Universal Design

Universal design is the concept that all designed things should be accessible to the greatest extent possible to anyone despite age, ability, or status. This shift in design thinking first caught fire in 1963 when Selwyn Goldsmith put out “Designing for the Disabled” which pioneered the barrier free school of thought which fought for those differently abled in physical regards. An example of Goldsmith’s impact in the disabled community would be the dropped curb for wheelchair accessibility.

Diagram of dropped curb
Dropped Curb

While Goldsmith set the stage for universal design Ron Mace a disabled educator, architect, and product designer graduated from North Carolina State University in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. While working professionally Mace began developing the nation’s first building code dealing with accessibility which became mandatory in North Carolina during 1973 and later came to serve as a model for other states.

Ron Mace Portrait
Ron Mace https://projects.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmace.htm

Returning to his university in 1989 Mace established the federally funded Center for Accessible Housing now known as the Center for Universal Design. Through Mace’s leadership his program became an international resource for designers looking to strengthen their craft and create truly functional designs.

Designers soon began to think further than just the physical ability of a person but also their emotional and cognitive abilities. As these schools of thought emerge designers then and now must self initiate the process of becoming aware of the issues differently abled persons face day to day solely from being overlooked in the general design process. There appears to be a large hole within the American formal education system with very few universities offering classes focusing on universal design despite the fact that roughly 13 percent of Americans live with some form of disability. Out of the few universities I found teaching universal design North Carolina State University appeared to be still leading the charge Ron Mace had started featuring principles, community projects, and outside resources but sadly they seem to have retired the center due to funding restrictions. So due to this lack of representation in formal education we as designers must look towards informal means of education such as independent workshops an example is AIGA who held multiple workshops in Washington D.C. featuring universal design challenges headed by experts of the field.

This brings me towards another school of thought regarding the design process which is human centered design which roughly states the best way to iterate and design for people is to have those people firsthand participate in the process. While their participation isn’t necessarily solving the problem, it’s giving the designer, who is often an outsider to the community that faces the problem, a direct perspective into the people who will be impacted by their design. An excellent example of bringing universal and human centered design to the problem solving process is Amos Winter’s all terrain wheelchair, Winter’s is an MIT graduate and professor specializing in mechanical and product design. Winter’s spent the summer during 2005 in Tanzania examining the state of technology and realized traditional wheelchairs are only truly effective in developed countries where we have the infrastructure to supplement the weaknesses of a wheelchair such as traversing long distances or difficult terrain. During Winter’s process he and his team first created a prototype in 2008 but it was designed solely by academics. The 2008 prototype turned out to be a total failure, it was too bulky, not maneuverable, and generally unfit for a wheelchair user. Winter and his team assessed their first attempt and saw there was no user feedback then shifted his approach toward human centered design. Taking back all the feedback the team received to MIT they created another prototype and brought it back for testing in 2009, yet again this wheelchair was too bulky and unmaneuverable but it was much better, this time people willingly sat in it. The 2009 wheelchair was exceptionally better due to the fact that people actually wanted to use it unlike the 2008 iteration which was a monstrous machine. Finally in 2010 with two iterations of direct feedback the team slimmed down the design and perfected the mechanics on their all terrain wheelchair, it was a complete success boasting a 76% increase in general speed and overall 41% more efficient in comparison to a traditional wheelchair. But the largest change was that users wanted to use this chair, unlike the 2008 prototype, finally knowing this device was firstly user friendly and secondly effective they began the manufacturing process in 2011.

Photo of Winter's Wheelchair
All Terrain Wheelchair Final Product






When speaking to Emily Sara, a differently abled designer, artist, and professor, about how to supplement the lack of knowledge within the general population of designers she stated “ Visibility”. Further exploring this idea she said having differently abled designers employed as professors by these major design programs would be a good step to not only present future designers a reminder that disability exists but to also offer that primary source when iterating and problem solving. The next bigger step would be an inclusion of universal design classes offered within design programs across the country much like how North Carolina State University had their center for universal design which included classes very similar to the ones Emily Sara hopes to see implemented. But the largest roadblock to making universal design a staple of design education is changing the mindset of accessible design from being something we are “forced” to do. Often designers feel pigeonholed into accessibility, but talking to Emily Sara it was clear this type of thinking is misinformed and frankly quite lazy. She brought up the recent lawsuits featuring many New York City museums being sued for their websites not being accessible to the blind, she stated that if making things accessible from the start for accessibilitys sake is not enough maybe the fear of fines and court costs might reverse their decision. All in all differently abled persons are not going away and the longer we force designers to seek out important processes like universal design the longer differently abled persons will have to fight to exist in a designed world made without them in mind.

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