The Future is Accessible – Universal Design


Human-centred design has become a growing indicator of good design in recent decades. It describes products, services, projects and environments that have been approached with people at the centre of the problem-solving process. The design journey begins with empathy, builds off feedback and drives to create solutions that meet the true needs of our society.

Universal design evolves the human-centred design process even further. The holistic approach solves problems in-line with a clear cross-section of what a whole society necessitates.  This means designing for as many people as possible – regardless of different mobilities and abilities – without the need for adaptation or specialised design. 

Universal design is therefore a principle that thrives on equality, inclusivity and accessibility. For a truly accessible future of all, we must design for all. 

2018 Good Design Award Gold Winner – Proludic Inclusive Trampolines – openly accessible play and exercise items motivating safe movement in public spaces. Image: Eurotramp

Modern accessibility at a glance 

Zooming out to our global society, differently abled individuals face a variety of barriers and struggles every day as they engage with built environments, technology and information. This is considerably relevant in designs of the past that are less reflective of those whose physical, intellectual or linguistic abilities may be augmented. Not only is this dehumanising, it creates challenges unfathomable by more privileged members of society.

  • Built environments

Although more common in older constructions and spaces, many developments are still designed around the abilities of a select few. This has meant that differently abled people throughout history haven’t been able to access important buildings and public spaces such as government offices, museums and parks. Even wayfinding in built environments rarely account for those who would truly benefit from them. While solutions can be retrofitted, they are commonly difficult and expensive to bring to life. 

Public transportation systems similarly suffer from accessibility issues, with many networks lacking wheelchair ramps, audio announcements and other features that would make them significantly more usable for a greater spread of society. 

  • Technology

Our increasingly computer, smartphone and other electronic device-led world has given rise to a number of challenges for differently abled individuals. This includes struggles for people with visual impairments who are unable to access devices without audio accessibility measures, those with hearing impairments who can’t implement phone systems and individuals who can’t physically handle the technologies.

This has grave concerns for one’s ability to participate in everyday society, especially as previously human-led solutions continue to be phased out.

  • Information

With inaccessible technologies and environments comes the obfuscation of vital information. This may include insights found in documents, websites and signage that would be otherwise beneficial and important to all citizens.

Without the ability to be informed, many differently abled individuals are left in the dark. Safety, societal engagement and support can therefore be undermined.

With the application of universal design as a prevailing problem-solving approach, these contemporary challenges, alongside many more, can be confronted.

2020 Good Design Award Winner – Foursight Architect’s Inclusive School Playground Spaces – dynamic outdoor play areas as part designed to support the social needs of children regardless of disabilities or other differences. Image: Foursight Architects

Designing for all with universal design 

Universal design is a prevailing key to an accessible future. By applying its holistic principles to all areas of society and design, people of all abilities will become increasingly able to participate in education, employment and leisure activities without facing barriers, challenges and exclusion.

This most obviously extends benefits to those who are differently abled, but universal design can also be critical to making all products, services and environments be more efficient, user-friendly and cost-effective. For example, a building with a ramp is not only accessible for people who use wheelchairs, but also for parents with strollers and postpeople delivering heavy packages. This shows that an overarching consideration of the different ways people move, communicate and interact with designs, we can design in everyone’s distinct language. 

More specifically, the benefits of universal design include:

  • Inclusion

Universal design engages people of all ability levels to inform solutions, products, services and environments that service them all. This strengthens accessibility and promotes the equitable, barrierless participation of all members of society in their communities.

  • Safety

Universal design can reduce the risk of accidents and injuries, particularly for people of differing abilities. Solutions such as grab bars, non-slip surfaces, multi-language or auditory signage can contribute to safer spaces and better communicate dangers.

  • Cost-effectiveness

By applying universal design from the get-go, the need for retrofits, repairs and replacements are drastically reduced in the long-term. This minimises the need for expensive accommodations and modifications, and can even give rise to durable, adaptable and easy to maintain designs.

  • Innovation

In order to design for the greater society, designers need to engage with a more accurate cross-section of the population to gain critical insights, ideas and feedback.  This can encourage innovation and outside-the-box thinking as designers holistically apply their findings and confront design short-falls of previous eras. 

  • User satisfaction

Regardless of one’s ability, universal design can make products, environments and services significantly easier to use and navigate. Increased productivity, efficiency and user satisfaction can therefore be emboldened, as frustration and stress is challenged.

  • Compliance

As a greater appreciation and acknowledgement of the differing abilities present in our society steadily eventuates, more and more accessibility laws and regulations are coming to the fore. Universal design can consequently help businesses and organisations comply with the new accessibility status quo and reduce the risk of legal action, all while improving their reputation.

The Keywing – 2022 Good Design Award Winner – offers a an ergonomic addition to household keys that makes them twice as easy to grip and turn. Image: Keywing

Is it possible? 

An accessible future for all is no small task. Even with the tried and tested principles of universal design being implemented into the design processes of designers, businesses and governments all over the world, it requires an overarching willingness to challenge traditional assumptions about what is possible or acceptable in design. 

This involves a great shift in attitudes towards differently abled individuals. Namely, by recognising their abilities as a natural part of the diversity of the human experience rather than a limitation to be accommodated. By engaging people of all abilities within the design process, designers can lead the charge and begin problem-solving equitably from the first draft. It’s equally as important to promote investment in accessible design solutions and the technologies that will allow their creation, all while developing regulations and incentives that encourage inclusivity.

Despite these challenges, increasingly implemented accessibility laws, a growing awareness of the benefits of universal design and a blossoming number of assistive technologies available for differently abled people show that global citizens and designers are committed to a more accessible society. Right now, more individuals are able to participate more openly in society than ever before, but there’s still work to be done.

Luckily, universal design is up for the challenge.

Explore the Good Design Index for more stellar examples of good design

As the 2023 Jurors come together to evaluate, crown and celebrate the brightest designs of this year’s hallmark Award season, why not turn back the clock and discover some innovations of the past? Search by category or have a blind deep dive – find inspiration either way.


More News