What is Universal Design?Print

The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design (Mace, 1985).​

It is clear from these definitions, that Universal Design is a holistic design philosophy that aims to create environments, products, learning and education programmes and systems that can be used by as many people as possible. In other words, it makes things more accessible, safer, and convenient for everyone regardless of age and ability.

Universal Design is often used interchangeably with other terms such as accessible design, barrier-free design, design for all, inclusive design, etc. 

While not the same, Inclusive Design and Design for All are similar in terms of the philosophy of recognising the broad spectrum of human abilities. Everyone passes through infancy, childhood, periods of temporary illness, injury and old age. We can all be disabled by the urban environment when the design does not match the population’s range of needs. Universal Design has been confused with accessible design or design for the disabled. Accessible design is easily identifiable and is often utilitarian in style.  In contrast, good design incorporates universally designed features that are generally unnoticeable except for the fact they are more convenient. At the same time, Universal Design is not the one-size-fits-all approach that some designers perceive it to be. Universal design is about flexibility and offering choice, so that people can decide how to best interact with their environment.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD, 2006) refers to Universal Design and it is the most commonly used term in the Southern Hemisphere region. The World Health Organisation (2002) also recognises Universal Design as being critical to resolving the disconnect between design and the range of human function among end users. For these reasons, the Auckland Design Manual has also adopted the term Universal Design.

Although Universal Design is applicable to a variety of design situations, the Auckland Design Manual will focus on the built environment.  We refer to the built environment in its broadest context including transport, streetscapes, parks and outdoor facilities, way finding/signage as well as public, private and residential buildings.

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