Universal Design – The Time is Now - 30 June 2008
by Beth Tauke
Read this article in Chinese (translated by Christina Li)
The concept of universal design is not new. Inclusive processes aimed at enabling all of us to experience the full benefits of products, environments, communications, systems and policies regardless of our age, size, situation, and abilities have been around since the mid-1970s. However, the incorporation of universal design has been a ‘slow go’ in design education, practice and contemporary culture in most countries. There are several reasons for this:
- The design disciplines have been, for the most part, style based. In other words, aesthetics, form, and the way something looks have dominated graphic design, interior design, architecture, and industrial design for centuries.
- Since their beginning, accrediting bodies for design programs in universities have emphasized formal and structural principles as their primary criteria. Because programs were evaluated on these terms, curricula naturally centered on them, often at the expense of other important issues such as social inclusion.
- Until recently, ergonomists, engineers, designers and manufacturers have focused on the large majority in the middle of the population curve and have, more or less, ignored those in the minority. Accommodating those in ranges beyond a ‘theoretical average’ has been considered, for the most part, too costly and complex in the production of products and built environments.
- Popular media has tended to present distorted views of our culture that favor specific aesthetic sensibilities and lifestyles for the sake of entertainment value, and that disregard other realities. More accurate reflections of our world and its peoples often require us to confront harsh realities and to put ourselves into situations that challenge our comfort levels. This is especially the case in cultures where child care, health care, and elder care have been highly compartmentalized, and, therefore, separated from daily living.
According to Kathryn Anthony in her influential book, Designing for Diversity, most design professionals agree that to produce relevant design work, particularly as we move into a more globalized environment, designers should have knowledge and understanding about cultures and populations other than their own. Knowledge about inclusion and its relationship to design is a crucial part of this endeavor. Yet incorporating these issues into already overburdened design practices and production processes has been a somewhat daunting task.
But there is good news. Recently, universal design has been cropping up in places in which it would have been unwelcome twenty years ago. The term is now peppered throughout design firm websites, product websites, and design magazines. More and more, design competitions are including universal design criteria in their briefs. In the past few years, social justice, inclusion, and universal design have been topics at several major design conferences as well as product, technology, and building conventions. Courses addressing diversity and universal design are cropping up in academic programs and continuing education worldwide, and design practices are starting to realize the importance of this approach. Perhaps most important, governments around the world are beginning to include universal design principles in their policies and plans for future development.
What has changed? Why is this concept beginning to take hold in so many sectors of our society? Why is this the right time for universal design?
Reason 1. World demographics are changing. There are more people over 65 in the world than ever before. Baby boomers are coming of age. Because of improved medical technology, people are living longer. Over the next twenty years, the older population will increase by more than 50%. Although this larger older population is in better health than ever before, they have some lessened abilities. In the U.S., the current rate of activity limitation is 42% for the population 65 years and older, and the rate is even higher in many other countries. This demographic shift is resulting in a shift in the ways that we think about human-environment interaction. Universally designed products, systems and environments that empower this growing sector will be in greater demand in the coming years.
Figure 1. As the bulge in the population curve caused by the large number of baby boomers works its way toward old age, the overall percentage of the population that will benefit from universal design will increase significantly. (Photo: Beth Tauke)
Reason 2: World economies are changing. The International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook states that “Following strong growth through the third quarter of 2007, the global economic expansion has begun to moderate in response to continuing financial turbulence. Global growth is projected to decelerate from 4.9 percent in 2007 to 4.1 percent in 2008, a markdown of 0.3 percentage point relative to the October 2007 World Economic Outlook. Risks to the outlook remain tilted to the downside.” This downturn moves attention towards smart conservation—ways to save money that still maintain or improve standards of living. As a result, businesses and governments are looking at processes and approaches that change patterns of waste. Universal design, then, becomes part of the solution. For example, the cost of assisted living and nursing facility care is expensive, both for national health providers and individuals. If people can stay in their houses or apartments longer because they are universally designed, it will save vast amounts of public and private money.
Figure 2. This universally designed LIFEhouse(tm) by New American Homes focuses on adapting to the homeowner's changing needs throughout the lifespan. The LIFEhouse(tm) concept is driven by the fact that, if members of the large baby boomer generation can extend the time they live in their existing homes even by one year on average, the economic benefit to the total U.S. society will be extremely significant. (Photo: New American Homes, http://www.newamericanhomes.us/homes.htm )
Reason 3: More societies throughout the world are valuing human diversity. In 1981, French-born American microbiologist, environmentalist, and author Rene Dubois stated that “Human diversity makes tolerance more than a virtue; it makes it a requirement for survival.” The significance of this statement has permeated societies worldwide, and has contributed to the increase in attitudes that respect and promote diversity. The United Nations 2004 Human Development Report made the case for “respecting diversity and building more inclusive societies by adopting policies that specifically recognize cultural differences—multicultural policies.” Today, it is commonplace for countries and institutions to have official policies on diversity that celebrate difference, support equity, and recognize the needs of underrepresented groups. The basic principles of these policies are compatible with the Principles of Universal Design, and encourage actions based on inclusion.
Reason 4: Social sustainability is a natural part of the environmental sustainability movement. “Social sustainability is focused on the development of programs, processes, and products that promote social interaction and cultural enrichment. It emphasizes protecting the vulnerable, respecting social diversity and ensuring that we all put priority on social capital. Social sustainability is related to how we make choices that affect other humans in our ‘global community’. It covers the broadest aspects of business operations and the effect that they have on employees, suppliers, investors, local and global communities and customers. Social sustainability is also related to more basic needs of happiness, safety, freedom, dignity and affection.” Universal design is a key component of social sustainability, and is receiving the serious attention of the proponents of this movement.
Reason 5: Attitudes about consumption are changing. The concepts of ‘planned obsolescence’ and ‘consumer waste’ so prevalent in the later part of the twentieth century are giving way to more prudent and conscientious notions of consumption. Rising energy costs and the slow down in the world economy have encouraged consumers to rethink their purchasing patterns. Purchasing trends are beginning to show that consumers plan to own large ticket items such as automobiles and homes for longer periods of time. Quality over quantity is making a comeback. “People are keeping their cars and trucks longer as quality improves and the uncertain economy makes new purchases less appealing,” according to a recent study by automotive consulting firm R.L. Polk & Co. McMansions are giving way to smaller, more energy efficient, and more practical housing solutions. ‘Building it right the first time’ rather than throwing away and starting over encourages consumers to think about longer term solutions. For example, a house built up front to support universal design features saves money in the long run, elevates the quality of the living space, and allows home owners to stay in their homes much longer.
Reason 6: Major corporations are developing ad campaigns that foster ease of use and inclusion. They are applying concepts similar to universal design for their marketing strategies, and are clearly beginning to understand the profitability of diverse markets. Examples of ‘universal design friendly’ campaigns include Philips: Sense and Simplicity, Target: Design for All, HSBC: Your Point of View, Benetton: Human Rights, Office Max: Easy Button, Motorola: Seamless Mobility, T-Mobile: A Better World for You, Cisco: The Human Network, Proctor & Gamble: Improving Life, M.A.C.: All races, all ages, all sexes, Toyota: Making Life Easier, and the list goes on and on. When corporations use universal design concepts to market and brand products or services that people not only desire, but are willing to buy, they are also shaping consumer expectations and, more importantly, social values that can change attitudes about the ways we can and should live our lives.
Reason 7: Mass customization is making it easier to develop universally designed solutions. Mass customization is the application of flexible computer-aided manufacturing systems to produce customized goods and services. Through this process, products that were once standardized are now able to change to meet the needs of individuals at the same low unit costs of mass production. The concept was first conceived by Stan Davis in Future Perfect. It was then further developed by Joseph Pine in his book Mass Customization - The New Frontier in Business Competition. ‘Build to order’ computer systems and automated productions of custom windows and office chairs are examples currently on the market. This universally designed approach to manufacturing makes design for all more possible and affordable.
Figure 7. This image by Patrick Chia shows multiple variations of a stool base. Each modification is not the result of a craft design process, but instead is machine generated. (Image Development: Patrick Chia, Geometri. Source: Mass Customization & Open Innovation News, Frank Pillar (editor) http://mass-customization.blogs.com/mass_customization_open_i/design/index.html )
Reason 8: Digital technologies are augmenting or eliminating static solutions to dynamic conditions. Many products and systems that previously were fixed entities are now active. For example, signage systems now provide information that is dependent on current conditions such as traffic congestion, weather warnings, and toll waiting periods. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) augment environmental signage and provide individual navigation and information that is specific to each user’s needs. Dynamic and personalized products and systems add a critical layer of usability for everyone.
Figure 8. Global Positioning System receivers relay position data, and help users to navigate specific routes. These systems are communicate information in both verbal and visual formats and are particularly helpful with wayfinding under frequently changing conditions. (Photo: Leah Glickman)
Reason 9: Design that works for everyone is starting to make sense to government officials at the local, regional, national, and global levels. Recently, there have been many administrative efforts to raise public awareness that good design is universal design. At the local level, the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil implemented a city-wide universal design policy in 2002 which eliminated common barriers for its twenty million inhabitants, and became a model for other cities in Brazil to follow. In 2000 and 2003, the Mayor’s Office of the City of New York contracted the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access to author two books to help the community of people who develop New York’s real estate and infrastructure to learn about universal design. These books were part of a strong initiative to make New York the exemplar of an inclusive city. At the regional level, the state of Wisconsin (U.S.) has been actively involved in developing inclusive policies that will enhance the quality of life for all. Its goal is to become the state model for systems change in the area of Universal Design. It is committed to integrating universal design into every aspect of state, local, educational, and infrastructure systems.” At the national level, the Japanese “Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MLIT) is now implementing national land and transportation policies based on the concept of universal design,” and has become a model of inclusion and accessibility throughout the world. The Norwegian government has committed to an action plan that will incorporate universal design strategies into the development of new public infrastructure including transport, housing and buildings, outdoor areas, information, product development, policy guidelines, and training. This initiative is certain to reshape Norway’s built environment in the near future, and will bring about changes that promote an even more inclusive society. At the global level, the European Union “has committed itself to modernizing and reinforcing social cohesion and social protection as key elements” to improve the quality of life in Europe by 2010. In 2003, the European Commission issued a report entitled 2010: A Europe Accessible to All, which is based on four strategic goals (raising competitiveness, achieving full employment, strengthening social cohesion, and promoting sustainable development) designed to make Europe safer, and more inclusive, usable, and enjoyable for its inhabitants and visitors.
The time for universal design is now because, as the Designing for the 21st Century III Conference website states “This is an extraordinary moment. We are more diverse now in ability and age than ever before. It is time for design to catch up. There is an urgent need to exchange ideas about the design of places, things, information, policies and programs that demonstrate the power of design to shape a 21st century world that works for all of us” This increasingly diverse population will be participants in and recipients of all of our design thinking and making. It is important that design education and practice consider all people, particularly those who are in some way underrepresented. Inclusive approaches can assist designers and design educators to develop processes and work that resonates with the broader population, and that contains meaning for more people. And that might be the way that universal design becomes a primary catalyst for social justice and cultural change.
- Polly Welch, ed., Strategies for Teaching Universal Design (Boston, MA: Adaptive Environments Center, 1995) 1-4.
- G. Scott Danford and Beth Tauke, eds., Universal Design: New York (New York, NY: Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, 2000) 8.
- Kathryn H. Anthony, Designing for Diversity: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Architectural Profession (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001) 11-14.
- Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, Older Americans 2008: Key Indicators of Well-Being (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office) 32.
- International Monetary Fund “World Economic Outlook Reports,” http://www.imf.org/external/ns/cs.aspx?id=29 (accessed June 1, 2008)
- Rene Dubos, Celebrations of Life, (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 1981)
- Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, lead author, Human Development Report 2004, (New York, NY: United Nations, 2004) http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2004/ (accessed June 1, 2008)
- Interface Sustainability, “Social Sustainability,” http://www.interfacesustainability.com/social.html (accessed June 1, 2008)
- Impact Lab, “Study: People Keeping Cars and Trucks Longer,” http://www.impactlab.com/2008/02/21/study-people-keeping-cars-and-trucks-longer/ (accessed May 25, 2008)
- Stanley M Davis, Future Perfect (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987), and Joseph Pine, Mass Customization - The New Frontier in Business Competition (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 1992)
- Debra Kaplan, “Universal Design for Disabled People Draws International Support,” Disability World, Issue no. 26 (December 2004 - February 2005), http://www.disabilityworld.org/12-02_05/access/universaldesign.shtml
- G. Scott Danford and Beth Tauke, eds., Universal Design: New York, (New York, NY: Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, 2000) i-iii, and Danise Levine, ed., Universal Design: New York 2, (New York, NY: Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, 2000) 1. Online versions of these books are available through the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at http://www.ap.buffalo.edu/idea/PubIntro/index.asp
- Taken from materials packet provided at the Inclusive Design Symposium: Building Awareness sponsored by the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services/Pathways to Independence, October 30, 31, 2007, Madison, Wisconsin.
- Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport – Japan, “General Principles of Universal Design Policy – July 2005,” http://www.mlit.go.jp/kisha/kisha05/01/010711/04.pdf (accessed May 31, 2006).
- Taken from brochure on Government Action Plan for Increased Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities: Plan for Universal Design in Key Areas of Society (Oslo, Norway: Ministry of the Environment, July 2005).
- Designing for the 21st Century III: An International Conference on Universal Design, “Overview,” http://www.designfor21st.org/pg.cfm?nid=204&l=en
Beth Tauke is an Associate Professor of Architecture in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo – State University of New York, USA. She directs university education activities for the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA), and is the director of the Universal Design International University Education Consortium, Professor Tauke is one of the co-editors of Universal Design Education Online. In addition, she is co-editor of Diversity and Design: The Journal of Inclusive Design Education, has published many journal articles, and has co-edited the book Universal Design: New York with Dr. G. Scott Danford. Professor Tauke’s major awards include a National Institute for Architectural Education Award, the American Collegiate Schools of Architecture Robert R. Taylor Award for Diversity in Design, the Lily Endowment Teaching Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Universal Design Leadership Grant, an NEA Creation and Presentation Grant, and the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.
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