So what exactly is universal design

‘Age is not an illness’ blasts designer Diana Kraus in Oliver Herwig’s book Universal Design: Solutions for Barrier-free Living. Another page is devoted to another quote, this one by James Irvine, who says, ‘good design is universal design’. Both comments

Against the background of an ageing population, the theory of universal design and barrier-free living is gaining traction. A new book on the subject, out next month, also suggests that older consumers are the ultimate arbiters when it comes to bad design. Yolanda Zappaterra investigates

‘Age is not an illness’ blasts designer Diana Kraus in Oliver Herwig’s book Universal Design: Solutions for Barrier-free Living. Another page is devoted to another quote, this one by James Irvine, who says, ‘good design is universal design’. Both comments are, of course, indisputable, and both are important to design, as this fascinating book makes clear in a number of unexpected, useful and intelligent ways.

As a range of social statistics show, society and its needs are changing. By 2030, people in their 40s today will be the relative majority, with greater spending power, leisure time, property and wealth than the elderly have ever had, and more years to enjoy them. Intelligent, vocal, politically powerful and technologically savvy, ‘whoopies’ – or well-off older people – will drive the desire for ‘universal design’ as defined by Ron Mace, the late founder and programme director of The Center for Universal Design in North Carolina, US, who saw it as ‘the concept of designing all products, buildings and the built environment to be usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life’.

Picking up the theme for ‘barrier-free living’, Dan Harden, principal of ID at Whipsaw Design (winner of a D&AD Yellow Pencil this year for its Adiri baby bottle), sees it as ‘allowing people to access their “best place” emotionally and physically – without being encumbered or interrupted by objects in their environment’. He goes on to say, ‘Products often interrupt task or experience flow, instead of enhancing it. The products that stick are often the ones that just fit right, tirelessly and humbly serving their master.’

Herwig’s book gathers together a compelling selection of such products, examining not just examples of universal design in packaging and communication, but also in orientation systems, transport design and urban environments designed with barrier-free living in mind. And he gathers them together from around the globe: from Japan, where kyoyo-hin products, or ‘universally usable goods’, have been at the forefront of design for more than a decade and inform the work of manufacturers like Toshiba; from Holland, where designers devised the elegant and effective Simple Phone mobile; and from Sweden, where products like the ergonomically angled bread knife Ergon are sold at Ikea.

Bringing these things together with interviews, principles, guidelines and statistics, Herwig urges designers to see that the ‘change that is gaining momentum in our society demands and supports a new understanding of design’. He also points out that studying seniors leads to better designs, whether it be product design or Internet design, because seniors are the toughest testers. ‘If they are happy with a product everyone else will be, too. Older people are anything but guinea pigs; they are mature consumers and, as such, are seismographs for bad design,’ he says.

Given such compelling data and motivation, why is so little design genuinely universal? Konstantin Grcic, interviewed in the book, blames marketing and sales manipulation. ‘Everyone wants a low-risk product – meaning the shortest development time possible, fast products and short product cycles, to hopefully gain a piece of the market.’ And according to a Deutsche Bank research document quoted in the book, this is made worse by ‘the age difference between the target groups and the mainly very young product developers and marketing experts’.

But Harden lays some of the blame with designers. ‘I think designers could be more empathic in their approach to solving universal design problems,’ he says. ‘They need to experience for themselves the difficulties, pain and frustration that people with limitations often have when interacting with everyday objects and technology. Designers – and our society – get excited by the newest sexy innovation, but usually don’t apply enough thought to solving the tough utilitarian problems. Just look around – there are so many disingenuous products out there with dubious functionality and poor interface. It takes lots of user-research, testing, open-mindedness and patience to nail a good universal design.’ Such user-testing is beginning to take place and is covered in Herwig’s book; a fascinating segment documents a tester’s experience in an age-simulation suit as he tries to go shopping.

As an ageing population becomes bigger, wealthier, more important and more vocal in its demands, Harden is hopeful that we will see change, at least from designers. ‘Core problem-solving techniques won’t change,’ he says, ‘but when design criteria evolve, like bigger and older people, designers’ perspectives on the problem will need to evolve too. “Needs finding” becomes more important, and selfless creation needs to happen with focus on the user’s life, period. Everybody, whether a baby sucking on a bottle or an old man trudging away on a scooter, responds to design cues and deserves to be in their “best place”.’ Designers keen to help not just the whoopies, but everyone else too, to find that ‘best place’ would do well to read Herwig’s book.

Universal Design by Oliver Herwig is scheduled to be published next month by Birkhaüser Verlag

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