What is Universal Design?

November 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

2010 theme: Technology in the City. Seminar held at the Radisson.

Ireland’s wracked by frustration at its inept government this week but after a day with the professionals of the National Disability Authority, I have more faith in the public servants than the bumbling leadership. Donal Rice and Barbara Schmidt-Belz summed it up: ‘Bad design excludes’ they say and quote Victor Papanek that ‘Good design applies to all people’.

Universal Design, or Design for Accessibility is the theme of the annual seminar at the Radisson, Dublin, which includes a 24hour Design Challenge. Julia Cassim, of the Helen Hamlyn Centre (RCA) gave an excellent quick fire overview of the area. There is a perception that designing for the disabled restricts creativity and simply involves the making of special gadgets and aids.

She counters saying that ‘Disability can be a poweful creative resource in the design innovation process’ and that ‘by understanding the extreme, you can innovate for the mainstream’. Bring down the barriers between designer and the end-user. Move from designing for an unknown User to working directly with a Creative Partner. It’s a different relationship and is what the co-design process is all about.

José Angel Martinez (Technosite) is working on a project comparing e-accessability across Europe, and Non-EU (US, Canada, Australia) states. He spoke of how the term ‘disability’ isn’t helpful and is excluding, especially in the commercial realm used to marketing terminology where ‘Needs and Preferences’ is better understood. Making ATMs more accessible under challenging sunlight, language or cognitive conditions means better units for everyone, not just typically ‘disabled’ users.

User's Point-of-View

Partnering with people of different accessibility needs, the designers sees the world through new eyes.

We’ve all grappled with trying to get money with an un-viewable screen, in a foreign language, maybe even when suffering a vicious headache or be under pressure in howling rain. La Caixa in Barcelona will be rolling out a large number of new accessible ATMs with an impressive array of features that are good for all, including a mirror to see who’s behind you, a surface to place your bag or wallet on, a basic screen and one with more information, various kinds of lights for visibility and safety. Download a presentation about it here.

Taking the bird’s eye view of the day, Universal Design is the hard headed reality of active compassion in design. It’s not a big deal, it’s simply considering everyone. It’s not a drag, it’s being practical and taking inspiration from new sources. You have to listen and you have to consider different sources of feedback. It makes commercial sense when embedded into the process. Of course, the way we work has to change, I’m only beginning to absorb this reality and can see that we will have to consider how to do that. (Another post to follow).

Distilling the ideas from the day and other speakers, here’s my take-away offering:

A Universal Design Manifesto

  1. Forget ‘disability’ and work for the ‘needs and preferences’ of everyone.
  2. Consider users at the beginning of each project. Design adaptations after the fact are expensive and marginalising.
  3. ‘Understand the extreme, innovate for the mainstream’.
  4. Collaborate: Designing for a ‘user’ is good but working personally with a ‘Creative Partner’ is best.

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