Universal Design

Universal Design (UD) is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without adaptation or specialized design” (The Center for Universal Design, 1997, Universal Design, para.1).

Rather than designing products and services for the average person, they are designed to serve and benefit as many diverse users as possible.

When people experience difficulties accessing or using specific products and services, is it due to barriers within the environment rather than barriers within the person (Iantkow, 2011).  


Universal Design in the Classroom

When the construct of UD is applied to the curriculum in the learning environment it is called Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL makes learning accessible to all students regardless of their individual characteristics and specific learning styles and preferences.


Principles of Universal Design 

As outlined by the Center for Universal Design (1997), in 1997 a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers established seven principles of UD. The seven principles are meant to be used to evaluate existing designs and to guide future designs of environments, products, communication, and services.

For information regarding guidelines for applying the seven principles of UD, please visit the following webpage: https://projects.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_ud/udprinciplestext.htm

We can reflect on the seven principles of UD and the corresponding guidelines when designing courses and providing services to students. Below are some examples of how each principle may be implemented.


Principle 1 – Equitable Use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.


  • Information is presented through various modalities.
  • Videos are presented with closed captioning.
  • When using slides, the presenter fully describes the content of each slide including all text and images.


Principle 2 – Flexibility in Use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.


  • Adaptable seating is used in the classroom or service area, and students are able to select where they sit.
  • Class information can be accessed in a variety of ways (available in both print and electronic formats).
  • Information about services can be accessed in a variety of ways (in person, phone, webpage).


Principle 3 – Simple and Intuitive Use

Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.


  • Forms and webpages have an uncluttered layout.
  • Forms and webpages use plain language (no jargon or acronyms).
  • Instructions are clear, and feedback is provided during and after tasks.


Principle 4 – Perceptible Information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of the ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.


  • Information and instructions are given using tactile, visual, and audible cues.
  • Font is easy to read (high contrast between font and background).
  • Essential information stands out from the rest.


Principle 5 – Tolerance for Error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.


  • An “undo” feature in computer software that allows the user to review responses and correct mistakes without penalty.
  • Having flexible lateness, cancellation and missed class procedures for students who may not be able to attend due to unforeseen circumstances.


Principle 6 – Low Physical Effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.


  • If projects involve group work, or if group services are provided, there is an option for students to work alone or receive services on an individual basis.
  • If there are limits to the number of services each student can access, exceptions can be made when needed.


Principle 7 – Size and Space for Approach and Use

Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the student’s body size, posture, or mobility.


  • There is adequate space for students to maintain a comfortable distance from one another.
  • There is adequate space for the use of assistance devices or personal assistance.
  • Ensuring the reach to all forms, books, and brochures is comfortable.




Burgstahler, S. (2018). Equal Access: Universal Design of Student Services. Retrieved February 5, 2021, from https://www.washington.edu/doit/sites/default/files/atoms/files/EA_Student_Services_05_28_20.pdf


Center for Universal Design (1997). The Principles of Universal Design, Version 2.0. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University. Retrieved February 5, 2021, from https://projects.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_ud/udprinciples.htm


Iantkow, M. (2011). Universal Design Lecture Content: Universal Design Introduction and Overview.