What is universal design?

Seven principles of universal design (UD)

10 things to know about UD

Universal design for learning (UDL)

UDL in post-secondary institutions

Universal instructional design (UID)


What is universal design?

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.

Seven principles of universal design

Principle one: equitable use
The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.


1a. Provide the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not.

1b. Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any users.

1c. Provisions for privacy, security, and safety should be equally available to all users.

1d. Make the design appealing to all users.

Principle two: flexibility in use
The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.


2a. Provide choice in methods of use.

2b. Accommodate right- or left-handed access and use.

2c. Facilitate the user's accuracy and precision.

2d. Provide adaptability to the user's pace.

Principle three: simple and intuitive use
Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.


3a. Eliminate unnecessary complexity.

3b. Be consistent with user expectations and intuition.

3c. Accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills.

3d. Arrange information consistent with its importance.

3e. Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.

Principle four: perceptible information
The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.


4a. Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.

4b. Provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings.

4c. Maximize "legibility" of essential information.

4d. Differentiate elements in ways that can be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions).

4e. Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.

Principle five: tolerance for error
The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.


5a. Arrange elements to minimize hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible; hazardous elements eliminated, isolated, or shielded.

5b. Provide warnings of hazards and errors.

5c. Provide fail safe features.

5d. Discourage unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance.

Principle six:low physical effort
The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.


6a. Allow user to maintain a neutral body position.

6b. Use reasonable operating forces.

6c. Minimize repetitive actions.

6d. Minimize sustained physical effort.

Principle seven: size and space for approach and use
Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.


7a. Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user.

7b. Make reach to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user.

7c. Accommodate variations in hand and grip size.

7d. Provide adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.

10 things to know about UD

1. Universal design strives to improve the original design concept by making it more inclusive

It is a misconception that universal design results in a 'diluted' product that meets the needs of many people, but only to a limited degree. It does not involve a series of compromises to the detriment of the original design concept.

Universal design promotes as inclusive a design as possible. However, features that enhance access or use by some people, should not hinder or diminish the user experience for others.

2. Universally designed products can have a high aesthetic value

A product that is designed with function only in mind is not guaranteed to be attractive. Universal design does aim to maximise the accessibility and usability of a product, so functionality is important. But universal design is not design based on functionality alone. A designer must also appreciate that the usability of a product can be influenced by its appearance.

The aesthetic usability effect suggests that people tend to find designs easier to use if they look easy to use. This is regardless of whether or not they actually are more usable!

3. Universal design is much more than just a new design trend

Universal design is not a design style or trend. Rather, it is an approach to designing that can be applied to any design style or trend. It is an orientation to any design process that starts with considering the needs of the user. Fashion, style and personal taste can still influence the appearance of an accessible and usable product.

4. Universal design does not aim to replace the design of products targeted at specific markets

Universal design does not aim to replace products that are currently available on the market. Designs targeted at a specific demographic (for example, designs aimed at teenagers) will not be adversely affected by a universal design approach. On the contrary, it could ensure that these products are designed to be as accessible and usable as possible by the target market at which they are aimed.

5. Universal design is not a synonym for compliance with accessible design standards

The term universal design has been incorrectly used as a synonym for compliance with standards for accessible design. Equal rights and disability legislation prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Accessible design standards promote compliance with this legislation, by providing designers with specifications and minimum requirements which must be adhered to.

Firstly, universal design is not only applicable to the needs of people with disabilities, but to everyone, regardless of age, size, ability or disability. Secondly, universal design is not a list of specifications; it is an approach to design that considers the varied abilities of users.

6. Universal design benefits more people than older people and people with disabilities

A common misconception regarding universal design is that it benefits only a few members of the population, such as older and disabled people. On the contrary, universal design aspires to benefit every member of the population by promoting accessible and usable products, services and environments.

No person operates with full capability for every activity for the duration of his or her lifetime. Accessibility or usability can be affected by, for example, a medical injury or condition (temporary, long-term or permanent), an unfamiliarity with a product or environment, a lack of understanding (e.g. In a foreign country), a physical attribute (e.g. Height, size), and so on.

A universal design approach aims to provide a design that takes into account these physical, behavioural, and other, factors. It appreciates that at some point, during some activity, every person experiences some form of limitation in ability. However, it should be added that a hypothetical person who does not experience a disability (in the widest definition of the word) during his or her lifetime will also benefit, at the very least from the positive user experience of simple and intuitive design.

7. Universal design can be undertaken by any designer, not just the specialists

Universal design is not necessarily a specialist subject. In truth, it can be applied by any designer. The first step is to adopt a user- or person-centred approach to designing. This requires an awareness and appreciation of the diverse abilities of people.

8. Universal design should be integrated throughout the design process

Universal design is not an add-on design approach. It cannot effectively or efficiently be applied at the end of the design process. It should be integrated into the design process from the very beginning.

9. Universal design is not just about 'one size fits all'

Universal design has been mistakenly described as the search for a one-size-fits-all design. Universal design does encourage designers to consider the wide-ranging abilities of their users. And where possible, an optimal design that caters for as many people as possible should be sought after. But a more universal solution can also incorporate, for example, customisable features that can be adapted from user to user, smart features that learn a user's preferences after multiple uses (most relevant to ICT), and specialised solutions to meet particular needs.

The aim is to provide the same (or equivalent) experiences, activities and services to everyone. It is accepted that these may have to be provided through slightly different routes or interfaces, but designers should strive to create a design that does not exclude or segregate.

10. A universally-designed product is the goal: universal design is the process

Universal design is a process, not an outcome. It is not assumed or expected that a 100% universal solution will be achieved, or is achievable, for any given design. Rather universal design should be a goal that a designer strives to achieve.

Universal design for learning

UDL is an educational framework and set of principles that maximizes learning opportunities for all learners. It is based on three main principles aimed at helping educators improve how we present information, engage students, and create inclusive assessments and evaluations:

Principle I: Provide multiple means of representation

  • Present information and content in different ways

Principle II.: Provide multiple means of action and expression

  • Differentiate the ways that students can express what they know

Principle III: Provide multiple means of engagement

  • Stimulate interest and motivation for learning

UDL guidelines

UDL Guidelines offer a set of concrete suggestions that can be applied to any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.

UDL guidelines graphic

UDL in post-secondary institutions

UDL at McGill University

McGill University has undertaken, a system-wide implementation of UDL. Their site offers in-depth explanations of UDL, faculty resources, video resources, information about universal design research, concrete tips for implementing UDL, assistive technology information, and they also offer workshops on request.

UDL at Durham College

Durham College considers UDL a "best practices" approach to curriculum design and provides many resources 

Universal instructional design

Universal instructional design (UID) is a very similar to UDL in that it is a set of principles aimed at creating more inclusive and accessible learning environments. UID is based on seven principles.

The Seven Principles of UID describe how instructional materials and activities should:

  • be accessible and fair
  • be flexible
  • be straightforward and consistent and
  • be explicit

and how the learning environment should:

  • be supportive
  • minimize unnecessary physical effort, and
  • accommodate students and multiple teaching methods


Centre for Excellence in Universal Design: National Disability Authority (NDA)

Providing Best Practice Resources in Universal Design: Universal Design Network of Canada 

From Where I Sit: Busting Five Myths of Universal Design: Rick Hansen Foundation

Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education (PDF): University of Calgary

UDL On Campus: Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST)

Universal Design in Higher Education - Promising Practices: University of Washington