Museum Sends Universal Design Message

For more than 25 years, my design work has been driven in part by a passion for inclusive or Universal Design. While awareness and appreciation for improved access have grown over the years, we still have a gap between the design approach called “universal” or “inclusive” and what it actually means. Currently at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in Manhattan, there is an exhibit that truly eliminates that gap and demonstrates the fundamental core and spirit of this design approach. The show is “Access+Ability,” and everyone involved in the design of products, technology or space should see it. Here is an overview to whet your appetite, in the hope that you will check it out.

Why It’s Important

Some would refer to UD as ADA design, but most of us know better. Many more of us might use the terms “UD” and “accessible design” to mean the same thing, and this is what becomes tricky to define/clarify. While the results can be the same beautiful and supportive design, the approach is different. This is an important distinction.

Accessible design starts with the solution to a specific challenge, not always intended for all people, and there is often a discovery that the concept helps many more than it was targeting. Examples include the curb cut, the lever door handle, the elevated, front-loading laundry equipment and even the telephone, which was first designed to help a person with hearing loss, and OXO Good Grips, first imagined as an aid for a person with arthritis.

In contrast, UD does not start with the needs of one person, but with respect for differences in people. This focus results in improved access for a variety of needs, and it should be a part of all good design. To be successful and truly universal, a design must be appealing and desirable, and the examples in this exhibit are just that.

They are first a response to an access issue and, by design, they become universal because of their incredible appeal. They are not just a solution to a problem, but designed to enhance the function, appearance and life of the intended user. The experiences of Access+Ability are important now, because never more than today have we embraced diversity in the size, age, sex, and abilities of people, and we are long past due for beautiful, responsive design.

The Exhibit

Organized by Cara McCarty, director of Curatorial at Cooper Hewitt, and Rochelle Steiner, curator and professor of Critical Studies at the Roski School of Art & Design, University of Southern California, the program includes an exhibit of products that improve the interface of each product with its user, respectful of the physical, cognitive and sensory-related diversity of people. What is unique about this collection is that the products are cool – great to look at, functional and they make you want to have one.

A second aspect of this collection that stands out is that people with disabilities, the intended users, were involved in the design process. Instead of setting a person with a disability apart with functional but unappealing design, making that person feel inferior, these products are amazing to interact with, using style and technology to create a product that most people will want.

A pair of sneakers in the exhibit tells an important story in regards to this “cool factor” and in how our feelings about diversity are changing. A college-bound young man with cerebral palsy wrote to Nike to ask about sneakers without ties because ties were difficult for him, but he also wanted his sneakers to be “cool.” Nike responded with a line called FlyEase, shoes with zipper and Velcro replacing the ties, and having passed the “cool” test, they are being successfully marketed mainstream. With millennials embracing diversity like no generation before, there is no stigma, and a Nike is a Nike.

Another example that I appreciate is a prosthesis cover that looks almost like cowboy boots, and is reasonably priced so a user could have several to coordinate with whatever clothing is planned. A third favorite of mine is the BMW racing wheelchair, again, something that meets a need by enhancing the performance of the user, and also sends a very cool message.

These prosthetic leg covers are affordable and have that ‘cool factor,’ allowing a person to coordinate a fashion statement.

Photo: Alleles

In addition to the product exhibit, the museum launched a new experience center called their design lab, where conversations, activities, workshops and events for all ages and communities on the topics of accessibility and inclusion are taking place. Much of this is available on their web site.

Included in these activities were some of the top names in the field discussing everything from product and space design to accessible cities. Going forward, there will be an addition to the exhibit focusing on design beyond vision, exploring sensory design. All this is a treasure trove of information and inspiration, and following an inclusive design approach, it is available to you online as well as in person (https://www.cooperhewitt.org/channel/access-ability/).

When we design for accessibility, it isn’t that we are doing a favor for a person with a disability, but rather that we have traditionally done that person a disservice by designing without consideration and respect for the differences in people. Done right, Universal Design begins at the onset of every design, circling back on designing for the cognitive, sensory and physical diversity in people so that our finished product or space is usable by more people than it would have been if we had not gone this route. Take time to check out Cooper Hewitt and what others are doing with accessible design to incorporate universal appeal, and be inspired to up your own Universal Design game. ▪




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