Designing for Accessibility Part One: Universal Design and Accessible Design

Designing for accessibility is about building a world where everyone feels welcome, can participate, and can thrive. We take a look at common design approaches that we can learn from as we actively design accessibility into our world.

Art pencils of pink, red, orange, yellow, green, light blue, dark blue, and purple are arranged so that the tips form a multi-coloured heart shape.

Here at Be. Lab we know that Accessibility is about good design, and good design benefits everyone. 100% Accessibility can only be achieved when it is actively designed into every new innovation, space, place, and experience.

By actively designing access in, you’re creating a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere, encouraging participation from all citizens, and building a world where everyone can thrive. But how do we achieve this?

There are many different processes for designing places, products and services to be accessible, such as universal design, accessible design, inclusive design and human-centred design.

These design approaches are sometimes confused or used interchangeably, but each has a specific set of principles and approach, and an understanding of each can help us create better design outcomes.

In this blog we explore universal design and accessible design.

What is universal design?

Universal design, otherwise known as “Design for all”, is an approach to design that aims to be comprehensive.

The Auckland Design Manual says that universal design is about “Creating buildings, spaces and places that can be used and enjoyed by all,” and adds that “A universal design approach recognises human diversity and designs for life scenarios, such as pregnancy, childhood, injury, disability and old age.” Auckland Council takes this as a starting point for the city’s 30-year plan, and their Design Manual provides much useful information for those wanting to follow this approach.

Colleen Jones, Be. Lab design plan consultant and Universal Design expert, explains “This concept aims to provide places that can be independently accessed, understood and used by everyone, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design. It is about finding a solution that works universally, such as an entrance everyone is able to use rather than the separate ramped entry in the back.” She emphasises that universal design means that all users are considered equally to achieve an environment which is able to be used by all, with equal dignity.

What is accessible design?

The term “accessible design” has subtly different meanings in different contexts.

In some contexts, it is used to describe compliance with building standards for accessibility (as in the USA the Americans with Disabilities Act prescribes “standards for accessible design”).

It can also be used interchangeably with designing for accessibility.

A third meaning is to describe a design process in which the needs of people with disabilities are specifically considered.

Within this design process, best practice accessible design would be an understanding of a wide range of the best solutions to suit a broad range of diverse needs.


What is the difference?

Universal design considers a broad range of users, and the diversity of the lifecycle of users.

Accessible design considers specific needs of people with access needs or disabilities, and an understanding of the diversity of users within this group.


Why are they both useful?

A grounding in the principles of universal design ensures that from the concept design stage, the needs of as many people as possible will be considered to create better outcomes for the broadest range of users possible.

However, much of the onus of understanding users’ needs is left to the designer to conduct their own research, and to weigh up different users’ needs to come up with the most acceptable solution, while knowing that one solution will not suit every user. Where universal design alone may not serve us here is that it does not provide an in-depth understanding of users with access needs, or aim to ensure that accessibility is designed in to every stage.

In New Zealand the building code provides the legal framework for minimum standards for accessibility. These standards must be complied with in all new builds and renovations of existing buildings. However compliance with minimum standards does not guarantee an outcome that will suit all access citizens.

Unfortunately not all designers, engineers or architects are experts in this area, and while they may have an understanding of minimum standards for accessibility, they will not necessarily have an understanding of best practice.

At Be. Lab we believe in going beyond best practice to optimal practice accessible design. By starting from an understanding human diversity that is inherent in a universal design approach, and then consciously incorporating the best of accessible design, you can get a better outcome for those who are “typical” users, and a better outcome for "atypical" users.

Other common design philosophies which inform accessibility are inclusive design and human-centred design, and you can find these in the second in our “Designing for Accessibility” blog series.

At Be. Lab, we have 10 years’ experience in the industry and our experts have an understanding of design principles, minimum accessibility standards, best practice and optimal practice accessible design.

To find out more about our offerings, read our full list of One-Stop-Shop services.

Or to get in touch with our team today to discuss how we can help you on your accessibility journey, e-mail


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