Universal Design vs. Inclusive Design

When one thinks about altering a product/service for a certain condition or disability, it often causes dread as designers are afraid the impact will be minimal and costly. However, principles of universal design benefit all as it results in a more usable product. While universal design focuses on maximum benefit for all, inclusive design is a way to target a specific user or population. The following sections will break down the distinctions between the two concepts and how each design strategy impacts accessibility.

Universal Design

In 1997, Ronald Mace led a team of designers, architects, and engineers to develop the 7 principles of universal design which maximizes the number of individuals that can utilize a product, service, or facility. These principles communicate a standard that can be applied to a variety of situations. The principles are as follows:

Principle 1: Equitable Use
Equitable Use suggests the design of a product should not change the purpose of development. In addition, the design should appeal to and meet the needs of a diverse group of individuals.

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use
Flexibility in Use is based on the ability to meet individual preferences and capabilities. The design should be adaptive to the user and allow accuracy and precision of use.

Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use
Simple and Intuitive Use means that a design should be easily understood regardless of the user’s concentration level, knowledge, etc. This principle suggests that a design should accommodate a variety of users by eliminating unnecessary complexity.

Principle 4: Perceptible Information
Perceptible Information means the design uses different displays (pictures, written, or verbal instructions) to communicate information. The directions are easily understood and compatible with users of different sensory levels.

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error
Tolerance for Error implies that the design minimizes accidents and harm. This can be accomplished by warnings, fail-safe features, and discouraging use for unintended purposes.

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort
Low Physical Effort focuses on minimizing physical exertion and fatigue. The product should be able to be operated in a neutral and relaxed body position with minimum effort.

Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use
Size and Space focuses on the adequate use of real estate to manipulate and utilize the product. This can be represented by a variety in grips used, the appropriate height for seated and standing users, and space for devices to maneuver.

Examples of Universal Design
Many things we encounter daily are the product of universal design and accessibility concerns. For example, one of the most well-known universal design products is the curb cut/sidewalk ramp.

Originally developed for those with physical and visual impairments, curb cuts provide accessibility for individuals pushing a stroller, bicyclists, and those rolling a suitcase. In thinking about accessibility, the invention of the curb cut created a benefit to the general population by eliminating the hassle of stepping off the sidewalk. Another example of universal design is texting. In 1964, Robert Weitbrecht, astronomer, licensed ham radio operator, and physicist, developed the Text Telephone (TTY) for deaf individuals to type and send messages over several communication methods. With the development of the internet and cell phones, this process evolved into a tool that is used by almost everyone - texting. It is hard to imagine a society that is not dependent on a process originally developed for the deaf community.

Inclusive Design

While universal design is focused on a single solution that can maximize usage for the majority of individuals, inclusive design is concerned with user-specific optimization. This means a product is designed for a specific condition, diagnosis, or need. Inclusive design can look like braille or large print menus that are designed for the inclusion of those with visual impairments. Another example of inclusive design is a card holder that allows an individual with fine motor control issues to hold and move cards while playing card games. While these products are specifically geared towards a certain condition, it allows an individual with a disability to engage with others in a social setting. The creation of these devices provides support and security to the users.


In thinking about the design of a product or architectural structure, the inclusion of those with disabilities should be a primary concern. As previously demonstrated, thinking about accessibility and inclusion benefits the vast majority of the population. It is important to understand that a disability can occur at any stage in life and while the design of a product or structure may not affect you now, it can at a later time. Striving to create an inclusive environment can mean the world to someone who has experienced exclusion based on architectural barriers. The simplest changes can have the greatest impact.