This article originally appears in Design for All Institute of India May 2016 (Prof Pekka Harni, Finland) Vol-11 No-5.
by PEKKA HARNI  |  Professor, Architect,  Designer,  Finland


The slow evolution of handcrafted artefacts and buildings from the Stone Age to the initial stages of industrial manufacturing has shaped many of our best objects. It was simple, ecological, practical and functional, but at the same time, it was able to spread the cultural values and express inner beauty in the most authentic manner.

Traditional buildings and artefacts in different parts of the world compliment their own surroundings, local climate, materials, and culture harmoniously. They are created from the necessity for survival and based on potentials of the available local materials. Furthermore, they are inspired by local traditions and a deeper understanding of it.

Since objects are created by man, they reflect the needs and  values of their own time. Architecture and design express personal, local and international cultural values and meanings. Instrumental needs and their continuous changes impact the forms and properties of tools. Fashion, changing values and lifestyles, as well as technologies are always looking for new forms and tools.

The historical evolution of helmets according to Basford Dean.
The historical evolution of helmets according to Basford Dean.



Since the industrial revolution which commenced in the latter part of the 1760’s, the development of technology and applied innovations leads to the use of new tools and tool systems.

Our most recent objects are often products of commercialised technological innovations and increasingly rarely developed from any real individual human needs or cultural aims. Therefore, some of our new tools no longer promote human life in any comprehensive manner but instead restrict its scope. Moreover, tools increasingly dictate our way of life and dominate our whole culture, in addition to consuming and destroying our natural resources.

Consumption has been increased by creating artificial needs, weakening the quality and durability of utility objects, making object irreparable, and by marketing short-lived novelties and bric-a-brac.

The faster circulation of goods reflects man’s  inability to gain  any clear picture of his own  needs. It is becoming increasingly difficult for people to distinguish between what they themselves want and what they are wanted to want.1

Some people may think, that all new innovations are good for human society. Unfortunately, not all of them improve the quality of life or bring human culture to a higher level.

Every new innovation threatens the balance of existing organisations.2 The result can be either good or bad or somewhere in-between. In the worst case, a new innovation which solves one problem can cause unforeseen new problems in other areas.

However, we can hardly know the consequences of inventions in advance. At worst, they will alienate us from our original experiences of the environment or become  artificial substitutes for them. Modern technology often has the basic characteristic of physically isolating people instead of connecting them.

The modern hospital environment is a typical example of this phenomenon, where fewer nurses can take care of a larger amount of patients by using modern control devices and robotics. To save money, modern technology also makes it possible to leave old people alone, while they are all remotely under control!

For most consumers, modern tools naturally give new and ever more amazing experiences, expanding human operative possibilities in many different ways.

It took a few decades before the bicycle, which was a completely new innovation, achieved its characteristic form through trial and error.
It took a few decades before the bicycle, which was a completely new innovation, achieved its characteristic form through trial and error.

At the same time, they foster inequality by leaving whole groups of people outside the new opportunities provided by means and tools. Barriers are not only physically existing. New digital technologies, for example, can create new psychological barriers and isolate some groups of people and make them outsiders.

If present-day technologies could be better applied to real human needs, and with respect for local culture, completely new opportunities would arise.



In the future, all the objects and buildings must consume less energy and material resources. We must gain more from less, minimise the use of energy and  material resources and  create the same  services more  efficiently from renewable materials with less and less pollution.

We do not necessarily need revolutions, we need considered fine tuning of existing organisations, and the raising up of the qualities of the human life. New tools and  new  tool systems must be fitted to the existing environment and to the socio-cultural context of it.

Design and architecture can also express and underline diverse minorities and their rights and create new positive ways of action. They can demonstrate indirectly through new solutions that things can be made differently in more sustainable ways. In sustainable design, for example, design can be a strategical concept instead of the materialistic outcome.

It can be utilised in the re-evaluation of organisations, ways of acting, the cultural and social dimensions of sustainability and services.



The function of an object is always related to its user and to its environment and manner of use. Its ultimate functioning properties can only be defined from  the perspective of the individual  user and  the situation of use; moreover from the very moment when a person uses a particular object in a particular setting.

Even design aimed solely at the average consumer finds it hard  to take into account the differences of people using the objects, their individual needs, limitations and habits – not to mention minorities or different cultures.

Together with their real users, individual objects and the space in which they are located form the functional entity in which all the parts are, at best, in strictly defined organic interaction with each  other. Most objects are necessary only at the moment when they are being used. At other times, they are in the way or lost, consuming valuable space around us, the empty space in which we operate. Far too often, the wrong users use their wrong choice of objects in the wrong place and in the wrong ways. Not everything is realised as it was planned in advance! The essential aspect is for people to be able to choose the right tools for their specific environment and  life situation and the intended purpose.3

There must be enough political will that supports people who are socially disadvantaged or with disabilities and the professional planners shall be employed in a correct way. Designers and architects should be sensitive to respond to the various diversities of the individual needs of different minorities in different cultures, climates and locations. It is also important to understand the essential differences of the level of requirements in private, semi-public and public spaces and areas.

Unfortunately, the formal rules and regulations are preventing us from applying creative problem-solving for individual  and  local needs to the final design solution in some cases. Therefore, the formal rules are often lowering the quality of the final result. People  with disabilities must also have the right to enjoy individually good architecture and design, and badly made inflexible rules may not spoil it.

Not being a specialist on Design for All myself, but I have the impression that some of the regulations for the barrier-free environment are not always based on any scientific or practical design research. In the worst case, the regulations are just copied from other countries without any careful adaptation to the local conditions?

Many times, dizzy old people lose their balance and fall down, hit their head and get injured, especially in a bathroom or toilet that is made for a wheelchair-access because there are no nearby walls to lean on. Why on the earth, the wheelchair turning circle diameter varies in different countries? Some countries recommend 140 cm and some others 150 cm? Is this because of the various local conditions? And why many guidelines recommend a very big and heavy door like 90 cm wide for a wheelchair access. Is this good design for all? Could it be more reasonable to divide the big door opening, for instance, in two different smaller sizes of doors, or to replace it with a sliding door?

Or should we think more  openly  to find fully new  alternative solutions instead of just basic doors and wheelchairs? Automatic doors already exist, and there are new robotic “wheelchairs” (with or without wheels) which can also go through stairs. Do we always need to apply the newest and often expensive technologies, or can we solve these problems in more simple and sustainable way? Also, very simple, economical and low-tech solutions for new  types of wheelchairs exist. Would  it be cheaper and  more  efficient to develop a better “wheelchair” than to make  all the flats in this world completely barrier-free?

It is a fine ideal that homes are designed for whole  life long.  Everybody at any age  or condition can live in the same  flat as long  as possible. However, in some European countries, very strict design rules demand that all the new apartment houses with more than three stories must be equipped with lifts. Lifts and  accessible bathrooms in every flat are making apartment houses very expensive.

In other countries in Europe, there are more  flexible strategies. In Austria for instance, apartments can be built in that way that each  flat can have a separated toilet and bathroom, however they are planned in advance to be easily combined as a barrier-free bathroom later in a short time, whenever needed, just by removing a light separating wall.

It is obvious that some of this barrier-free accessibility guidelines must be very soon updated. Instead of the unreasonably formal building regulations, professional designers and architects should be allowed to have more flexibility to apply  alternative solutions for those challenges. This could  also create new  smart flexible solutions and  conceptual models.

Design for All must be inclusive, functional, culturally long-lasting and beautiful, considering sustainable design, accessible environment, minorities, and cultural diversity.


  1. Bosquet, Michel (André Gorz), 1977. Écologie et liberté, Éditions Galilée, Paris.
  1. McLuhan, Marshall, 1964. Understanding media: The Extensions of Man 1st Ed. McGraw Hill, New York.
  1. Harni, Pekka, 2010. Object Categories: Typology of Tools. Aalto University School of Art and Design Publication, Helsinki.

see also:

Steadman, Philip, 1979. The evolution  of designs, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

About the Author


Pekka Harni is an architect MSc. and industrial designer MA., who works widely on applied art, furniture design, and architecture. He lives and works in Helsinki. Collaborating with industrial designer Yuka Takahashi since 2002 at their own studio, Harni – Takahashi Ltd. design & architecture. Pekka Harni has designed products for leading design companies, like Arabia / Fiskars, Marimekko, and Artek in Finland, Satira in Portugal etc.

He studied architecture at the University of Innsbruck, later in Vienna University of Technology in Austria and in Tampere University of Technology, Finland; as well as, industrial design in the University of Art and Design Helsinki in Finland in 1979–1985.

He has been teaching at the University of Art and Design (now Aalto University) in Helsinki since 1988. He has been a visiting lecturer in several European design universities and a leader of several design workshops in Europe and worldwide.

His study about morphological “object categories”, delves into the possibility of dividing basic home objects into seven main categories, that correspond to different functional and morphological categories of objects, has already been applied in several European design schools. This study is published by Aalto University in his book “Object Categories” in 2010.

In 1999, he received the Design Plus Award from the Ambiente Frankfurt Fair. In 2011, he was awarded as “the industrial designer of the year” by the Finnish Designers association. Since 2012, he is Artist Professor for 10 years, appointed by the Arts Council of Finland.

see also: P


Universal Design (UD) is an approach to design that increases the potential for developing a better quality of life for a wide range of individuals. It is a design process that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness, and social participation (Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012). It creates products, systems, and environments to be as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation.