7 P’s of Universal Design

by | Mar 2, 2024 | CoE-A | 0 comments

What does it mean to be able to navigate a space? Is it simply getting from Point A to Point B or is it about what it takes to do that? Disability studies experts have considered this question as they envision what an accessible and equitable world looks like. The Universal Design (UD) movement aims to do exactly that, pushing us to examine how we can restructure our architecture and product designs to not just accommodate disability, but encompass it. Created by wheelchair user Ronald Mace and his team at North Carolina State University,  the seven principles of UD hold accessibility as a transformative process, a way to imagine, rather than a static concept. Our world needs to be adaptable and fluid, changing alongside us. The following guidelines form a doctrine of accessibility that use this idea as a basis for innovation and growth.

1. Equitable Use: Any object or structural design should be created with utility in mind . There should be nothing in the design that prohibits anyone from independently enjoying its full benefits. In practice, this looks like ensuring that all users have the same or equal means to use the product or design, accounting for equitable privacy, security, and safety measures for everyone, and making sure that the design is marketed towards all users without stigmatizing anyone. 

2. Flexibility in Use: The design is integrative of a wide range of individual needs and preferences. The incorporation of a particular feature should not exclude anyone from having complete and comprehensive  access to the product. The guidelines encompassed under this principle aim to ensure that the design can be adapted to the user’s needs through the inclusion of accommodations such  as right and left-handed access, flexibility in user pace, and measures to assist user accuracy when engaging with the design.

3. Simple and Intuitive Use: No matter the user’s experience, knowledge, or skill level, the design should be easily comprehensible. The product or feature used should take little effort to understand. This principle aims to simplify design aspects, accommodate diverse literacy and language skills, and provide information in order of importance.

4. Perceptible Information: The user should be able to discern necessary information from the product regardless of the surrounding physical environment or their own sensory capabilities. This principle focuses on ensuring that the design is communicating information effectively without unnecessary visual barriers. This includes maximizing the comprehension of key information through the use of different modes of communication such as pictorial, verbal, and tactile as well as ensuring that the design is compatible with a range of techniques and devices that enhance sensory processing. 

5. Tolerance for Error: The design should mitigate any risk of injury or other hazards towards the user while also reducing any negative consequences that may arise from user error. In practice, this means that the design elements have been arranged in such a way that minimizes the potential for error, with the most used elements being the most accessible. Designs should provide clear warnings of the risk of hazards while simultaneously ensuring that fail safe features are in place. 

6. Low Physical Effort: Individuals should be able to make full use of a design with ease and negligible levels of fatigue. This looks like creating a design that allows users to keep their bodies in a neutral position while minimizing repetitive actions and the need for  prolonged physical effort.

7. Size and Space for Approach and Use: The design should be created with adequate sizing and spacing to ensure that the user can easily approach, reach, and operate the product or feature no matter their body size, posture, or mobility. Designs must ensure that all operation-critical elements are easily visible and comfortable for both seated and standing users, taking into consideration diverse hand sizes and grips. Adequate size and space should be provided to facilitate ease of use for users who rely on assistive devices or personal assistance.

These seven principles of UD are not simply a set of criteria to be met. It is not enough to merely ensure that a design is dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s when it comes to these guidelines. These principles should be integral to the design process. UD wants us to reimagine the way our world works, to consider how accessibility can shift the existing paradigms of our societies. At the core of UD is an acknowledgment that disability is a spectrum along which everyone exists. With time, age, and circumstance, it is likely that we will all experience changes in our abilities. UD recognizes that disability exists on a spectrum and can affect anyone at different points in their lives. Our physical and social environments tend not to accommodate variability, however, leaving sizable portions of our societies unable to fully enjoy the world around them. 

As English professor and disability rights advocate Jay Timothy Dolmage puts it, UD is an “ethics of liberation.” Our current status quo has created physical and invisible boundaries that bar persons with disabilities from entering certain spaces. They are told through the design of a product or area that they are not allowed in, that this wasn’t created for them. Understanding that this has been the reality for persons with disabilities for generations is critical to establishing accessibility as an actual material practice rather than an idealistic concept. Accessibility should be integrated into every part of the design process for a product or public space, not included as an afterthought. 

This belief is at the core of the UD framework. Utilizing UD as a guiding principle for design would thus promulgate inclusive accessibility as an intrinsic practice of the status quo. UD goes beyond a simple theoretical approach. It is about understanding that true accessibility and inclusivity requires embracing diversity in design. UD is a process of movement that envisions an adaptable present and future as a means of building community, agency, and dignity for everyone. 



DOLMAGE, JAY TIMOTHY. “Universal Design.” In Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education, 115–52. University of Michigan Press, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvr33d50.7

National Disability Authority. n.d. “The 7 Principles.” Centre for Excellence in Universal Design. Accessed October 16, 2023. https://universaldesign.ie/what-is-universal-design/the-7-principles/

Jackson, Mary Ann. “Universal Design – Assisting Accessibility.” Sanctuary: Modern Green Homes, no. 25 (2013): 85–87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/sanctuary.25.85