Universal Design is a revolutionary approach to designing products, media and spaces. Unlike the Design for Disability approach, where the focus is on making a limited range of products more accessible to people with a limited range of abilities, Universal Design endeavours to take the abilities of all likely users into account from the very beginning of the design process, allowing for more flexible (and “universal”) products.

In Ireland, Universal Design is defined by the 2005 Disability Act as:

1.the design and composition of an environment so that it may be accessed, understood and used

  • 1.to the greatest possible extent,
  • 2.in the most independent and natural manner possible,
  • 3.in the widest possible range of situations, and
  • 4.without the need for adaptation, modification, assistive devices or specialised solutions, by any persons of any age or size or having any particular physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual ability or disability,
Jar opener from the OXO Googdrips range

Jar opener from the OXO Googdrips range

and 2.means, in relation to electronic systems, any electronics-based process of creating products, services or systems so that they may be used by any person.

A testament to the commercial relevance of this design philosophy is the OXO Goodgrips series, whose universally designed home implements are popular by dint of being usable by people of all ages and abilities.

Some interesting Universal Design Resources:

  • Centre for Excellence in Universal Design – Based in Dublin, Ireland and one of the first centres of its kind. The CEUD aims to create awareness of Universal Design issues, as well as canvassing for appropriate design standards and improved levels of professional development and education. http://www.universaldesign.ie/
  • See it Right – A series of clear print guidelines developed by the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) in the UK, allowing for more universally accessible printed media. http://www.rnib.org.uk/xpedio/groups/public/documents/publicwebsite/public_printdesign.hcsp
  • Inclusive Design Toolkit – a very useful tool developed by the Cambridge Engineering Design Centre in order to help designers to consider other levels of ability and modes of perception. http://www.inclusivedesigntoolkit.com/

All of the above is undoubtedly progressive and admirable – it is a set of design tools and attitudes which every “forward-thinking” designer should incorporate in their day to day decisions and considerations.

The question now, is whether not progressive thinking like this will ever really make its way into the design process of traditional designers. Does anyone without a specific concern (brief) or a personal interest, really give a toss about socially responsible design? How should issues like universal accessibility and sustainable product development be integrated into the education and the everyday lives of designers?

One item to examine is the way in which these issues are being broached in third-level education, i.e. how they are being integrated in the development of the research and design skills of burgeoning architects, product and visual communication designers. Are these a slap-dash addendum to traditional projects, simply added to fill a quota of “must have” hot topics in design? Or are they already part of a process of design-thinking within each project? Sadly, both mine and many other design education experiences seem to have tended towards the former, with personal preferences and interests tipping the scales in favour of a Design for All approach. I would be very interested to have anyone else’s input on positive socially responsible design education tactics, or on proposals for same.