Design for Everyone? by Ellie Baek
Intrigued by the previous article by Dionne written about non-inclusive UI/UX designs, I would like to take the topic to the opposite direction and talk about universal design.
The following is the definition of Universal Design by the National Disability Authority (ADA).
“Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of gender, age, disability, or language.” (ADA, 2014; Reference provided below) The design has an element of timelessness, so it does not change much with the latest trend and remains familiar to older generations. Thanks to its ability to speak clearly to a broad audience group, many projects or services targeting the general public adopt the universal design.
In 1963, an American Architect, Ronald L. Marce, first coined the term “Universal Design” to express his philosophy in design: “design for all ages and abilities.”
Contracting polio at the age of nine, Marce suffered from debilitating spinal paralysis since the childhood that bound him to a wheelchair. His physical disability prevented him from independently performing “simple” daily tasks, such as climbing staircases. I would imagine, therefore, his philosophy in design must have meant very personal to him.
Graduating with design major, he began his career as an architect. In 1973, he participated in drafting North Carolina’s legislation regarding building accessibility. He also played a pivotal role in legislating the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 and the Architectural Guidelines for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).
It would not be an overstatement to conclude that his contribution has significantly empowered the disabled around the globes.
In 1997, Mace and his colleagues developed the Seven Principles of Universal Design listed below at the Center for Universal Design in the North Carolina State University.
Principle 1: Equitable Use
Principle 2: Flexibility in Use
Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive
Principle 4: Perceptible Information
Principle 5: Tolerance for Error
Principle 6: Low Physical Effort
Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use
Application of the principles is well-demonstrated in the following examples:
- Traditionally, the door handle was shaped like a knob. People with weak grip find it difficult to use. Many handles are now in lever-shape.
- Installing curb cuts or sidewalk ramps to aid people in wheelchairs.
- Installing special roadblocks to signal blind people directions
If you come to think about it, universal design has become so integrated into our daily routines that they are often hard to notice.
Coming back to Dionne’s article, I have come to think about Kiosk under a new light.
As the article says, kiosks do have their advantages, such as providing “easy” transaction routines and reducing operating cost. However, it is not so easy for people of short heights or disabilities, or the elderlies. This non-inclusive accessibility unwittingly creates social segregation.
Public institutions aside, application of universal design is not a legal obligation. For private parties, it is within their discretion whether to apply universal design and if they do, to what degree. However, it warrants us to question that should we, as a society, pursue convenience/profits at the cost of excluding fellow members. For instance, some may think that those special blocks for the blind are very much lego-like and ugly. However, installing those “ugly” roadblocks is closely related to the safety of the blind and their independence. It is a question worth mulling over: are we deafened by the loud clamors from chasing efficiency and monetary incentives? Or are we mindful enough to design our surroundings in a manner that protects the weak and upholds their right?
In modern days, it often is not a-la-mode to consider gender, age, disability, and language as a limiting factor in exploring/expressing one’s true ability and potential. Media praise those overcomers, sending the rest of us a message: do not be defined; be the definition. Ironically, the fact that us viewing these people as “overcomers” is the very evidence of those factors being hindrances, and products and services with the non-inclusive design are among the hindrances.
The modern design resembles closer to applied art than it does to pure art; it aims to improve our day-to-day routines by enhancing the functionality of a given subject. As it heavily influences the user’s life quality, we cannot exclude the issue of “equality” when discussing the modern design. If a design segregates people based on gender, age, disability, and language and inadvertently places them at a disadvantage, the design should go back to the drawing board.
Late Stan Lee said in Spider-Man series, “great power comes with great responsibility.” The design has great power to either service or disservice individuals and ultimately shape our society. I would love to see our society embrace this great power responsibly and make universal design a norm. Remember, universal design is neither difficult nor new. Keep the original purpose of modern design, functional enhancement, and simply draw a bigger circle to include more people benefitting from the design.