Universal Design

Gallery of faces
Image source: Pixabay; CC

In principle, Universal Design (UD) and User Centred Design (UCD) are in effect, simply good design.

They make environments and products more useable by more people. A fact that means they make practical business sense apart from anything else for example see these case studies from the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (“What is Universal Design | Centre for Excellence in Universal Design”).

This is becoming increasingly recognised across design disciplines, including within the built environment, smart homes and cities, the world wide web, the internet of things, product and service innovation, programming and events.

Trends of an ageing population have perhaps helped to cast a light on and bring into sharp focus the fallacy of a simplistic abled-disabled dichotomy. Not only do we have a wide spectrum of diverse abilities across our population, but each of us will experience a range of capabilities and disabilities at different times throughout our lives.

The focus on user and usability is very current and universal design, as a term and concept, has played an important role in challenging assumptions and understandings of what is ‘typical’ or ‘normal’.  There is a much wider understanding of and broader acceptance that ‘accessibility’ should not be an after-thought, an add-on or an adapted version.

Yet, whilst UCD is all the rage in tech, start-up and innovation lingo, to what extent does or can the design process undertake rigorous accessibility audits? In practice UD often remains at the marginal space afforded to discourse on disability as a whole, a discourse which continues to have to strive to break free from negating narratives of less and loss.

YouTube: Robyn Lambird, 2016 (CC)

In truth, making things accessible, is often not a user-friendly process or experience for designers and makers. The development of various guidelines and supports begins to address this (links below) and George H.Williams here provides further practical direction for actions that would ensure the technical environment can better facilitate good universal design choices. (Williams, 2012)

Proponents of UD recognise that, in practical terms, no one design can meet every need. This is in part because of the complex range of diverse needs for diverse disabilities. Which brings us to the problematic of the term Universal Design, and some of its drawbacks as discussed by Heather V. Hill here. Hill suggests that the emphasis should be on including people with disabilities in user testing. (Hill, 2017) Having worked with the CEUD on the development of universal design guidelines for homes (“Universal Design Guidelines for Homes in Ireland | Centre for Excellence in Universal Design”), I have first-hand experience of what such user engagement involves in practice. Leaving aside the time and resources needed to engage users from across a comprehensive breadth of mental, physical or sensory (dis)abilities, which may be cost prohibitive, the reality is that they often have conflicting requirements.

In the spirit of the type of #TransformDH proposed by Lothian and Philips – who challenge us to consider ‘Can Digital Humanities Mean Transformative Critique?’ (Lothian and Phillips, 2013) – I’d like to suggest there is an opportunity to further push the boundaries of universal design.

I’d like to re-describe it as transversal design. Design processes that are less about a uni-versal narrative, a single world view, rhetoric, orientation or one size fits all. Rather it is a design process that inspires us to find points of intersection of shared usability and experiences in a multi-lingual, multi-verse of communication.  In so doing it becomes trans-versal, informing solutions that function effectively for multiple users, in multiple ways. As Michael Nesmith describes it in his Ted Talk below, this is the genius of universal design.

 Michael Nesmith; TEDx Talks, 2016


Some useful Guidelines for UD in digital humanities:

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 

WordPress Support – Accessibility

Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, Ireland



Accessibility « WordPress Codex [WWW Document], n.d. URL https://codex.wordpress.org/Accessibility (accessed 12.8.17).

Hill, H.V., 2017. Information Experience Design @ Pratt Institute. Universal Design: An Accessibility Solution for Digital Humanities?

How to Meet WCAG 2.0 [WWW Document], n.d. URL https://www.w3.org/WAI/WCAG20/quickref/ (accessed 12.8.17).

Lothian, A., Phillips, A., 2013. Can Digital Humanities Mean Transformative Critique? Journal of E-Media Studies 3.

Robyn Lambird, 2016. Every time I step outside – Disability Spoken Word [CC]. YouTube.

Technology / ICT | Centre for Excellence in Universal Design [WWW Document], n.d. URL http://universaldesign.ie/Technology-ICT/ (accessed 12.8.17).

TEDx Talks, 2016. Why We Need Universal Design | Michael Nesmith | TEDxBoulder.

Universal Design Guidelines for Homes in Ireland | Centre for Excellence in Universal Design [WWW Document], n.d. URL http://universaldesign.ie/Built-Environment/Housing/ (accessed 12.8.17).

What is Universal Design | Centre for Excellence in Universal Design [WWW Document], n.d. URL http://universaldesign.ie/What-is-Universal-Design/ (accessed 12.8.17).

Williams, G.H., 2012. Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities, in: Debates in the Digital Humanities.