Universal Design

Universal Design was founded upon the idea that designs for space and objects should be accessible and usable by every person, no matter their ability. Universal Design is a concept and not necessarily the “law”, but it should be considered in all situations.

If the original design does not meet the needs of all who might wish to use it, how can you change or supplement the design to make it more inclusive? Generally, if a design is not intuitive it won’t be used. (or it will be discussed ad nauseum in various memes on the internet…)


There are seven principles of Universal Design.

  1. Equitable Use – the design is useful to people with diverse abilities
  2. Flexibility in Use – the design accommodates a wide range of abilities and preferences
  3. Simple and Intuitive – use of the design is easy to understand and use without any preexisting knowledge of the device
  4. Perceptible Information – the design communicates effectively regardless of a user’s sensory abilities
  5. Tolerance for Error – the design minimizes hazards or potential for harm incase it is used in an unexpected way
  6. Low Physical Effort – the design can be used efficiently and effectively without exerting too much effort
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use – appropriate size and space is provided so that the design can be used effectively
Robson Square Entrance for wheels or walking
Robson Square Entrance in Vancouver, BC


General Rules for Accessibility

Rules and regulations on accessibility vary from state to state and, in some cases, city to city. This matters the most when building and designing a new space. (but should matter all the time!!)

In class we had discussed what happens if someone is in violation of these rules, and I felt unsure. I knew that at the Grand Rapids’ Children’s Museum we paid close attention to accessibility rules, but I never remembered anyone coming in to check up on us. Exhibits in museums change constantly, and you don’t have to pull new permits every time you move the furniture. What does someone do when they don’t have access to a space that they should? What does someone do when they see something that’s in violation of an accessibility law, making it unsafe for everyone?

I did a little digging around and found that most cities have a Department of Building and Safety that violations can be reported to. It’s also a great resource to figure out building codes and your city’s rules for accessibility.

In New York it’s called NYC Department of Buildings, and they actually cover all buildings and spaces (residential, commercial, and public) within the city limits. It’s the same folks you call when your landlord is doing work without a permit, or trying to screw you over on your space.

Accessibility and Museums

Accessibility goes beyond arriving at a physical space. Once a person enters a space, how do we make information available to them? How do we make sure that they have access to everything that they need? How can we ensure that no one has to miss out on anything that is being offered to them? These are things that are not regulated by government, but that allow patrons to have a more full experience in your space.

One great way of understanding how to make information available is to understand your audience. What languages do your visitors speak? What age are they? What is their average height? How many visitors will be arriving in wheel chairs, or have other forms of physical differences? Should you offer special programing for people to come in and experience the museum in different ways?

Language is such a huge barrier. Especially in large cities with people visiting from all over the world, it’s so important to make sure that at least the most basic information (bathrooms, water, exits, entrances) are easily recognizable if not displayed in varying languages. One way of making a museum more accessible is to offer audio devices in multiple languages. Through studies and understanding demographics you can see which languages are spoken most often and develop learning tools for those people. If your museum isn’t in a position to spend a load of money on developing multi-lingual tools pictures work really well to convey information, and they work for most any sight-abled person. Braille or audio-cues can be used for those without sight.

In thinking about making your space more accessible I think it’s so important to treat it as a challenge and not a task. Ideally, your designs will only benefit the greater good. You aren’t excluding anyone by making something more available to someone who is differently-abled.

“Did TVs replace radios? Or just make our lives richer by giving us more options?” – Henry Evans

In discussing digital museum interactives Christine Reich discusses in Universal Design of Computer Interactive for Museum Exhibitions that it is “important to give clear and simple directions”. I also loved that she brought up the point that visitors with “decreased attention need a clear indication of a goal”. I think that model can be applied to most anyone. People are more willing to partake in an activity if they are aware of the amount of time it is going to consume.

I haven’t seen many examples of museums giving patrons a time line within an activity, but the Medium online journal tells you about how long each article will take you to read before you start, you can even chose a “Reading Roulette” which gives you various short essays when you don’t have a lot of time but want or need to be entertained.

Guest Lecture
Alison Hines, Assistant Manager of Exhibition Media, 9/11 Memorial Museum

To be honest, I felt sort of conflicted about Alison coming to speak with us. I haven’t been to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, and I think some of that has to do with my confusion as to why it even exists. I understand the purpose of a memorial, to give space for people to come and grieve and remember and learn, but to make it into a museum seems sort of lavish. There are no doubts in my mind that 9/11 was a terrible tragedy, I was living in Philadelphia then, my grandfather had just passed away, and a lot of my family still lived in New York. Thinking about that time is hard for me, as I am sure it is ten-fold for anyone who was living here at that time. Regardless of your beliefs as to why or how it happened or who is responsible it is a terrifying scar in American history, but it seems like such an American idea to monetize a tragedy in order to document it. Not to mention that it is another example of us pointing out that awful things that have been done to us, without acknowledging the awful things that we have done to others. I would be curious to know whether the museum documents the awful treatment of muslims in the city after the attacks? Are they doing any work with our community to help change people’s perceptions?

Politics aside… Alison came to talk to us about technology at the museum. She did an incredible job of explaining their programing and the advanced steps that they are taking to make the museum and its contents available for all. It seems like they really thought about all aspects of ability when designing their programming and interactions. There was only one exhibit that she mentioned that is not available to people who are lacking sight, but she offered that anyone can ask to have the materials read to them. She talked about the ways that the museum has shifted and changed as they’ve realized the programs that work or don’t work. I love that they are working directly with people who have disabilities to ask them what works or doesn’t work for them. One of my favorite things that she said was, “Don’t not do it because it’s not perfect.” Any little bit helps.