Learning Universal Design

What is Universal Design?

Universal Design is an approach to the design of all products and environments to be as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation.

Other terms for Universal Design used around the world include Design For All, Inclusive Design, and Barrier-Free Design. Terminology and meanings differ from one country to another and often reflect each nation's societal values. Significant cultural differences between countries have influenced how the movement has been adopted and evolved in each location but the common goal of social inclusion transcends national laws, policies, and practices.

Universal design is not a fad or a trend but an enduring design approach that originates from the belief that the broad range of human ability is ordinary, not special. Universal design accommodates people with disabilities, older people, children, and others who are non-average in a way that is not stigmatizing and benefits all users. After all, stereo equipment labels that can be read by someone with low vision are easier for everyone to read; public telephones in noisy locations that have volume controls are easier for everyone to hear; and building entrances without stairs assist equally someone who moves furniture, pushes a baby stroller, or uses a wheelchair. Designing for a broad range of users from the beginning of the process can increase usability of an environment or product without significantly increasing its cost. It results in easier use for everyone and it reduces the need for design modifications later when abilities or circumstances change.

Universal design is assuming growing importance as a new paradigm that represents a holistic and integrated approach to design ranging in scale, for example, from product design to architecture and urban design, and from simple systems such as those that control the ambient environment to complex information technologies. Worldwide, a confluence of factors is driving the demand for more universally usable products, environments, and services. These factors include the competitive and global nature of modern business, the flourishing communications technology industry, the international disability movement, and the rapidly growing aging and disabled populations all over the world.

Universal design is not a synonym or a euphemism for accessibility standards. Universal design can be distinguished from meeting accessibility standards in the way that the accessible features have been integrated into the overall design. This integration is important because it results in better design and avoids the stigmatizing quality of accessible features that have been added on late in the design process or after it is complete, as a modification.

Universal design also differs from accessibility requirements in that accessibility requirements are usually prescriptive whereas universal design is performance based. Universal design does not have standards or requirements but addresses usability issues. The Principles of Universal Design, published by the Center for Universal Design in 1997, articulate the breadth of the concept and provide guidelines for designers.

The Principles of Universal Design

The Principles of Universal Design and their guidelines were developed by a working group [1] of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers as part of a project coordinated by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. The seven Principles that describe characteristics that make designs universally usable are:
1. Equitable Use
2. Flexibility in Use
3. Simple and Intuitive Use
4. Perceptible Information
5. Tolerance for Error
6. Low Physical Effort
7. Size and Space for Approach and Use

You can view the seven Principles of Universal Design and their 29 associated guidelines by clicking on the link.
[1] Bettye Rose Connell, Mike Jones, the late Ron Mace, Jim Mueller, Abir Mullick, Elaine Ostroff, Jon Sanford, Ed Steinfeld, Molly Story, Gregg Vanderheiden. The citation for their use is "Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, 1997."


Learning about Universal Design

The pages listed below contain brief descriptions and contact information for a variety of opportunities available for studying universal design. The listings range from degree programs to short workshops; some offerings are online and others are in more traditional settings. We invite you to submit descriptions of additional learning opportunities that may be included here (see "How to Submit Materials").

  • Degree Programs Containing Universal Design Coming Soon

  • Certificate Programs in Universal Design

  • Distance Education in Universal Design

  • Mini-courses or Institutes on Universal Design

  • Continuing Education Courses in Universal Design



This is a link to a wide range of resources that support teaching and learning about universal design. Some materials are located on this web site and some link to other sites on the Internet.