Why more designers should adopt the Universal Design Approach

Disclaimer: This essay is not representative of all the positive and negative effects of UD and is purely my opinion on why designers should make more effort to adopt the UD approach. Submitted in 2021 for partial Fulfilment of the Bachelor of Arts in Product Design at Lasalle.


Denise Wang


I. Introduction

II. Increasing demand for accessible environments and products.

III. Incorporating universal features into products brings a new standard of accessibility and efficiency to the mass market.

IV. Universal Design enables people with disabilities to regain social and physical Independence.

V. The intended audience should not be lost in the effort to become universal.

VI. Conclusion


“Good design enables, bad design disables.” - Paul Hogan

Fig 1. “Enhancing Society through Accessibility, Inclusive Design and Universal Design.” An Accessible Guide to Inclusive Design., UX Collective, 26 Oct. 2020, uxdesign.cc/an-accessible-guide-to-inclusive-design-chapter-2-a1cc8c6fa4b4.

The world and its population is inherently dependent on design, from the places we inhabit to the products and services we use in our day to day lives. Beginning in the 1990s, Universal Design is a paradigm that encourages the design of products and environments to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, with its ultimate goal being the social integration of all people. (Payne 2016). The root of Universal design came about through the implementation of Inclusive design and Designing for Disability. Forefathers of this movement include Henry Dreyfuss, Victor Papanek and Ronald Mace, with the latter formally coining the term ‘Universal Design’ in the twentieth century. The two concepts are intertwined, with designing for disability being seen as an integral part of designing for everyone. (Polma, 2016, p372). The approach serves as a revision to the traditional design practice in which much of the environment and many products were designed to the specifications of an “average male” in the prime of life. Thus, while Universal design aims to integrate the two, the concept acknowledges that there are individuals who will still need specialised accommodations. ( Payne, 2016, p362 )

With each individual having different needs and abilities, not everyone shares the same experience. Thus, designers play an important role in considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, to create products, services and environments that meet the needs of all who wish to use it. (Fig1) With the rising aging populations and social movements that demand for more accessible environments and products, there is an increasing demand for universal products and services that can cater to all types of demographics. Such designs can bring about a new standard of accessibility and efficiency to the mass market, and also improve the lives of those with disabilities by giving them physical independence to do things they previously may have been unable to do. However, designers must acknowledge that the intended audience should not be lost in the effort to become universal.

II. Increasing demand for accessible environments and products.

Fig2: “Projected Old Age Dependency Ratio across the World.” World Population Ageing 2019 Highlights, United Nations, 2019, pp. 12, www.un.org/en/ development/desa/population/publications/pdf/ageing/ WorldPopulationAgeing2019-Highlights.pdf.

Firstly, there is a growing need for accessible designs and architecture due to the world's aging population, coupled with the growing social movements advocating the right to designs that cater towards disabilities. According to the World Population Prospects by the United Nations in 2019, the world population is getting older. It is speculated that by 2050, 1 in 6 people in the world would be 65, a large increase from the 1 in 11 people as of 2019 (United Nations, 2019). From the graph, we can see that there is a rising ratio of those above 65 across the world (Fig2). With the increasing number of people reaching retirement age and the ailments that come along with aging, there is a growing market for more supportive and age-friendly environments. ( Payne, 2016 ) Paired with the increase in social movements that seek to make mainstream design accessible to everyone regardless of age, size, ability or disability, Universal Design has become regarded as the first step towards creating a more inclusive society. (Pullin, 2009, p2 ).

Fig3: Wee, Desmond. “Improving Accessibility.” Paving the Way for More Inclusive Buildings, The Straits Times, Singapore, 28 July 2016, www.straitstimes.com/singapore/paving-the-way-for-more-inclusive-buildings.

One country where there is a surge in demand for universal design is Singapore. In accordance to a 2006 report presented by the Inter-Ministerial Committee on the demographics of those greater than age 65 in Singapore, one in five Singapore residents will be greater than 65 years old by 2030 (Hong, 2013). In order to promote an accessible built environment, the Building and Construction Authority of Singapore has launched the Accessibility Fund that provides capital incentives to help owners of pre-1990 non-barrier-free accessible buildings improve their buildings’ accessibility (BCA). Additionally, for new buildings, the Code on Accessibility in the Built Environment is periodically updated to reflect the needs of users in the built environment. The Code stipulates minimum accessibility requirements for new developments, or when building developments undergo additions and alteration changes.

This initiative is not unique to Singapore, with other countries around the world such as Japan, Hong Kong, and the United states adopting the approach as well (Hong, 2013). Proving that many countries and their governments are noticing the importance of creating inclusive spaces and recognising that a change needs to be made. As designers, it is our responsibility to design for what the world wants and needs and to constantly improve what is already available. By adopting this approach when taking on new projects, specialists in the design community, such as architects, engineers, graphic, interior, and product designers are tasked to come up with new ways to address the concerns of today and the future, providing adaptations and modifications of existing environments and products that fail to embrace all people as equal. In the future, any setting or item that segregates individuals due to their capacity and ability should be eradicated to provide an inclusive living environment for all. (Moore, 2016)

III. Incorporating universal features into products brings a new standard of accessibility and efficiency to the mass market.

The universal design approach allows designs that cater towards disabilities to become the standard by catering to them without segregation. Oftentimes, it is up to the individual with the disability to arrange and search for ways to accommodate themselves, a process which can be stigmatising and expensive. (Pillarsky, Rath, 2013) When designers integrate universal features into their products, it provides a baseline of accessibility for a person with impairment whilst still providing a better and more efficient outcome for all. This is important as people who are less abled no longer need to search for specific products that cater to them, but rather, are able to choose from what is already available to the mass consumer. By doing so, it de-stigmatises the concept that those with disabilities are unable to use products catered towards the mass consumer.

Fig 4. Wilson, Mark. “Oxo Good Grips Line.” The Untold Story of the Vegetable Peeler That Changed the World, Fast Company, 24 Sept. 2018, www.fastcompany.com/90239156/the-untold-story-of-the-vegetable-peeler-that-changedthe-world.

Fig5: Baer, Drake. “OXO Good Grips Peeler Handle Design Process.” How a Top Houseware Brand Reinvents Perfectly Designed Kitchen Gadgets, Business Insider, 4 Mar. 2016, www.businessinsider.com/how-oxo-reinvents-everyday-objects- 2016-2#the-vegetable-peeler-goes-back-to-oxos-founding-in-1990-4.

One example of a design that normalised accessibility is the OXO Good Grips line (Fig4). Founded by Sam Farber in 1990, it all started when he had difficulty searching for kitchen utensils that his arthritic wife would find easier to hold and use. For those with arthritis, the simple household chore of preparing a meal with ordinary kitchen tools can become almost impossible as arthritis limits grip, grasp, and necessary strength. As such, he created a peeler with a thick rubbery non-slip handle with tension points (Fig5), allowing the user to squeeze the handle intuitively to impart more pressure, making items easier to peel. From there, he expanded into a line of food preparation tools made for ease of use, which were informed by an intensive study of form and function for a full range of users managing a myriad of health conditions. This consideration for all types of abilities resulted in an aesthetically pleasing yet highly utilitarian range of food preparation tools. Sam highlighted the need to market this innovative utensil not only for special needs customers, but for high-end consumers and the general population of food lovers looking for innovative kitchen utensils so that everyone and anyone could access these products. (Moore, 2016, p44)

From this, we can see that the Good Grips gadgets were able to become a market success as the designs emphasised on consumer comfort and usability. Whilst the design started out as a means to combat the issue of arthritis, through the process, it developed to encompass a wider range of abilities and disabilities. The end result addresses the unique functional concerns of each user as equal to any other, making it a true universal response. It allowed users with all forms and ranges of disabilities to use their products, making basic tasks possible for those with disabilities, and making basic tasks easier for those without. By adopting the same inclusive approach of Universal Design, designers will be able to revolutionise the industry by creating products that avoid any stigmatising references. Resulting in the production of relevant and efficient designs that are both economical and human-centred.

IV. Universal Design enables people with disabilities to regain social and physical Independence.

By adopting the Universal design approach, designers have the ability to help people with disabilities regain their autonomy and physical independence. Traditionally, the course of design and development had the subtle implication that consumers were to be classified into two categories. The first, being the “normal” individuals; those without any disabilities, and the “special” populations; people who require extra assistance such as the elderly and those with disabilities. This segregation often isolates people according to their age and physical and mental capacities. Resulting in the creation of environments and the products that impose a range of hindrances for people who were viewed as too old or unable. (Moore, 2016, p40) The world we live in is mostly designed for the former, with standardization and mass-production reducing the design possibilities for non-typical bodies. (Guffey, Williamson, 2020, p1) In many cases, the structures and products of modern design creates barriers by preventing disabled bodies from moving through space and society.

Fig6: Kirby, Jane. “Toilet Sign Showing Inclusivity for the Abled, Parents with Young Children and People with Mobility Devices.” Disabled People Forced to Be 'Changed on Dirty Floors' as Most Supermarkets Don't Have Accessible Toilets, Independent, 26 Nov. 2019, www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/ disabled-people-toilet-accessible-supermarket-sainsburys-tesco-waitrose-asda-a9216906. html.

For example, the ability to use the bathroom is not something an abled person thinks about when deciding to leave the house, however, for those with mobility devices, it becomes a deciding factor that dictates their course of movement and limits the places which they can go. A study on the disabled in Norwich conducted by architect Selwyn Goldsmith showed that the lack of finding accessible public toilets was one of the main deterrents for the disabled residents to go outside, resulting in a very isolated community. Many disabled residents required significant help to even leave home, and those with wheelchairs were more concerned with being able to find accessible public toilets than whether there were ramps to provide them access to places. (Guffey, 2020, p106) From this, we can note that the lack of accessible sanitation infrastructure for those with disabilities has resulted in both a physical and social isolation of the community.

Fig7. “Facilities: Plan and Section of Wheelchair Friendly Toilet.” Universal Design Guidelines, Building and Construction Authority , 2006, www1.bca.gov.sg/ docs/default-source/universaldesign/udguide2006.pdf?sfvrsn=23624281_2.

An example of a country that has made efforts to eradicate this problem is Singapore. In the Universal Design Guidelines by the Building Construction and Authority (BCA) of Singapore, there are strict guidelines for buildings to follow, with requirements for almost every public space, such as the carpark, building entrances, lifts, staircases, escalators, information counters, toilets and more. Commercial buildings in Singapore are now required to have a toilet on every floor, and should include one unisex individual washroom for all wheelchair users. These toilets are designed with specific requirements needed (Fig7), from the size of the toilet to allow for the space needed to manoeuvre mobility devices, to having the height of the wash basins lowered, and even the type and width of the door. (BCA Singapore, 2006, p54-61) These are simple adjustments which also benefit those who are height challenged or even parents with young children. All these considerations help to make the act of using the bathroom more user friendly.

As such, we can see that the simple inclusion of an accessible bathroom can serve as a symbol of autonomy and independence for those with disabilities. When designers and architects adopt the universal design approach, it not only physically benefits the whole community by making common spaces more accessible, but also serves the function of allowing the disabled community to regain their independence. Showing how when the design community acknowledges and addresses the needs of the different types of consumers and their varying needs, the resulting product can provide the opportunity to enhance our physical and cognitive abilities, essentially allowing the users to become enabled by design. Thus, designers have the ability to reposition those from the margin into the mainstream. The product is no longer just a design, but serves as a tool for social and physical independence.

V. The intended audience should not be lost in the effort to become universal

On the contrary, even if the final design is able to cater to the many needs of a wide range of people, and effort should still be made to market the product to the specific audience it was originally intended for. Designers must take note that not all designs would benefit from being marketed as a universal design, and that it is important that the intent of their product is clear. With the universal design approach, designers are encouraged to create a product that provides equitable use for all. With that being said, one of the first steps an Industrial designer or architect should take is recognising their target audience.

Fig 8: “SWANY Walking Bag Advertisement.” 【⽇本原創】扶⽼攜幼外遊法寶! 有了它輕鬆搞定⼩孩同⾏李|SWANY Walking Bag, Youtube, 2 Dec. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs5ERK-KyDg.

Fig 9: “SWANY Promotional Website 2001. Permission Etsuo Miyoshi.” Designing the Japanese Walking Bag, Elizabeth Guffey, Japan, 2020, www.bloomsburydesignlibrary.com/encyclopedia-chapter? docid=b-9781350070462&tocid=b-9781350070462- chapter9&st=designing+the+japanese+walking+bag.

One example is the Swany Bag (Fig8), a Japanese walking bag that is designed to provide support to the user and make movement easier while being disguised as a luggage bag, functioning much like the traditional walker. It was developed by Etsuo Miyoshi who grew up disabled in Japan and had to travel around for business. (Guffey, 2020, p162) When the bag was first launched in 1995, it was marketed towards businessmen and young people rather than the disabled. Although they emphasised the bag’s general ease of handling, there was little direct information about its disabled maker, nor its primary function as an assistive device for the mobility impaired. (p164) However, in 2000 after much failure to break into the market, the company decided to shift their marketing towards the disabled community directly. With advertisements featuring Miyoshi himself (Fig9) displaying its ease of use and recounting his personal experience being disabled, the bag sales grew rapidly. Many customers attributed the Swany bag to providing them with a new sense of freedom as it allowed them to go about their daily lives unhindered by the stigmatising aesthetic of the common walking aid, a way that was previously unimaginable. (p167)

This case study highlights how many of such innovative designs that cater towards disabilities may go unnoticed by the intended market due it being marketed as a Universally helpful product. By doing so, consumers would have to be actively searching for those qualities in the product, rather than having the solution be presented as a means to help. The Swany bag highlights how whilst a design may serve many functions and can be used by all, due to the marketing, it did not reach the intended mobility impaired community. Thus it is still important to address its main intent while promoting said product. This way, the design will be able to reach the audience that would benefit from it most, which may help generate the spread towards the wider community, resulting in a more successfully integrated universal design.

VI. Conclusion

In conclusion, designers should try to adopt the universal design approach as much as possible as it has the ability to improve how all users interact with the environment, making spaces, products and services accessible for almost everyone who wishes to use it. We can deduce that Universal Design holds a strong importance to society for multiple reasons and that designers have the ability to improve our existing world. As designers, we should be aware of the increasing demand for more accessible environments and products due to the rising aging population and social movements to increase accessibility. Secondly, it is important to internalise how incorporating universal features into products can help bring a new standard of accessibility and efficiency to the mass markets, and how inclusive designs are able to help people with disabilities regain their physical and social independence to do things themselves which they previously may have been unable to accomplish. However, despite the positives of desegregating such designs, it is also crucial to understand that not all designs would benefit from being labelled as a universal design, and that the intended audience of the product should not be lost in the effort to become universal.

Thank you for reading this article. This is by no means a hard and fast rule that all designers should follow, and is purely my opinion backed with research I've done for this essay. If you have any comments on this or would like to share your own opinions, due feel free to contact me on my Linkedin and I'd love to have a healthy discussion with you.


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