Understanding Universal Design

Universal Design circa 1986

Originally, Universal Design (UD) was a movement to help those with disabilities in the 1970’s. I was introduced to it in the 1980’s by working with architects and my belief system at the time was that it was a product based movement that allowed physically challenged people to have access to public buildings.

I did not have a formal education on the subject matter and I thought that lever handles and grab bars solved all problems. I felt that these products I was specifying with the architectural community were forced and that they were a necessary evil to meet local accessible building codes requirements.

Purchases were based on lowest possible price, so the industrial design community turned out products that were bland and utilitarian.

Design for All in 2017

Today, Universal Design (UD) encompasses all people of any capability, allowing them access to everything. It comes in the form of architecture, product design, technology, transportation, signage, etc. Here is the catch; design and product solutions should be invisible, not apparent.Also, the end result should be considered a better way to solve a problem.The Europeans call it Design for All. It’s a European way of life that offers freedom to all and makes life easier and smarter.In the beginning, Universal Design was essentially saying, “We change buildings.” Today, Design for All says, “We build great cities.”

Architecture and Construction

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) changed how buildings were designed by modifying code requirements. Originally buildings were forced to comply by retrofitting ramps, lifts, and utilizing extra wide entrances. These entrances were often inconveniently located. The retrofits were obvious and in most cases not architecturally appealing. Architects and Designers were the driving force of the new era in Universal Design. If you visit buildings, stores, arenas, and parks today that were designed with Universal Design from the planning stage; you will find that things just flow better and work intuitively. You don’t even know it’s there…


Product Design

This is where the fun is really starting and the most influence has come from the European community. HEWI (Colored lever handles, grab bars, handrails, and every accessory imaginable) was the first company to invent design oriented UD / ADA products solutions that were fun, exciting, and worked. Architects specified the product because it enhanced the design of the building and it really made projects stand out to the consumer. The consumer loved the aesthetic but people never knew it was ADA / UD.


The influence that technology has had on Universal Design is inconceivable; communication at every level is available to all. Did you ever try getting a wheelchair into a phone booth? It’s an antiquated analogy, but drives the point home. Smartphones and computers have changed how all people live. Online shopping, food delivery, information, and news are now easily accessible.


I enjoy getting a taxi in New York City. If I had a serious disability and was stuck in the wrong place or caught in inclement weather, it would prove to be difficult. Uber and other new services changed that and made transportation UD in a sense. It’s easier than ever to get a ride. Buses now have hydraulic lifts that lower the entrance to the ground. A percentage of traditional taxis have specialized equipment to accommodate wheelchairs. There is a flourishing network of transportation systems designed for needs based customers.


Signage today is international. There are global picture symbols, braille signs, and color coded legends. Want to find the airport in Shanghai? There is a symbol. How about a bathroom after you arrive at the airport? There is a symbol for that also. We take signage for granted, but we utilize it every day; at the hospital, the mall, in the car, at a campus, at work. Signage leads us from one place to the next.