David Ringholz, MID, IDSA Assistant Professor of Industrial Design | Georgia Institute of Technology
Universal design (UD) is a complex approach requiring educators and students to challenge basic assumptions about the users’ performance envelope. In some ways, universal design is consistent with other human-centered models in that it requires students to explore and understand basic human function, but it differs significantly in other areas. The central goal of the universal design philosophy is the creation of products and environments that are appropriate and easy to use by the widest possible range of users. An important component of UD is the inclusion of users who are typically assumed to require specialized design and, as such, are separated or marginalized from mainstream users. People who experience moderate to severe functional limitations including cognitive, sensory, mobility, and dexterity impairments are included in UD’s target user description. Typical human-centered design educational content focuses on “normal” human function: information processing, reach ranges, biomechanics, and anthropometrics of statistical majorities. Little attention is given to the understanding of individuals who experience an interruption or limitation of “normal” function. These are the people who are truly in the majority, because anyone can think of a time when he or she felt tired or distracted or was injured or walked through a door with both hands full. It is in this area that universal design education is most challenging to students and educators. The realization that there is no “normal” user description requires designers and subsequently designs to be as flexible and dynamic as possible.
The UD approach has evolved from disability-centered concepts including Assistive, Adaptive, Barrier Free, and Transgenerational design. A comprehensive introduction to UD should include a description of this evolution as well as the important semantic distinctions between the approaches. A simple diagram illustrating this design continuum with design for the individual on the left-most extreme and design for all on the right extreme is a usefulstarting point for this discussion.