January 20, 2021

Design for Everyone: Universal Design.

Recently, a process that I make subconsciously every day became conscious. Last year, my partner and I moved to a new house, and this change came with a lot of remodeling and redecorating. As I placed furniture and organized things around the house, I realized I run every scenario by a test: “Will this work on a day I’m struggling to move, will this work on a day I’m wearing a wrist splint, will it work if I need a wheelchair or bulkier mobility aids in a few years”, and arrange everything accordingly.

This is something I do without thinking because I have a disability that translates to -among many other fun stuff- mobility issues. But what was mind blowing was realizing how my partner has integrated this way of thinking as well. When asked about it, the answer I got was “If it’s good for you to use, it will be super easy for me and save me tons of time” and exactly there lies the gist of the approach to accessibility known as Universal Design.

The architect Ronald Mace coined the term “Universal Design” to describe the concept of designing products and spaces to provide an experience that is aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.

Universal Design is design that’s usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

Ron Mace, 1985

Designing for everyone.

When we design a visual identity or a graphic interface, we are communicating with an audience. We communicate what the brand is about: what promise it makes, who it’s for, and who is invited to take part. Ideally, this includes the widest possible range of people. Regardless of their race or ethnicity, their age, their gender or sexual orientation, their disability status, their access to technologies or their personal preferences. We want to design for inclusivity and diversity.

And yet, even in the best of environments, discussing accessibility and design can be a bit of a struggle. The difficulties arise when people assume that designing for inclusivity, diversity and accessibility are separate processes from their core service, an add-on, so to speak.

The reason for this is the misconception that accessible design is for disabled people. Which is often paired with the ableism of assuming that disabled people couldn’t possibly use your product or hire your service. What this doesn’t consider is that usability, legibility and clarity in communication should be a goal for your entire audience.

When you have a disability focused idea of accessible design, you miss the bigger picture: good design is an asset to all your users, and accessibility is not only for people with disabilities.

Yes, people with mobility issues like me will often forgo the mouse and navigate with the keyboard alone. Making your site and forms accessible means I can navigate them and sign up for your newsletter even when I’m wearing a splint. But it means someone who works in programming or data entry who is used to using their keyboard and keyboard shortcuts primarily will also have a pleasant experience. It means someone can hold their baby in one hand and buy your product with the other by tabbing into the form.

There’s the assumption that design and a good user experience should be just for your target audience. And that your target audience doesn’t include disabled people. This turns the entire process from a priority, something that informs the design, into a “nice to have” tacked-on at the end, if time and budget allow. It also comes with an added misconception that “making things work for disabled people” will ruin or break the beauty of the design or the experience you think you are delivering already.

Universal design creates products for the widest potential audience, which includes, but isn’t limited to, people with disabilities. Good universal architectural design is elegant, considerate of all its users, and seems to effortlessly suit the space.

Laura Kalbag, 2017. Accessibility for Everyone.

My invitation is to flip the script. Stop thinking of usable and accessible design in terms of something you do to “help people with disabilities” and think of it as the minimum value you can offer to the entirety of your audience. An audience which is probably way more diverse than you ever thought.

Throughout my blog, I will take this invitation one step further, and talk about specific elements of design, color, and typography. I will give you tips and suggestions on how to think about these elements from a Universal Design perspective and incorporate Inclusive Design Principles into your design in a way that creates an amazing experience for everyone.