Discussion and Recommendations

Barriers to Uptake of Universal Design

The concept of Universal Design was introduced over twenty years ago (Mace, 1985). Uptake by the design industry has been supported by a considerable amount of quality research from respected researchers and designers (e.g. See Preiser & Ostroff, 2001), but it has been slow and uneven (Duncan, 2007).

Factors contributing to this slow uptake may include an established industry practice of designing mainstream products targeted to the so-called 'typical' user (Klironomos et al., 2006; Story et al, 1998), the design industry and education system being slow by nature to respond to new influences and movements (Keates et al. 2000; Morrow, 2001b), and a failure to make the study of people's needs an explicit part of a design course (Morrow, 2001b).

Defining what can be Classified as Universal Design on Design Curricula

Confusion exists within the design industry as to what exactly Universal Design is. For example, a designer who successfully meets the minimum requirements of Accessible Design Standards might be under the misconception that that this is synonymous with Universal Design (Ostroff, 2001).

From Tables 1-3 it can be seen that Universal Design teaching varies considerably between institutions. Many subjects that are taught as "Universal Design" can in fact be named as separate design approaches or subjects: for example usability or ergonomics, and so on. All are in the spirit of Universal Design, however all existed before the term "Universal Design" was even coined (Mace, 1985). In some cases it is seen that design work focuses on solving for specific limitations to eliminate barriers with limited priority to address the wider population that may also be impacted by the same design need.

Consider how three different courses could list "Universal Design" as part of their curriculum: one that teaches usability and ergonomics, the second that brings design students in contact with people with disabilities during the course of a design project, and the third that provides a lecture in first year on diverse needs of people. All three are valid examples of teaching Universal Design techniques, but are all three equally effective? In what context or design stage is which technique most effective? And are these examples sufficiently informed to incorporate the diverse factors across a range of age, size, abilities and disability?

Many disciplines can benefit from being more informed on Universal Design. Effective application in different disciplines may require that specific goals and objectives be identified and that tailored approaches are prepared for each.

Therefore a need exists to define exactly what is meant by Universal Design (Inclusive Design, Design for All, etc.) to ensure that it is in fact being taught in an accurate and optimal way. If Universal Design is simply an adoption of design approaches that consider the diverse needs of populations, this needs to be stated. Otherwise the same subjects will be taught under different guises and the adoption or recognition of the Universal Design philosophy will be diluted.

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Advancing Universal Design

Introducing and furthering Universal Design will likely be optimised from both a top down and bottom up approach. From the top (push), government can further promote practices that incorporate Universal Design solutions for its constituents. Promoting and applying Universal Design thinking in public endeavours can be a way toward cost savings and maximum positive impact. Examples of good practice in government projects and procurement can be prepared as models to inform the preparation of resources to further enable Universal Design education.

The end user or consumer may best drive a bottom up (pull) approach as people become more able to recognise Universal Design in the choices they make. A combination of consumer interest and market response has the potential to drive the need for Universal Design. Manufacturers will respond with requirements for designers to apply Universal Design in their practice. More large corporations will seek staff with abilities to apply Universal Design in their organisations.

Both government and consumers are in a position to further Universal Design in a practical way. To accomplish this will require that more people in decision making positions are informed about the potential benefits of Universal Design and how to realise it. Knowledge on Universal Design can be facilitated through government initiatives and educational endeavours. Key experts can be prepared with the ability to apply and communicate research findings and evidence from successful examples of Universal Design. Exemplars of best practice achieving desired outcomes can be disseminated among public outlets. Universal Design will be more likely to advance if taught so as to demonstrate its advantages in many disciplines rather than by focusing too much on disability.

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Attitudes of Designers, Design Teachers and other relevant Stakeholders

Universal Design does not intend to stifle creativity and artistic expression in any way. The skills and natural talent of designers should be harnessed to create design solutions that are accessible and usable, and also desirable. However, there is a tendency to associate Universal Design with accessibility standards and building codes (Ostroff 2001), which likely contributes to negative attitudes towards the design philosophy.

The UK's Centre for Education and the Built Environment (CEBE, 2002) described Universal Design as "an attitude that needs to be promoted". Attitudes influence - and often determine - how people behave (Schafer & Tait, 1986). A survey of industry attitudes towards Universal Design identified the following (Keates et al. 2000):

  • Members of industry were willing to implement Universal
    Design as long as:
    • It was either easy to do or that a consultancy would do
      it for them.
    • It did not increase the cost of the product or
  • There did not appear to be widespread acceptance of the
    need for Universal Design training programmes for designers.
  • There did not appear to be widespread appreciation of the
    potential increased market of more accessible products.
  • There was a common misconception that Universal Design is
    another name for design for elderly and disabled people.

A designer's attitude can potentially be influenced by factors such as his/her expertise, personal motivations, tendency to conform to the social norm and by his/her view of other designers which he/she respect and admire. The attitudes of teachers at early stages of training, the attitudes of mentors or supervisors, and the attitudes and actions of professional bodies representing designers are likely to all shape an individual's entire design ethos.

Transfer of Knowledge

"Many professional architects would attest to the great divide between what is taught in university and what must be known to practice." (Heylighen, 2008). In the Architecture Industry, a lack of communication between practitioners and academics has been reported (Watson and Grondzik, 1997; Neuckermans, 2004; Heylighen, 2008). It is claimed that knowledge and findings from Architectural research are not necessarily being successfully transferred to practicing architects (Neuckermans, 2004). And some architects in practice are surprised to hear of the existence of PhDs in Architecture (Khemlani, 2005).

The author found no discussion as to whether or not research findings are at least being transferred to teachers of Architecture. If this was the case, at least undergraduate and more recently qualified architects could benefit from this newly discovered knowledge.

Perhaps of more concern, however, is the apparent lack of communication from practising architects back into design education (Heylighen, 2008). It has been suggested, that the profession "tends to be highly secretive" (Heylighen et al. 2007) and that there has been a failure to develop a common architectural "language" (Habraken, 1997), both of which appear to influence sharing of information and dissemination of innovative design solutions.

It is also generally understood that some industry and commercial entities have developed very strong abilities to accomplish Universal Design although much of this knowledge is held as proprietary and may not be readily available to inform or apply to education initiatives. There appears to be potential for the design industry (comprising both academic and professional designers) to learn from the medical and law profession models: building an evidence base of designing practices and exploring methods of recording and disseminating information (a) between designers (b) from professional designers back into academia, and (c) from teachers in academia to design students.

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The Role of Design Organisations and Academic Bodies

SEEDesign (an EU-funded project, comprising major design organisations representing six European countries) aimed to "improve the effectiveness of the support provided for local SMEs relating to design issues in Europe, creating a network for the dissemination of good practices on this field" (SEEDesign, 2009). The project consortium recommended (SEEDesign, 2007) that policy makers "stimulate design education on various levels, from primary school to postgraduate courses, and ensure that education is focused on the demands and needs of the local economy". They highlighted the need to "coordinate the various stakeholders in education, industry and government involved in design activities so they work towards common objectives".

The former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) highlighted the need for RIBA to build up and disseminate the Architecture profession's body of knowledge and its responsibility in transmitting it to succeeding generations of architects (Duffy, 1997). Accordingly it has been suggested that professional institutes could potentially act as "vital allies in sharing the knowledge available-and thus in catalysing sustainable and inclusive design" (Heylighen, 2008). The role of design organisations and academic institutions and the manner in which these organisations communicate and share information are critical to the optimal implementation of Universal Design across design curricula generally.

It was found that some of the educational content that is necessary for a working knowledge of Universal Design can be integrated into general design education, relevant to many fields of design. Although, extensive specific courses of study for those individuals who want to specialise in Universal Design are not available unless individually arranged.

For the majority of designers that may be focused on design issues such as environmental impact, conservation of heritage, aesthetics, energy efficiency, etc. As their particular area of interest or study must be shown that Universal Design is a very important and should be a part of all of these courses. However, before this can be done, courses specifically on Universal Design should be developed so they can then be disseminated (either in part or in whole) to other courses.

Overall successful implementation of Universal Design in education requires:

  • Support for and promotion of Universal Design from those
    individuals and organisations in a position to change the attitudes of
    designers, including professional design organisations (e.g. RIAI, Engineers
    Ireland), respected teachers and public figures in the built environment design
    community, and directors and managers of design firms who are in the public eye.
  • Preparation of Universal Design curriculum materials by a
    consortium of experts for use among a range of levels and disciplines.
  • Expert preparation of key individuals as trainers of
    Universal Design teachers.
  • Training for academic staff and teachers of Universal
    Design, to ensure it is being taught accurately and effectively and to ensure
    the course content is up to date and of the highest quality.
  • Practical support (i.e. in the form of finances, time,
    resources) for staff in academic institutions to incorporate Universal Design
    into their curriculum.

Universal Design teaching should include:

  • A combined theoretical and practical
  • Ideally as part of a larger project or initiative (and
    therefore not dependent upon an individual and at risk of being lost if that
    individual leaves the institution).
  • Should be integrated at an early stage of curriculum
  • Should be taught both at early stages of third level
    education (undergraduate) as well as continuous professional development.
  • Subjects and skills covered on a course should
    • Terminology and definitions
    • Human abilities and behaviour.
    • Quantitative data such as anthropometrics and statistics
      on demographics.
    • Methods of user-designer or community-designer engagement
      or observation.
    • Cognitive, sensory and physical human factors in
    • Functionality and desirability.
    • Inclusive communication of information.
    • Selected design techniques such as inclusive design
      process tools.

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Approach for content at different levels (Sample Universal Design Course Outlines)

The aforementioned subjects and skills list may be presented at any level or stage of interaction with students being taught about Universal Design. It is recognised although that prioritisation and time allocations for content sub-sets will differ depending on the level of student experience. In Appendix D is an example of an Early Stage course module on Universal Design that could be embedded into a program of engineering or related coursework. Parts of this content, as per an overall agreed plan of approach, should be used and repeated at different stages of the coursework. An overview of this "granular" approach can be seen in the CEN Workshop Agreement Draft "Curriculum for training professionals in Universal Design" (CEN, in preparation), which is currently under development.

An early stage exposure to Universal Design may be a single lecture as part of an introductory module. Content for first year engineering students should prioritise initial understanding based on examples of good and bad design. Of key importance would be to provide context that closely relates to what is familiar to the student (current technology), as a way to prompt interest and initiate commitment to the subject. Important at this early stage is to introduce the concept of human diversity and ranges of abilities. Drivers related to related legal requirements for Universal Design and how this will impact on the future roles of the students should be covered. The general structure of Universal Design can then be discussed through its overarching principles and guidelines, with exposure to user participation practices and its associated design selection criteria techniques. A key objective would be that this content be considered by the students for use in all areas of their studies.

At a later stage or final year level, a more practical approach to learning and applying the practices of Universal Design in final projects, masters work or industry collaborations would be expected (Appendix D, Later Stage module). Based on a workable understanding of Universal Design, the priority here would be on utilising some of the recognised tools and techniques in the course project work related to the student's area of specialisation. For example, the student's research would reflect a wide range of user factors, abilities and requirements. Their methods would engage user participation and their design process would apply tools and techniques for ensuring universal design solutions. The outputs of their work would represent use of applicable standards and specialised technologies. Their later stage study and application of Universal Design is assumed to be project based and facilitated through involvement with a laboratory, studio or field study environment.

The Early Stage and Later Stage sample draft module outlines for teaching Universal Design found in Appendix D are structured on a Trinity College Dublin course outline format. They are structured under the heading of Course Organisation, Course Description, Learning Outcomes, Course Syllabus (with content outlines and project examples), Recommended Text, Teaching Strategies and Assessment Modes.

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