What is Universal Design?

Universal Design means the design of products and environments that can be used by everyone, with the widest possible extension and without the need for adjusments or special solutions.

Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits. By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples’ needs. Simply put, universal design is good design”
(Centre for Excellence in Universal Design)

Universal design (UD) is also called inclusive design, design for all, or life span design. As initially conceived, UD was focused on usability issues. 

“The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (Mace, 1985)

In the last ten years, the emphasis was broadened to wider issues of social inclusion. A newer definition is more relevant to all citizens without ignoring people with disabilities. It states that universal design is:

“…a process that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness, and social participation” (Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012). 

In short, universal design makes life easier, healthier, and friendlier for all.

Universal design increases the potential for developing a better quality of life for a wide range of individuals. It also reduces stigma by putting people with disabilities on an equal playing field. While it does not substitute for assistive technology, universal design benefits people with functional limitations and society as a whole. It supports people in being more self-reliant and socially engaged. For businesses and government, it reduces the economic burden of special programs and services designed to assist individual citizens, clients, or customers.


Nowadays, we talk a lot about inclusiveness and above all social inclusion, as a concept that embraces many aspects and contexts of our everyday life.
The need to reach a collective awareness of inclusive practices, starting from exclusionary factors, becomes increasingly urgent.

Graphical representation of the concept of inclusion

The figure, in a very illustrative way, allows us to understand “inclusion” starting from entirely different concepts such as exclusion, segregation, and integration: 

    • Exclusion involves leaving or putting the different out of context;
    • Segregation involves isolating a person by force or voluntarily from contact with others;
    • Integration completes what was not and by integrating a “diversity” within it, it creates an asymmetrical relationship, shifting attention to the individual to find specialist answers;
    • Inclusion, on the other hand, guarantees the inclusion of each individual regardless of limiting factors or elements and activates asymmetrical relationships between peers.

In particular, since inclusion is the basis of daily news on government policies and the representation of excluded groups, in traditional industries, there is a growing interest in making inclusion a common goal for companies, design/research teams and products /services.

For this reason, we can speak of Inclusive Design, a well-established, but still young, discipline defined by the British Standards Institute (2005) as:

”The design of mainstream products and/or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible… without the need for special adaptation or specialised design”.


It simplifies life for everyone by creating environments, media and products that can be used more widely by a larger number of people, minimizing or eliminating additional costs. This way of thinking about design has as its target audience all people regardless of age, sex and ability.  

UD can be applied to any product or environment. For example, a typical service counter in a place of business is not accessible to everyone, including those of short stature, those who use wheelchairs, and those who cannot stand for extended periods of time. Applying UD principles might result in the design of a counter that has multiple heights—the standard height designed for individuals within the average range of height and who use the counter while standing up and a shorter height for those who are shorter than average, use a wheelchair for mobility, or prefer to interact with service staff from a seated position.

Making a product or an environment accessible to people with disabilities often benefits others. For example, automatic door openers benefit individuals using walkers and wheelchairs, but also benefit people carrying groceries and holding babies, as well as elderly citizens. Sidewalk curb cuts, designed to make sidewalks and streets accessible to those using wheelchairs, are more often used by kids on skateboards, parents with baby strollers, and delivery staff with carts. When television displays in airports and restaurants are captioned, programming is accessible not only to people who are deaf but also to others who cannot hear the audio in noisy areas.

Mind Maps lesson




    • British Standards Institute (2005), British Standard 7000-6:2005. Design management systems. Managing inclusive design. Guide, BSI, London.
    • Centre for Excellence in Universal Design 
    • Ester Iacono (2020) – Design for Inclusion. Good Design is Inclusive and Improves the Future, Franco Angeli, Milano.
    • Mace, R. (1985). Universal Design, Barrier Free Environments for Everyone. Los Angeles: Designers West.
    • Mace, R.L. (1998). Universal design in housing. Assistive Technology, 10(1), 21-28.
    • Maisel, J., & Steinfeld, E. (2012). Universal Design. Designing inclusive envi- ronments. Hoboken: Wiley.
    • Story, M., Mace, R., & Mueller, J. (1998). The Universal Design File: Desi- gning for People of All Ages and Abilities. Raleigh: Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University.
    • Tosi F. (2020), Design for Ergonomics. Springer Series in Design and Innovation. Vol. 2, Springer, Cham.
    • WBDG Accessible Committee


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