Universal Design


According to the Center for Universal Design (CUD), "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." Universal design consideration encourages engineers to design for all, creating products that are usable by the widest user base. A product that is universally designed is usable to a individuals regardless of ability, age, gender, race, and other characteristics. Teaching engineers about the principles of UD lead to a workforce that is aware of and more capable of addressing accessibility barriers.

What should engineers know about UD?

Designing any product or environment involves the consideration of many factors, including aesthetics, engineering options, environmental issues, safety concerns, and cost. Often the design is created for the "average" user. In contrast, "universal design (UD)" is, according to the Center for Universal Design (CUD), "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." Adapting the CUD definition to educational and engineering settings results in the application of UD to engineering courses, which allows both more people with disabilities to become engineers and for engineers to consider accessibility and the widest user base when creating new products and technology. By considering UD, engineering curriculum and future products become usable by all people, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. 

UD is an approach to designing the environment, products, and services that takes into consideration the variability in abilities, disabilities and other characteristics of the students and users. Rather than focus on adapting things for an individual at a later time, an accessible product is created from the beginning.

Disability is just one of many characteristics that an individual might possess. For example, one person could be five feet tall, female, forty years old, a poor reader, and deaf. All of these characteristics, including her deafness, should be considered when developing a product or service she might use.

Making facilities, information resources, and services accessible to people with disabilities often benefits others. For example, curb cuts, designed to make sidewalks and streets accessible to those using wheelchairs, are today more often used by kids on skateboards, parents with baby strollers, and delivery staff with rolling carts. When video displays in airports and restaurants are captioned, they benefit people who cannot hear the audio because of a noisy environment as well as those who are deaf and non-native speakers of English.

At the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers established seven principles of universal design to provide guidance in the design of products and environments. The principles of universal design are listed below along with an example of an application for each.

  1. Equitable Use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. For example, a website that is designed to be accessible to everyone, including individuals who are blind and using text-to-speech software, employs this principle.
  2. Flexibility in Use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. An example is a museum that allows a visitor to choose to read or listen to the description of the contents of a display case.
  3. Simple and Intuitive. Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. A navigation screen for an online registration system that is accessible to a visitor who is blind and using text-to-speech software is an example of an application of this principle.
  4. Perceptible Information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities. An example of this principle being employed is when multimedia projected in a noisy student union facility includes captioning.
  5. Tolerance for Error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. An example of a product applying this principle is a software program that provides guidance when the user makes an inappropriate selection.
  6. Low Physical Effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with minimal fatigue. For example, doors that open automatically for people with a wide variety of physical characteristics demonstrate the application of this principle.
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use. Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility. For example, an office with wide aisles and doorways that is easily transversable by an individual using a wheelchair.



Discussion Questions

  • At what stages should universal design be included in starting an engineering project?
  • How does universal design create a more marketable end product?
  • What are examples of universal design that you’ve encountered?

Project Ideas

  • What projects or activities related to this topic could be integrated into an engineering course?
  • When students design a project, ask them to consider users who are not typical – tall or short individuals, pregnant women, individuals with limited mobility, amputees, etc.