What is Universal Design?

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. Other terms for Universal Design used around the world include Design for All, Inclusive Design, and Barrier-Free Design. UD terminology and meanings differ from one country to another and often reflect each nation’s societal values. Cultural differences influence how the movement has been adopted in different countries. However, the common goal of social inclusion transcends national laws, policies, and practices.

Universal design is not a fad or a trend but an enduring design approach grounded in the belief that the broad range of human ability is ordinary, not special. Universal design addresses barriers faced by people with disabilities, older people, children, and other populations that are typically overlooked in the design process. UD reduces stigma and provides benefits for all users. For example, building entrances without stairs assist equally someone who moves furniture, pushes a baby stroller, or uses a wheelchair. UD can increase usability of an environment or product without considerably increasing its cost by reducing the need for design modifications later when abilities or circumstances change.

A competitive and global nature of modern business, the flourishing communications technology industry, the international disability movement, and the rapidly growing aging and disabled populations all over the world are driving the increasing demand for more universally usable products, environments, and services.

Universal design is not a synonym for accessibility standards. The UD process differs from one complying with accessibility standards by integrating accessible features throughout the overall design. This difference in process is important because integrating these features throughout results in better design. Additionally, it prevents stigmatization often associated with accessible features that have been added on late in the design process or after it is complete, as a modification. Universal design also differs from accessibility requirements in that accessibility requirements are usually prescriptive whereas universal design is performance based. Universal design does not have minimum requirements but instead addresses usability issues.

Goals of Universal Design

The IDeA Center has developed a new conceptual framework for universal design that expands the original usability focus to social participation and health, and acknowledges the role of context in developing realistic applications. Complementing the Principles of UD, the Goals of Universal Design© define the outcomes of UD practice in ways that can be measured and applied to all design domains within the constraints of existing resources. In addition, they encompass functional, social, and emotional dimensions. Moreover, each goal is supported by an interdisciplinary knowledge base (e.g., anthropometrics, biomechanics, perception, cognition, safety, health promotion, social interaction). Thus, the Goals can be used effectively as a framework for both knowledge discovery and knowledge translation for practice. Moreover, the Goals can help to tie policy embodied in disability rights laws to UD and provide a basis for improving regulatory activities by adoption of an outcomes-based approach.

© Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012

Body Fit

Accommodating a wide a range of body sizes and abilities


Keeping demands within desirable limits of body function and perception


Ensuring that critical information for use is easily perceived


Making methods of operation and use intuitive, clear and unambiguous


Contributing to health promotion, avoidance of disease and protection from hazards

Social Integration

Treating all groups with dignity and respect


Incorporating opportunities for choice and the expression of individual preferences

Cultural Appropriateness

Respecting and reinforcing cultural values, and the social and environmental contexts of any design project

If you would like to reference the Goals of Universal Design, please credit “Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012”