What is the key to universal design

What is universal design?

Universal design in the bathroom: washbasin (wheelchair accessible) with handles. Photo: Villeroy & Boch

No matter whether young or old, small or large, physically disabled or not: Products with universal design are characterized by the fact that they can be used easily and intuitively by everyone. So they do not have to be adapted to the individual abilities of the respective user. This design principle is also encountered more and more frequently in the construction sector - especially with construction elements.

The English word "universal" can be translated as general, all-embracing, all-round. In German we also say: universal. The concept of universal design developed in the USA requires that products should be usable for everyone - regardless of whether they are children, adults, seniors or, for example, wheelchair users.

Of course, no manufacturer can guarantee products that everyone, without exception, knows how to use intuitively. Individual abilities cannot be completely ignored. It is also clear that some people - for example due to physical or mental disabilities - are fundamentally unable to operate all products independently. But manufacturers can at least try to put themselves in the shoes of all potential users of their products and then design them in such a way that as few people as possible are excluded from use. That is the main goal of universal design.

Avoid exclusion

Practical - not only for wheelchair users: sliding doors do not open towards the user. Photo: Prüm

Universal design can be applied to all types of products. Of course, also on products that are part of building equipment. The point is that houses and rooms can be operated “universally”. Furniture, furnishings, building services, windows, doors or shower and bathroom facilities are increasingly being designed so that as many people as possible can use them without making individual adjustments. Of course, this also applies to access to the house. A ramp as a replacement for stairs would be, for example, in the sense of universal design.

The example with the ramp also illustrates a core idea of ​​the design principle. In the past one might have spoken of handicapped-accessible construction, now it is called universal design. But behind this is not simply an attempt to replace a stigmatizing term with a new, neutral expression. Rather, it is about the realization that a ramp does not only offer added value for wheelchair users. Parents with prams, toddlers with their “Bobby Cars”, cyclists and old people with walkers are also happy about it. Universal design simply stands for a plus in comfort and safety for everyone. The ramp is not a special solution for the marginalized, but the normal way up.

Barrier-free components

In addition to the bathroom area, universal design in the building sector is already an important factor, especially when it comes to building elements. More and more door and window manufacturers are trying to ensure that their products can be operated by as many people as possible without individual adjustments. This is particularly about accessibility, which is one of the most important goals of universal design. In this context, barrier-free components are no longer marketed as special products for senior citizens or wheelchair users, but simply as a practical design for all user groups.

In fact, in practice, accessibility - for example in the case of doors - means more than just low thresholds that can be easily crossed with a wheelchair. It also means more than easily accessible handle elements that are not installed higher than 85 cm - as recommended by the "DIN 18040-1 doors". Accessibility also means, for example, simple, automated opening mechanisms. Keyless systems with fingerprint functionality, for example, are a practical, universal service that helps overcome barriers to access. Incidentally, it is not only senior citizens who sometimes forget their keys at home. Even sliding doors that can be opened to save space without the door leaf striking the user are not only advantageous for wheelchair users or the blind and visually impaired.

Even with windows, accessibility nowadays not only means that control elements are installed at a low height and can be opened without great effort, but also that they can be operated by remote control. Even young people think that windows that can be opened via smartphone are cool. So here too the term universal design fits. Products that are designed according to this design principle, be it entrance ramps, automated components or barrier-free bathroom furnishings, also have the great advantage that homeowners no longer have to think about renovating their home age-appropriately.

Seven basic principles

The seven basic principles of universal design. Graphics: ift Rosenheim

The American architect and designer Ronald L. Mace first coined the term universal design in the 1980s. He founded the Center for Universal Design, where the seven basic principles of the design concept, which still apply today, were developed. Products with a universal design should therefore

  • be universally usable for people with different abilities (children, adults, seniors, wheelchair users, ...),
  • be flexible in use (allow options for use, adaptability to the abilities of the user),
  • can be used easily and intuitively,
  • address more than one meaning (e.g. visual, linguistic and tactile operating information),
  • have a high fault tolerance (no negative consequences if used incorrectly),
  • be usable with little effort and
  • be reachable for people of different sizes and mobility.

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About the author Roland Grimm has been a freelance journalist based in Essen since February 2013 and regularly writes specialist articles for Building material knowledge. Before that, he was a specialist editor at the industry magazine for around six years Building materials market and also editor-in-chief and, from 2010, editor-in-chief of the trade journal building materials practice. Contact: freelance [email protected]

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