Simple is the Concept

Barbara Knecht's picture

"Getting" Universal Design creates an "Aha!" moment. Experiencing Universal Design creates a "Wow!" moment.

Universal Design is the misunderstood love child of the accessibility movement pioneers and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The early advocates learned that good design for people with a wide range of disabilities translates into good design for everyone. The ADA created a base line of requirements that addresses a narrow range of mobility disabilities. Born of enlightened advocacy for the diversity of human experience and well-meaning, consciousness-raising legislation, Universal Design suffers from an image problem that equates it with "uber-accessibility."

Universal Design isn't "uber" anything. It is a call – a cry, really – to put people, who experience life in myriad ways, at the center of design. That's IT. Period.

It seems to be gaining currency. In design, the industrial and product designers have "gotten" it for years. The architects, planners and landscape architects are just catching on. I fear that the well-meaning, earnest ADA may have had some hand in this, but the love child is ready to lead them on their way to beauty and happiness.

A very simple idea. Peter Merholz, a designer who works with Adaptive Path has written a wonderful article that can be found at The essence of his message is that the most successful designs – those that have enjoyed the "Wow!" moments - come from designers (Eastman with Kodak, Jobs with Apple) who design for the human experience. Out of that philosophy came products, but the purpose is to enhance the human experience. Wow.

The alternative, designing to parameters and features, he argues, results in convoluted solutions. Do you use all that functionality in your cell phone? How about that printer/fax/scanner/copier? Is it intuitive, functional and beautiful? Why not? According to Merholz, designers stop too soon. They stop when the basic problem is solved; but the elegance comes with time and when the designer thinks about the experience that people will have. In the words of artist Timothy Berry, "I would have made simpler drawings, but I didn't have the time."

John Maeda, designer, artist, computer scientist, MIT professor, and founder of the Simplicity Consortium at the MIT Media Lab, agrees. Although his titles defy his own cause, his most recent book, The Laws of Simplicity, is a delicate and delightful musing and measure of simplicity. He embarked on a journey to unravel the laws/complexity of simplicity as an antidote to the sense that we are all feeling overwhelmed – most often as a result of technology. Citing Apple and Google as powerful examples, he observes "People not only buy, but more importantly love, designs that make their life simpler." Bingo! We come full circle.

From zoning laws to apple peelers, people are the users, people are the beneficiaries, people thrive or wither with the experience of everyday design, and of design every day.


Barbara Knecht is director of design at the Institute for Human Centered Design (formerly Adaptive Environments), a non-profit organization committed to enhancing the experiences of people of all ages and abilities through excellence in design.


Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.
 Blockitecture Building Block Set - Garden City Series

Just In! Get the Garden City Expansion

New from Blockitecture! Create towers, cities, and dwellings with this set of architectural building blocks.

Wear your city with style!

100% silk scarves feature detailed city maps. Choose from five cities with red or blue trim.