Universal truths

Next time you’re walking down a street and see a kerb ramp, think about who it’s there for. You might think it’s to help the old or infirm to transition more smoothly from the pavement as they cross the road. If you’re a new parent, your first thought might be that it’s handy for prams. A teenager might think of it as a spot to skateboard from one side of the road to the other more easily.

Of course, all these answers are valid, and more besides, which makes the kerb ramp a simple but perfect illustration of Universal Design. Far from being limited to assisting those with disablities, Universal Design does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s inclusive. It helps everyone. Because the truth is that at some point in life, everyone finds themselves at a disadvantage, whether it’s trying to navigate a foreign country or finding a doorway opens the wrong way if you’re left-handed. It makes perfect sense, therefore, to try to mitigate problems for the greatest number of people possible at the design stage.

The term Universal Design was first coined in the late 1990s when a team of designers, architects and engineers led by Ronald Mace came up with seven guiding principles for better-designed deliverables.

Equitable Use
Everyone should be capable of using the design equally well.

Flexibility in Use
The design should be adaptable to different abilities and preferences (i.e. it should be equally useable for left- or right-handed people).

Simple and Intuitive Use
Lack of language skills, knowledge or ability to concentrate, for example, should not be a barrier to use.

Perceptible Information
The user should be able to understand the design regardless of any disadvantages in receiving information about it (such as visual impairment).

Tolerance for Error
Inclusion of fail-safes and removal of hazards in the event of inadvertent misuse should protect the user.

Low Physical Effort
Can the design be used without discomfort or fatigue?

Size and Space for Approach and Use
Does the design take into account a variety of body sizes, postures and capabilities, allowing for the broadest range of users?

While they sound simple enough, these principles, when followed, make life easier for the widest sample of people to interact with a design – the greatest possible use for the greatest possible number. It’s a philosophy of inclusivity we adhere to at Hames Sharley, and one that translates equally well into everyday life: that everyone, no matter their status, situation or cultural background, should have the same opportunities to enjoy the world around them.

Learn more at the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design.

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