The Importance of Universal Design for an Equitable Future

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In 1952, the U.S. Air Force published a report, “The ‘Average Man’?,” investigating an unexplained increase in fighter jet training mishaps that were resulting in abnormally frequent fatalities and accidents. At the time, the planes were state-of-the-art machines designed to exacting specifications. Everything was considered: pilot error, mechanical error, instructional error.

It wasn’t until this report brought to light the true culprit: design error.

Decades earlier, when engineers were creating these aircrafts, hundreds of pilots had been measured, with their averages informing the standardized design for the cockpit. The assumption was that this would best fit the majority of pilots. But during the 1952 review, 4,063 pilots were measured against 10 metrics: “stature,” “chest circumference,” “sleeve length,” “crotch height,” “vertical trunk [circumference],” “hip circumference,” “neck circumference,” “waist circumference,” “thigh circumference” and “crotch length.” These new measurements were compared to the original data set to see how many pilots matched the average profile.

Zero pilots fit the profile. By designing a cockpit built for the average pilot, it was doomed to fit no one.

Universal design isn’t a trend or a style. It’s a philosophy that guides design to benefit more than a narrow demographic. The movement began to gain momentum right around the time traditional design methodologies were coming to a crashing halt. Literally.

The flaw of averages

“When I started to study design in the ’70s, there was such an emphasis on designing for 18- to 34-year-olds,” says Dan Formosa, an award-winning product designer whose work is displayed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “This was our ‘average person,’ and it was considered the ‘perfect person.’”

But Formosa always looked at the whole bell curve—the distribution of values with the peak representing the highest density of data points, e.g., 18- to 34-year-olds—and wondered, “What about everyone else?”

Throughout his career, Formosa has “designed to the edges”—meaning to the far edges of the bell curve. “We need to design for the full spectrum of people,” he says. “Let’s not think so much about the person down the middle, but let’s think about the people at the edges of the bell curve. We want to accommodate the tallest and the shortest, the youngest and the oldest, not just the average.”

By designing for the full spectrum of consumers, the simple but often undervalued result is that more people can use the product. “Design can absolutely be a form of segregation,” Formosa points out. “It just seems obvious that we should not segregate at all. So I’m going to design for everyone.”

What Formosa was intuitively gravitating toward was the philosophy of universal design.

Universal design principles

Instead of catering to the average, universal design supports products and environments that benefit as many as possible, regardless of age, size, sex, ability and disability. While fluid in operation, there are seven core principles:

  1. “Equitable use”
  2. “Flexible use”
  3. “Simple and intuitive use”
  4. “Perceptible information”
  5. “Tolerance for error”
  6. “Minimal physical effort”
  7. “Size and space for approach and use”

Why universal design matters

Universal design isn’t a new concept. There are many examples going back decades that we take for granted today. Curb cuts were not an entirely new invention—the first appeared in 1945, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which removed barriers for wheelchair users; a Swiss dentist developed the electric toothbrush in the ’50s, which helped people with dexterity challenges; a concerned father in San Francisco came up with the bendy straw in the ’30s to keep uncoordinated, wriggly children safe.

Although these inventions solved problems for specific groups, their widespread adoption by everyone under the bell curve—edge to edge—is a testament to the power of universal design.

A common myth about universal design is that it only benefits the elderly and people with disabilities.

“The thing about universal design is, it’s not just for disabled people,” says Molly Burke, a blind YouTuber with more than 4 million followers across her social channels. “That’s something we need to make very clear, because universal design isn’t designing products that are more accessible for disabled people—that’s accessible design.”

The casual mingling of the two terms is often a sore subject for those invested in this space. For Burke, it underlies the inherent hypocrisy that people with disabilities are often far too aware of.

“The existence of disabled people furthers design for everyone,” Burke says. “Yet, we’re seen as a burden on society: ‘Let’s cure disability. Let’s heal disability. Let’s change disabled people to fit into our world.’ But let’s look at all the things you guys benefit from every day that came to be because we, as a community, exist.”

Committing to inclusion

Entrepreneur Victoria Watts gave birth to her son, Cyrus, two years after launching her skin care line, Victorialand Beauty. Shortly after, she discovered that Cyrus was blind.

Over the next few years, Watts became hyperaware of how important his sense of touch was and how so much packaging is remarkably similar, offering few, if any, markers beyond visual ones to differentiate contents—her own skin care products included. Watts set out to add tactile symbols to her product packaging.

Her first thought was Braille, but she quickly learned some of the issues that would accompany the method.

“It’s tokenism, is what it is,” says Watts about adding Braille to packaging. “Sometimes it’s just the brand’s name, not a product description or ingredients or directions. They’re just checking off a box.”

Creating a universal design system of raised symbols

Instead, working with several blind focus groups across the country, Watts created the CyR.U.S. System, a universal system of raised symbols.

She first put these symbols into action by adding them to her own Victorialand packaging: a crescent moon for night cream, a single wavy line for face moisturizer and a single water drop for face oil. The symbols are not just designed for skin care products but also for hair and body care and household cleaners, with future plans for cosmetics, food and drinks. The universality of symbols means this system can also be used easily by anyone regardless of language. They will soon be available as “touch tags,” or stickers, that consumers can buy and add to their own products, from any brand.

“I didn’t know about universal design when I started this,” Watts says. “But I also didn’t really think about all the other things out there that have been universally designed that we all benefit from. I just didn’t make that connection. But as I was developing CyR.U.S., I realized how beneficial this will be not only to the blind community but to me as a sighted person who struggles to identify products in my shower.

“This type of system needs to be out there,” Watts says. “I’m not going to wait around for a large brand to decide to do this—I’m going straight to the consumer.”

It’s a smart move, considering Americans with a disability have $1.28 trillion in collective annual disposable income, according to a 2020 report. “Historically, change in the beauty industry is driven by consumer demand,” Watts says. “We saw that with clean ingredients. We saw that with sustainability. We’ll see the same with universal design.”

A universal path forward

For the U.S. Air Force, demand for change culminated when 17 pilots crashed in a single day. After the publication of “The ‘Average Man’?,” cockpits were redesigned with new specifications that they had to accommodate the fifth to 95th percentile of pilots (i.e., those with the smallest to largest frames). In other words, they had to design to the edges.

The rate of accidents decreased significantly.

At its core, universal design includes more people. Although it can mean increased access, it can also mean—as the U.S. Air Force demonstrated—that fewer people across the board are harmed.

This continues today in everyday occurrences, from the irksome (e.g., the standard office building temperature is set using a formula based on the metabolic resting rate of an average male—”40 years old, 155 pounds”—which “may overestimate female metabolic rate by up to 35%,” according to a 2015 study) to the deadly (e.g., crash-test dummies, infamously based on the average male of the time—5-foot-9, 171 pounds—have created bias in car safety features that disfavor women, meaning when a woman is in a car crash she is 73% more likely to be injured and 2.9% more likely to die than a man as an “occupant” in [model years] 2015-2020 vehicles, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report.)

If universal design were considered at the onset to all projects, perhaps we could bypass the redundant, painful revelation when we’re still somehow surprised to learn that our blind faith in the average has failed, again. If you’ve ever felt like this world wasn’t built for you, it wasn’t. But it turns out it wasn’t built to fit anyone.

Universal design offers a blueprint out of this world of averages and into one that’s equitable, inclusive and intuitive, for everyone.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo is public domain.

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