Southwest ADA Center

Universal Design 101

What is Universal Design?

Universal Design (UD) is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.  Also known as “barrier free” or “inclusive” design, UD blends aesthetics with transparent accessibility from a user-centered perspective.

Through medical and technological advancements, people are living longer than ever.  The demand for functional, affordable products and environments that serve all generations and abilities is rapidly growing.  Universal Design allow us to safely age in our own homes and experience the outside world with less interruption, regardless of our age, ability, or status in life.

7 Principles of Universal Design: 

Defined by North Carolina State University’s Center for Universal Design.  Download the free quick reference with guidelines!

1. Equitable Use – The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

  1. Provide the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not.
  2. Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any users.
  3. Provisions for privacy, security, and safety should be equally available to all users.
  4. Make the design appealing to all users.

2. Flexibility in Use – The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

  1. Provide choice in methods of use.
  2. Accommodate right- or left-handed access and use.
  3. Facilitate the user’s accuracy and prevision
  4. Provide adaptability to the user’s pace.

3.  Simple and Intuitive Use – Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or education level.

  1. Eliminate unnecessary complexity.
  2. Be consistent with user expectations and intuition.
  3. Accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills.
  4. Arrange information consistent with its importance.
  5. Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.

4.  Perceptible information – The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

  1. Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.
  2. Provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings.
  3. Maximize “legibility” of essential information.
  4. Maximize elements in ways that be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions).
  5. Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.

5.  Tolerance for Error – The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

  1. Arrange elements to minimize hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible; hazardous elements eliminated, isolated, or shielded.
  2. Provide warnings of hazards and errors.
  3. Provide fail safe features.
  4. Discourage unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance.

6.  Low Physical Effort – The design can be used efficiently and comfortably with a minimum of fatigue.

  1. Allow user to maintain a neutral body position.
  2. Use reasonable operating forces.
  3. Minimize repetitive actions.
  4. Minimize sustained physical effort.

7.  Size and Space for Approach and Use – Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

  1. Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user.
  2. Make reach to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user.
  3. Accommodate variations in hand and grip size.
  4. Provide adequate space for the user of assistive devices or personal assistance.

ADA and UD – What’s the Difference?

The American for Disabilities Act uses guidelines and measurements to set minimum standards of accessibility for buildings and facilities.  Universal Design is a philosophy that prioritizes usability, and uses performance as criteria for success.  It’s about including all users, regardless of level of ability.

UD goes beyond accessibility standards set by ADA.  It can be distinguished by the way accessible features have been integrated into the overall design.  It encourages a transparent implementation of inclusive elements in order to maintain the integrity of the overall design, encouraging Designers and Engineers to constantly evolve their own set of universal standards.

Who Benefits from Universal Design?

UD concepts apply to anything we can build and construct, including physical access, learning strategies and tools, participation in activities, web environments, and devices and equipment.

Everybody benefits from great, thoughtful design, especially those that are typically “left out” as potential end-users during the design process.  Those people include:

  • People with learning differences
  • People with situational limitations
  • People whose first language differs from majority
  • People in new environments, new situations
  • People with disabilities

Universal Design in Housing

An excellent resource for designers, builders, and home-renovators, Universal Design in Housing breaks down the characteristics and benefits of structural and non-structural features in universal environments.

This guide is prepared by The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University

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