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  • Writer's pictureVicki O'Neill

Universal Design

Updated: Feb 1, 2018

Universal design is what happens when you take accessible design and push it further. It is making things "easier to use, healthier and friendlier"- Steinfeld and Maisel (2012)

Its a large topic that cannot possibly be covered in one blog post. I invite anyone to add anything I may have missed in the comment section.

In Canada the average height is 5'-9" tall for males and 5'-4" tall according to wikipedia, So if your outside that height range, products, spaces, etc. may not have been designed with you in mind.

Universal design is accommodating to....

those not of average height or weight

those who are pregnant

those carrying a child in a stroller or carrier

those with reduced mobility

those with visual impairments

those with strength impairments

those with breathing impairments

those who may tire easily

those using a walking aid (cane, walker, wheelchair, etc.)


etc. etc. etc.

& ensuring

information is easily perceived

information is understandable to all and clear

overall wellness considered

quality of life is considered

social integration is considered

the environment is considered

cultural appropriateness is considered

is it friendly and safe for all types of transportation (walking, biking, cars, etc.)

etc. etc. etc.

It is a topic covered by my accredited interior design school education, something I've incorporated into past projects. And back in June of last year - I got an update though a CEU (continuing education unit) by Dr. Jordana Maise from the University of Buffalo.

Side note about interior designers - A designers education is never complete, we have to gain continuing education credits though out our career to keep our membership with Interior designers of Canada (and Newfoundland and Labrador) in good standing. Plus we have to keep ontop of trends, new products, construction methods, materials, etc. Part of why I love my job and part of why I get so frustrated when people think we just pick paint colors or textiles. Behind most choices/selections there is a reason that runs deeper than "it looks pretty". Don't get my wrong, I love making things pretty - "its a good thing" - Martha Stewart aka queen quote. But I also love function and planning.

Side, side note - In high school I had a science fair project titled - "Hemp - its a good thing" because of my love of Martha and the environment. Today she hosts a TV show with Snoop Dogg, a well known fan of hemp's cousin, worlds colliding, hahaha. Also, hemp and its cousin mostly just have looks and names in common. You would have to smoke a joint the size of a telephone pole (and likely pass out because who could do that!?!) before you could get high off hemp. Its a great product that has a smaller ecological footprint than cotton, it requires less water, land and creates stronger textiles, rope, etc. The word canvas is derived from the word "cannabis" and the seeds are high in omega 3's.

Back to Universal design - it is about inclusion, not isolation.

So where adding a wheelchair lift to a set of stairs maybe accessible, a more universal design choice would be incorporating a ramp into the stair design that fits the location and does not look like an add on or afterthought. See image below, the ramps are incorporated with seating areas and color added to enhance the design. The color is doing double duty here, it adds visual interest and also highlights a slope or step. Notice how the ramps and stair edges are all red? And adding the seating allows anyone who tires easily to take a break and not impede on the path of travel, and anyone who just wants to sit down and enjoy the view or lunch can use the seating as well.

Photo credit: Copyright © SG Enable -

Anyone can use the ramp as a stair alternative, even if they don't NEED to. It does not draw attention to the user. With a stair lift you maybe have to flip it down, find an employee that can operate it, stop use of the stairs until its complete. It sometimes creates a "show" out of the task of getting up the next level and brings unwanted and unnecessary attention to the person unable to use the stairs. It can be discouraging for those needing to take advantage of it. And many that could benefit from it - someone with a stroller, someone who has difficulty climbing stairs (but is not necessarily disabled) may not take advantage of a lift but would use a ramp. Another option is having a beautiful set of stairs and an equally lovely elevator. Not all spaces have space for a ramp, with proper slope they eat up floorspace pretty quick. That is why its always best to plan before a build, work things out on paper before moving to the construction phase, decide which option best suits your needs, space, environment, etc. and plan for it so it fits the location.

Another example of good universal design would be signs with images, braille, audio options, color, shapes, floor markers, texture, etc. When a sign uses images vs text it can reach a broader audience. Images are multilingual and clear to all, that is why so many video games have readable text and voice overs vs characters lips moving to one language. They create one image for all countries/languages and overlay the the text for each language after.

See link below for a great example of signage/wayfinding. It does not hit on all universal design points, but its incredibly well designed and clear. Notice the image with the plans, they planed everything so any point in the corridor where a decision in direction has to be made, there is a sign.

Another side note - If you want people to find you, you have to make it easy on them! One of my biggest complaints since moving back to Corner Brook is the lack of signage. Just this week we went to check out an art exhibit, the room number was listed online and on the ONE print out we found at the site, but the room itself was not numbered, there was no sign on the door, etc. If it was not for the help of a random stranger, we would have left without finding it. I could tell multiple antidotes about similar issues around town. But this post is already too long, haha.

Back to wayfinding, signs and universal design

People don’t always connect design and things like wayfinding. But it's always better when the wayfinding is well designed, it becomes functional art and is cohesive with the rest of the space. As designers we plan spaces, path of travel. We are already thinking about how people are moving through the space, the views, etc. so we are good professionals to consult when you're laying out and designing your signage. These are the types of projects I love taking on, anyone who has ever gotten lost with me probably noticed my complaints (there should be a sign here, this sign is unclear, this sign is too small, etc.). I have some graphic design skills (I designed my own webpage, business cards, logo, etc.), but also work well as part of a team with graphic designers, signmakers, installers etc. Teamwork and collaboration are at the heart of any impressive project.

Color choices should also be considered with universal design, some colors have different meanings to different cultures. I found the page below with a quick google search, if color symbolism is a high priority I would advise further research, but the list is clear and I love bullet points.

The goal with universal design is to make everyone feel welcome, equal and comfortable. Solutions should blend into the location, design and architecture.

Its something to consider before starting a project because its much easier and less costly to plan than retrofit. But retrofits are possible and worth the investment. Its not always possible to be 100% universal (it can be time consuming and costly), but trying to hit as many points as you can is worth the effort.

"The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones" - Chinese Proverb

For commercial It increases a businesses competitiveness, reduces operating costs (less falls, renovation, etc.) and increases productivity. Plus the social capital of goodwill to the community.

For residential it allows for intergenerational habitation, and accessibility without obvious accommodation for disabilities or non average human dimension.

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