Nov 26, 2019

Design consists of many building blocks of ideas, methodologies, attributes, and focuses. Common design fields include product design, user interface design, graphic design, and interior design, just to scrape the surface. Each of these components uses different techniques and skills that differentiate them from one another, while also sharing many overarching methodologies and terms.

However, sometimes those terms and techniques that are applicable and sharable between disciplines are misunderstood or applied inconsistently by professionals, confounding any one person’s efforts to accurately categorize them: Out of genuine curiosity, a recruiter once asked me, “What is design exactly?” The response I gave her was simple, albeit probably frustrating: “Design is a chaotic Venn diagram.”

Three such pieces in the grand-Venn-diagram-O-design that can overlap across design fields, yet often defy consistent explanation, are the principles of “universal,” “inclusive,” and “accessible” design. But, what are they exactly?

Universal Design

Let’s start off with the broadest of these three concepts. Universal design is the methodology of designing products and environments to be usable by all people without the need for adaption or specialized design. This methodology originally comes from architecture and environmental design, so most examples are based on physical products and services. Successful universal design can be used in practically every industry and achieved by examining various human characteristics, such as, but not limited to, age, gender identity, ethnicity, mobility, or language. Common examples of successful universal design are curb cuts and automatic doors. What makes these designs universal is that they cater to all types of people with or without various limitations that are temporary or permanent. In the case of the automatic door, it benefits individuals with disabilities, parents with strollers, delivery men, and everyone in between.

Inclusive Design

Inclusive design is the design of ordinary products or services that are accessible, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible without the use of specialized design or adaptation. Sounds exactly the same as Universal design, right? Unlike universal design, inclusive design was born more out of the digital realm. Its goal is for designs to eliminate or reduce the need for assistive technologies, as well as to be compatible with assistive technologies, thus removing hurdles that may affect the use of the product or service. The most common everyday examples of inclusive design are closed caption and audio books. While these two examples sound like they only benefit a certain group, like Universal or Inclusive design, they are also beneficial to others. For example, closed caption benefits those with limited hearing, but are also beneficial if you are in a noisy place, such as a restaurant, or a quiet place, such as a café. Given the similarities, perhaps Universal and Inclusive design can be used interchangeably in some conversations without causing confusion, but there are differing perspectives on what each term should mean.

For example, Kat Holmes, author of Mismatch, explains that Universal design is exceptionally good at describing the nature of physical objects, while Inclusive design focuses on how the designer reached that final design. Jutta Treviranus, who founded the Inclusive Design Research Centre at the Ontario College of Art and Design (IDRC), offers a more focused, technical difference. Treviranus states that universal design is one-size-fits-all while inclusive design is one-size fits-one.  

The IDRC make three distinctions between universal and inclusive design, based on their focus within the digital (as opposed to physical) design:

  • Context: In the digital realm, the constraints and possibilities are completely different, because digital allows for the ability to personalize to the user rather than the user adapting to the product or environment.
  • Method: Using the freedom of digital technology, products can engage the user in a flexible manner to accommodate specific user needs on an individual basis.
  • Users: Due to twisting of the original meaning for Universal Design, many have associated it with specific disability characteristics and categories. The IDRC stresses that people are “multi-faceted”, thus all aspects of the design and a person’s needs should be considered.

Accessible Design

Accessible design is most often referred to as a design attribute, as opposed to a method or discipline. An accessible design aims to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities and address any discriminatory aspects in the user experience so that a product or service can be used independently, and is compatible with assistive technologies. Awareness for accessible design came into its current form (in the US) with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The legislation greatly benefits those with disabilities by mandating public facilities adhere to accessible design guidelines during development. Since then, accessible design has adapted to the digital realm, especially due to the Web Accessibility Initiative , which has developed guidelines and comprehensive resources to assist designers and developers to create accessible platforms and incorporate assistive technology. 


Making a product universal (and accessible) can bring great publicity and more users to your brand or device. OXO Good Grips is a prime example of this. The Good Grips are kitchen tools originally designed for the designer’s mother who has arthritis. The small, personal inspiration made a large impact on kitchen products and have secured a place in the National Museum of American History.

All these styles have the potential to be used together when considered early on in the design process and can benefit a large part of the population. As schools and companies who have the power to reinforce the importance of these design aspects, we need to incorporate these ideas into our projects to reduce unusable products, facilities, and services.

“Participation doesn’t require a particular design. But a particular design can prohibit participation.” – Kat Holmes, FastCompany

Jacqueline Edwards is User Interface Design Associate at Emergo by UL’s Human Factors Research & Design division.

Additional human factors engineering and usability resources from Emergo by UL:

  • Human factors design and prototype development support
  • HFE user research for medical devices and IVDs
  • Webinar: Methods for identifying potential use errors


  • Jacqueline Edwards