The evolution of design principles: From universal to equitable design

Design principles have significantly evolved since the 1960s, moving from their architectural roots to encompass automation, technology and digital innovation, and now aim to include the full spectrum of humanity.

This evolution from universal design to inclusive and equitable design represents a shift towards not just making spaces and technologies physically accessible, but also considering the diverse needs of all individuals, including their cognitive, sensory, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds. The goal is to make design fair and just for everyone.

The beginnings of universal design

In the 1960s, the concept of universal design emerged with the revolutionary idea of creating spaces and products usable by everyone, irrespective of their physical abilities. This approach, which started in architecture, introduced the importance of simplicity, flexibility, and intuitive usage, paving the way for a more inclusive approach across various sectors like technology, education, and transportation.

Universal design focuses on:

  • Equitable use, allowing diverse individuals to interact with environments similarly while avoiding segregation and ensuring equal access to privacy, security, and safety.
  • Flexibility to accommodate individual preferences and abilities, including variations in hand dominance and speed.
  • Simplicity and intuitiveness in design, making interfaces easy to understand regardless of a user’s language skills or concentration level.
  • Adaptability to different sensory abilities and ensuring compatibility with assistive devices.
  • Tolerance of error, minimising hazards and adjusting risk management to consider variations in gender, size, and ability, thereby creating environments that require low physical effort and are accessible and comfortable for people of all body sizes and mobility levels.


Shift to inclusive design

As our world became more technologically advanced and our understanding of diversity deepened, universal design evolved into inclusive design. This transition acknowledged that accessibility should consider a wide range of human diversity, pushing designs to be user-centered and adaptable to meet various individual needs.

Inclusive design emphasises ongoing improvement and customisation, reflecting a sophisticated understanding of human differences.

Inclusive design focuses on:

  • Engaging a wide range of individuals, including those with overlapping identities or multiple disabilities, ensuring their perspectives and needs guide the development.
  • Celebrating diversity by openly acknowledging and accommodating different abilities, preferences, and experiences, thereby promoting access for all.
  • Acknowledging that one solution does not fit all by offering multiple ways of interaction and exceeding minimum technical standards to cater to varied user needs.
  • Adapting to changing requirements over time, such as different times of day or evolving user groups, making it easy to adjust to people’s needs.
  • Making spaces and facilities not just usable but enjoyable for everyone, considering aspects like signage, lighting, and materials to enhance the overall experience.
  • Encompassing the full user journey, including expectation setting and information availability.


The rise of equitable design

Equitable design is a rising area in the design field, that is as yet, less globally standardised than universal or inclusive design. Equitable design aims to directly tackle systemic inequalities through principles of fairness and justice.

It extends the concept of inclusivity beyond simple access, addressing issues of affordability, diversity, ethics, and community involvement. This approach takes a comprehensive view of design, striving to eliminate barriers that prevent equal participation and address the root causes of exclusion.

Equitable design focuses on:

  • Clarity in language, goals, and measures, acknowledging the importance of setting and reporting on targets in a way that does not overlook the experiences of marginalised groups.
  • Recognising personal biases that influence our perceptions and decisions, urging the inclusion of diverse perspectives.
  • Identifying situational challenges that vary by time of day, season, or individual circumstances, such as major life events.
  • Addressing systemic inequality by advocating for more support for those with greater needs, normalising discussions around privilege and systemic barriers to create equal opportunities for success.
  • Identifying and addressing areas where certain groups might be excluded due to factors such as caring responsibilities or physical abilities, with the goal of proactively ensuring their inclusion.
  • Benefiting everyone by enhancing choice and improving the overall design, thereby lifting the experience for all involved.


The journey toward a more inclusive future

The evolution from universal to inclusive and equitable design underscores a deepening commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. Moving beyond the accommodation of physical differences, this journey aims to address a wider array of human needs and experiences. As industries begin to integrate these design principles, the potential for meaningful change becomes evident.

By prioritising fairness and inclusivity, we can build environments that are accessible, equitable, and reflective of the diverse tapestry of human society.