There is no right or wrong way to design products or visual materials – each designer might have his own interpretation of the fundamental aesthetic rules. Still, larger organizations typically have to standardize their approach and define the central tenets that guide practical work, as they are facing a lot of competition and can ill afford to lose clients due to aesthetic or functional deficiencies.
As markets are becoming more and more globalized and companies are offering their products and services to ever more diverse audiences, there are pressures to find a more equitable approach to design. This is where the concept of universal design comes in, as it is basically tailor-made exactly for this type of situation and has been proven to extend the appeal to new target groups.
Before they can benefit from this method, companies must first invest some time to study the main principles of universal design and learn how to apply them to their daily operations. This article provides a good foundation for this research and explains why each of the principles is so important.
First formulated in the 1990s by a group of US-based designers, architects, and engineers, universal design is a loosely defined philosophy that can find diverse practical applications in many fields. In essence, it is intended for creating designs that transcend individual styles and mindsets, resonating with people of any gender, race, cultural background, or age in more or less the same way. If it’s implemented correctly, universal design basically eliminates the need for narrowly specialized solutions, thus improving the consistency of the brand message and causing a sizable cost reduction.
At the core of the philosophy of universal design are seven simple principles that ensure its broad applicability and ensure that it remains relevant as the demands of the market change. Here is a brief overview of these central tenets of universal design.
Simplicity – Complex forms that depend on viewer interpretation are the most susceptible to cultural influences, so universal design tends to stay away from them. Each element of the design needs to have an obvious function that can be gleaned without too much background information and acted upon immediately.
Flexibility – The elements of universal design need to be in the service of user’s choices. The finished product should offer as many possibilities for customization or specific use cases as practically realistic. Users love having additional options, so this is a sure way to expand the customer base and reach previously untapped markets.
Equitability – Design shouldn’t be biased towards any specific demographic group, but rather accessible to everyone. The evolving social and cultural norms must be taken into account, and even unintentional discrimination has to be carefully prevented by removing any problematic elements.
Information clarity – Great design communicates the main messages nearly instantly, without the need to deduct information from detailed analysis. Some common techniques to achieve this include visual highlighting, the use of pictograms, color coding, graphs and data tables, and other universally recognizable elements.
Tolerance for error– This principle means that even incomplete understanding of the design shouldn’t lead to erroneous use. Such a safety net means a lot in international communications, where it’s common for people from vastly different backgrounds to interact with the same media content and sometimes fail to understand the nuances.
Low effort – According to universal design, no construct should be very difficult to use. While this principle is extremely important in architecture and interior design, it also plays a role in product design and many other disciplines. Unless the user can take advantage of the design without too much effort, he might ignore it altogether.
Size and space optimization – Finally, it must never be forgotten that design doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that it must fit into the available slot. Full awareness of the positioning of the work in the real world should guide the design process, and all dimensions need to be optimized for the most rational utilization of the physical space.
Inclusive design is another concept that is frequently confused with universal design, which is generally a result of poor understanding of each. The main difference between them is the level of specificity – where universal design aims to communicate with everyone at once, the inclusive approach has narrow target groups in mind. For this reason, inclusive campaigns often feature concurrent solutions that are used in different media depending on the estimated audience.
Contrary to that, universal design tends to include fewer different versions and to seek adaptable solutions that can be used across the media spectrum with only minor modifications. These two concepts are not mutually exclusive, so it may be possible to combine some of their central principles when working on projects that don’t neatly fit into any category.
Is the value of universal design proven in practice?
Considering this approach to design has survived for multiple decades, it’s obvious that it brings some tangible benefits to the table. A huge number of projects that we are all very familiar with were developed starting from the principles of universal design, which proves their lasting value in the evolving world we live in.
Does universal design require a high level of skills from the designer?
Naturally, more skilled designers should be able to create better universal solutions, but skill level is not the key here. More important is strict adherence to this philosophy and knowledge of successful examples of its application. In that sense, highly specialized designers have an advantage over good professionals who never tried working in this way.
How to decide whether to use universal or inclusive design?
This decision should be made based on the analysis of the campaign objectives and the primary target groups. If the goal is to reach as many people as possible, universal design is likely the better choice. On the other hand, in situations where certain demographic groups need to be prioritized it makes more sense to adopt an inclusive approach.
The field of potential applications of universal design is huge, and this technique continues to evolve into new forms. At the heart of this method are several simple principles that are not very hard to learn and use in practice consistently. Depending on the circumstances of the project, some of these principles could be given more or less prominence, but they should all be taken into account when making strategic decisions that affect the final product. For this, it’s necessary to embrace and internalize the principles and invest some time to discover how best to implement them within the course of a project you are currently working on.