The eighth principle of universal design

In 1997, North Carolina State University’s Center for Universal Design copyrighted The Principles of Universal Design, Version 2.0. The seven brilliantly worked out principles you will be familiar with are:

1. Fair Use

2. Flexibility in use

3. Simple and intuitive

4. Perceivable Information

5. Fault Tolerance

6. Low physical exertion

7. Size and space for approach and use

An eighth principle would be a welcome and necessary addition to this honorable list. Rather than just defining a user’s physical experience and environment in this way, this eighth principle would address perception; those shared by the observer and the observed. How do we see others and how do they see us? Can we build in a way that levels the perception game and creates a field where all players are more likely to be seen as equal?

I was recently asked if the New York City subways should be cleaner. As a lifelong resident of New York, I recoiled from this absurd notion. I admire our rudeness. This is my rough, bad, and rough city and nobody’s supposed to clean it up. A dirty subway is normal and a stable measure of our urban humanity. If you show up dirtier than the subway, you really are a mess. If you’ve taken a few minutes to clean up, you’re already better than most. And if you dress smartly, you are king – something to see and admire. This is me; I like to look good. Subway makes me look good with little effort. Clean it up and my habits and standards seem to drop. Pretty silly, right? But don’t we all play such stupid games? You have a look, your look; They like and maintain this look. You measure how you look, how others look. They wear sweaters or jackets; buttoned shirts or t-shirts. They reflect your identity and are the image you want to project.

But imagine waking up one morning, snoozing across to your closet and not discovering a stitch of familiar fabrics. There were towels in your closet that were the wrong color, material, look, and fit. What now? You can’t go out naked so you wear what’s there. You enter a world that is completely unsafe. everything is wrong You don’t fit in. All friends are wondering what happened to you. People react differently, better or worse. How you see yourself and how others see you has been changed simply by clothing that is different from what you would normally wear.

This clothing example is a metaphor for the design of our homes, cities and products and how we “fit” into them; it is also a metaphor for when our mobility is temporarily or permanently changed. When we are comfortable the experience is positive, when not the experience is negative. There is an emotional landscape that we manage just like the physical one. Our condition and the condition of our environment affect this emotional landscape; they exaggerate differences or support equality.

The eighth principle would recognize the importance of an environment that supports perceptual equality. A universally designed environment would support positive perceptions of others and of ourselves. We would appear and feel the same as we face our daily challenges. There would not be a moment when an environment or a product would transport us to a place where we would be perceived as different and have to deal with or endure emotional consequences that otherwise would not exist.

Let’s look at a uniquely American example, the greatness of a presidential candidate. Betting on the winning candidate? Go for the bigger one! Since the advent of television, 75% of American elections have been won by the bigger candidates.

What about the blondes? Do blondes have more fun? Ask a convert, the answer is yes. An acquaintance in her 60’s went from gray hair to blonde screaming that this wild experimentation wasn’t what she really is. Since changing her hair color, she’s found there’s no turning back. Blondes have more fun!

subway dirt? towels? Height? Hair colour? What does this have to do with universal design? They are perceptions we form of ourselves and of others. They are part of the judgments we make billions of times a day. Some of these judgments are self-formed and others are instilled in us by our families and the cultures in which we live.

Judgments that form the basis of our day-to-day decision-making are further informed and adjusted by the current situation. Driving a car is a useful example: you’re learning the skills needed to drive, but every road is different and requires instant judgment for the situation at hand.

Going back to the example of bigger presidents, our judgment of size subtly tells us that big is better, big is more powerful, and big is more authoritative. Smaller candidates struggle with this perception and are constantly looking for adjustments to offset the impact of height on voters’ perceptions. Herein lies the essence of the eighth principle. Can we build to reduce or eliminate these judgments? Can our environments and products allow us to appear more equal to others and reduce or eliminate biased perceptions than we currently design?

In December 2008, President-elect Barack Obama announced that members had been selected for his green team. I was watching the press conference and saw something unusual due to a rare camera angle. When it was Nancy Sutley’s turn on the podium, the camera shot switched from the back of the room to the side of the stage. Ms. Sutley is quite small. I watched as President-elect Obama stepped forward and used his foot to position a step stool for her. The gesture was personal; they shared an endearing look that confirmed the caring foresight. From the camera at the back of the room, all you could see was one person handing the podium to another.

With those extra inches to stand on, she didn’t present her speech in any way marginalized by her smaller stature. Without those extra inches, she would hardly have peeked over the podium or stood at his side, an action that would have unfairly set her apart from the other speakers and prompted judgments based on her physical stature alone.

Acknowledging that it is in our nature to judge and that the environment affects our judgments in every moment, I contend that in addition to the seven principles that balance the mechanics of a physical environment, we can add a principle that The emotional ones attract attention.

Here would be principle eight:

8. Eighth Principle: Perception of Equality –

The design minimizes the possibility of an individual

be perceived as unequal.

by Konrad Kaletsch, 2009