elements for Aging in Place — a zero barrier shower threshold for walkers and wheelchairs, shower seat, hand-held shower, a foot bath with whirlpool jets and an attractive grab bar. (MTI Whirlpools)

By Guest Blogger Edward Steinfeld, ArchD, Professor of Architecture and Director of the IDeA Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, State University of New York at Buffalo. The Future of Universal Design was originally written for, which is included in our list of government websites.

From Accessibility to Inclusion

Universal design (UD) is an idea that developed in the mid-1990s as advocates of making buildings and products accessible to people with disabilities realized that these features often had benefits for a broader population. Examples include curb ramps, automated doors, closed captioning in television sets and accessibility features for computer operating systems.

Universal design was conceived as an approach to integrate accessibility features into all products and more fully into the physical environment. Regulations for accessibility are limited to minimum provisions and, for that reason, do not benefit everyone as much as they could. For example, although doors in public buildings must be wide enough for wheeled mobility device users, automated doors are not yet required.

But, universal design has not been adopted extensively within the design community. Currently, universal design is still perceived as “design for disability.” The broader public has limited knowledge and interest in it because they do not see the relevance universal design has for them. Building owners do not see it as something that can increase their property value. Manufacturers do not see how it can improve competitiveness of their products. Yet there are good examples of the value of universal design for all stakeholders.

EDITOR: This article caused me to reflect back to my days at IBM when I first came across the term Universal Design at a disability conference. I told the group then that they were not promoting it correctly and that they should emphasize the larger profit potential of designing products for everyone regardless of age, size or ability. Anything less is just bad design.

Those promoting Universal Design should also emphasize the convenience of walk-in showers, lever faucets and door handles, and how zero-step entryways are just as beneficial for a young couple with a stroller as a road warrior with wheeled luggage or someone with a walker or wheelchair. Designs that ignore such needs are less profitable because they become a problem when there’s a temporary disability or a disabled person tries to visit.

The same goes for website design. Designing sites to be friendly to screen readers for the blind also makes them friendly to Internet search engines, thus improving SEO ranking. My point is to NOT talk about disabilities but to talk about maximizing profit potential.

One supermarket chain in Europe saw revenues increase dramatically after they introduced universal design features into their stores to support older shoppers. The success of products like the iPhone, which improves access and usability to smartphones for people who are not that technologically savvy, and the OXO Good Grips kitchen utensils, which have oversized handles that are easier to grip, demonstrate that easy to use products are popular and improve the bottom line for producers. But most people do not realize that these products are examples of universal design.

To increase adoption of universal design, the concept has to be clarified and promoted, so people know it when they see it and use it for making decisions – be they decisions about what product to buy or what features to include in a new product. In addition, the original focus on design for usability needs to be expanded to include attention to social inclusion, health and wellness, and differences in context; three goals that will make it relevant to the broadest population.

There are two definitions of universal design:

“The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (Mace, 1985)

“….design for human diversity, social inclusion, and equality.” (Design for All Europe, 2008)

As in the older definition above, the concept of universal design was originally focused on usability. Today, as expressed in the second definition, the emphasis has expanded to social inclusion in response to the increasing diversity of societies and the expansion of human rights movements. The first, and most widely used, definition reflects its roots in the disability rights movement. The second is more relevant to all citizens without ignoring people with disabilities.

The public and design professionals want to know what universal design means in practical terms – what they need to do to achieve it. The Principles of Universal Design (Connell et al., 1997; Story, 1998) sought to address that need:

  • Equitable Use
  • Flexibility in Use
  • Simple and Intuitive Use
  • Perceptible Information
  • Tolerance for Error
  • Low Physical Effort
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use

These principles have proven to be valuable for clarifying universal design for early adopters, but not as useful for expanding adoption to the broader professional community and the public.

Expanding Adoption

Putting more emphasis on social integration goals in the practice of universal design can help make its practice more relevant, especially to ethnic minorities, women, low-income populations, the LGBTQ community and other groups who often experience discrimination by design.

There is a growing awareness of the connection between environmental design and health. Everyone puts a high value on health. Yet health outcomes are generally neglected in current conceptions of universal design. It could have a greater emphasis on prevention of disability and wellness promotion. By emphasizing health and wellness, its relevance to the entire population will become more obvious and its social value will be increased.

The Principles of Universal Design and the leading definitions are strikingly silent about contextual differences. There are many sources of such differences, for example, topography, economic development levels, cultural norms and local values. Increasingly, high value is placed on preserving cultural resources like historic buildings and natural resources. Attempts to enhance accessibility, however, often conflict with these two goals. Universal design needs to address this conflict to overcome perceptions that it gets in the way of reaching other important design goals.

An important barrier to adoption of universal design in middle and low-income countries is the perception that it is idealistic, expensive or an imposition of Western values. It is unrealistic to assume that the same design strategies can be used everywhere. In some places, achieving the level of accessibility required by Western norms is unrealistic and counterproductive. Thus, it is important that universal design strategies address the economic context in which they will be implemented.

Service design is a new perspective in the field of design that views business policies, practices and activities as an important realm for design intervention. Many products are only part of a larger service delivery system. For example, today, a website is just as important a resource for retailers as a physical store, and the physical design of a bus is only one aspect of transit service.

Ultimately, improving service quality is the foremost goal of organizations purveying services, and for manufacturers, improving product quality should be the goal of development activities. With this perspective, universal design can be viewed as a process of continual improvement. What might be considered a good solution today may not be tomorrow due to social or technological changes or the discovery of new knowledge.
Click on book image, Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments, to learn more at

Moving Forward

My colleagues and I believe that increased adoption of universal design can be achieved by expanding the emphasis on social participation, incorporating a health and wellness focus, recognizing the role of context and conceptualizing universal design as a process rather than a set of rules. To accomplish this, we propose the following definition of universal design:

“A process that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness and social participation.”

To accompany the new definition, we developed eight Goals of Universal Design. Each one embodies a clear outcome. The examples span many domains of design practice. A more detailed version of these goals, with examples of each, can be obtained in our recent book, Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments (Wiley & Sons, Inc.).

Goal 1: Body Fit – Accommodating a wide a range of body sizes and abilities

Goal 2: Comfort – Keeping demands within desirable limits of body function

Goal 3: Awareness – Ensuring that critical information for use is easily perceived

Goal 4: Understanding – Making methods of operation and use intuitive, clear and unambiguous

Goal 5: Wellness – Contributing to health promotion, avoidance of disease and prevention of injury

Goal 6: Social Integration – Treating all groups with dignity and respect

Goal 7: Personalization – Incorporating opportunities for choice and the expression of individual preferences

Goal 8: Cultural Appropriateness – Respecting and reinforcing cultural values and the social and environmental context of any design project

Universal design is not just about technical details. It involves a process that starts with policy, moves on to project conception, is implemented through design process, realized in design and construction and continued through management and business practices. Above all, it must have benefits that will be valued by everyone. To advance adoption of universal design, we need to make those benefits broader and more understandable.

About the Author

Edward Steinfeld, ArchD, AIA is a registered architect with special interests in universal design, accessibility and design for the lifespan. He is internationally known for his research and has travelled widely to lecture in many countries. He received a Bachelor’s of Architecture from Carnegie Mellon University and a Master’s and Doctorate of Architecture from the University of Michigan. At The State University of New York at Buffalo (UB), he is a professor of architecture and director of the IDeA Center. Dr. Steinfeld has directed more than 30 sponsored research projects, including co-directing a national center of excellence on universal design and the built environment and another on accessible public transportation. He has more than 100 publications and three patents. Many of his publications are considered key references in the fields of accessible and universal design. He is a co-author of the seven Principles of Universal Design and the primary author of Inclusive Housing: A Pattern Book, and Universal Design: Creating an Inclusive Environment.  

In 2003, Dr. Steinfeld received a Distinguished Professor Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. He has also received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA) and Progressive Architecture. In 2010, he was awarded the University at Buffalo’s second annual Presidential Award for Faculty Excellence. In 2012, he was awarded the rank of Distinguished SUNY Professor, the highest rank for faculty in the SUNY system. He is a frequent consultant to federal and state agencies, building owners and attorneys, and has experience in architectural practice. Dr. Steinfeld is a member of Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), The American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and theRehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA).