Design Without Barriers

If you desire a new approach to design, consider the application of Universal Design and its relevance across all sectors.  Universal Design is about breaking down barriers, either physical or mental, perhaps even cognitive.  It is design that is intended to produce products, buildings, and environments that are inherently accessible. 

This may sound simple, but it can be quite difficult to achieve.  In fact, the best examples of Universal Design are designs that rarely register on your radar screen over the course of a day.  These designs simply work.  Subsequently, I firmly believe that universally designed objects and spaces often translate easily to able-bodied individuals as well as children and the elderly.

Being confined to a wheelchair or not having the ability to see with perfect vision are challenging realities for many people.  Simple tasks such as entering a building or using a bathroom are fraught with potential problems and barriers.  More specialized disabilities such as hand or arm amputations can inhibit even the most mundane of acts such as opening a wallet or purse, or putting on a pair of glasses.  We take a lot of the world around us for granted from a design and functionality standpoint.  Even the latest gadgets and technological advances are unintentionally establishing further barriers between those who cannot perform "eTasks" or "iTasks" and those who can.  A generational divide as well as a physical divide is imposed.  

Compare those to a simple crosswalk signal button?  This design achieves all of the goals of Universal Design by way of the improvement in technology.  

Last year in Rochester, 2nd Street SW was torn up and under construction for almost the entire summer to make way for a new and improved pedestrian-friendly streetscape.  Despite it’s obvious flaws (sparse street tree locations, lack of bike appropriations, railings that block pedestrian street crossing, etc.) the depressed curbs at the major bump out locations are great examples of Universal Design. 

The mundane and ubiquitous curb cut has many manifestations, from the flared to the sharp-edged ramp.  But these depressed curbs offered complete uniformity to the ramp and allows approach from all different directions.  As an able-bodied pedestrian, I find these to be easier to navigate, and as a designer, I think they are more aesthetically pleasing than a typical curb cut.

Take a closer look at the world around you, and envision it both from your perspective and that of someone with a disability, or medical patient, or a grandparent.  How could it be improved?  Where is the design opportunity?  Now do something about it.  Act on that impulse or highlight the great design that is overlooked every day for its simplicity and usefulness.  We can all strive to be more inclusive and empathetic.  And just a little bit goes a long way.