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Seven Top Creatives Discuss Expanding the Idea of Universal Design

Design is a process by which we improve our world by shaping the objects, environments and systems in it, from the mundane (cupcake tins, lawnmowers) to multi-authored intangibles (governments, social media platforms). A “good” design not only supplies elegant or excellent performance, it is also approachable and accessible.

It is natural, then, that “universal design” has become a buzzword. The concept has obvious appeal. And design requirements that prioritize accessibility, like those enforced by the Americans with Disabilities Act, have improved countless lives. But is such a thing as universal design—something that works equally well for all people—truly possible? If so, what does it look like? Or, to be truly inclusive, do designs need to be adaptable to address the needs of differing audiences?

To get a sense of how designers across various fields are thinking about universal design, Visual Arts Journal spoke with the following SVA faculty:

Chappell Ellison (MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism) is a writer, editor, content strategist and design advocate, and MFA 2010 Design Criticism graduate. Ellison has collaborated with Etsy, Design Observer, the City of New York, and the Museum of Modern Art and Museum of the Moving Image, both in New York.

Karrie Jacobs (MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism) is a contributing editor at Architect Magazine. For 10 years, Jacobs wrote a monthly column, “America,” for Metropolis. Jacobs was the founding editor-in-chief of Dwell, a San Francisco-based magazine about modern residential architecture.

Jennifer Rittner (MFA Products of Design) is an educator and writer, and founder of the communications strategy firm Content Matters, which helps creative businesses communicate effectively with diverse audiences.

Rafael Smith (MFA Products of Design) is a design lead at IDEO.org, where he works on product and systems design for winning ideas from IDEO.org’s Amplify program, which supports organizations pursuing solutions to humanitarian crises all over the world. Prior to joining IDEO.org, Smith was as an industrial design consultant and founder of Uber Shelter, which created emergency housing for communities affected by natural disasters.

Ted Southern (MFA Interaction Design) is an artist and inventor, and cofounder of Final Frontier Design, a space suit design and manufacturing company based in Brooklyn that has won several awards and contracts with NASA for its work.

Jack Travis (BFA Interior Design) is an architect and interior designer who established his namesake studio in 1985. His firm is under contract as cultural consultants for the second phase of construction of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Second Avenue Subway project, in Manhattan.

Christina Xu (MFA Interaction Design) is a writer and independent ethnographer currently focused on the social implications around Chinese and U.S. technology. Xu is a trustee of the New York City chapter of the Awesome Foundation, which awards micro-grants to noteworthy arts, design and community-development projects.

Ellison: Technology that’s really intuitive and makes sense seems to be a good example of universal design, but the devices that deliver that technology aren’t necessarily designed well for everyone. Look at a smartphone—kids understand it immediately, but it’s not ergonomic, not shaped well for anyone with arthritis, Parkinson’s or other hand mobility-limiting conditions. But things like Amazon Echo are valuable for people with visual impairment or mobility issues. I don’t know if designers are specifically thinking about these benefits when designing these devices.

Twitter recently rolled out the ability to use alt tags, which are descriptive embedded photo captions that a screen reader can read out loud along with the text, so a user with vision impairment can “see” pictures accompanying a tweet. The fact that Twitter did this is really cool; they’re thinking about giving an equal experience to someone who previously had no way of accessing the images.

Xu: In China, WeChat is the ubiquitous messaging app. To stay in touch, one person pulls up a QR code on WeChat and one person pulls up a scanner, and that’s how they add each other. I’m interested in the emerging conventions around who decides who provides the QR code and who scans. Someone said, “It’s more polite for me to offer to be scanned, because it’s like presenting someone with a business card,” which has great social context in China. Another person said, “It’s more polite for me to scan, because then we’re using my data plan instead of yours.” When WeChat designers created that feature, I don’t think they anticipated that layer of developing social etiquette. Where does culture end and context begin? Maybe there is no difference, and I become wary when people talk about concepts like universal design for that reason.

Jacobs: The question is whether there even is such a thing as universal design. I spoke with the product designers who devised the emergency shelters that the IKEA Foundation funded with the United Nations. The shelters pack flat and are easy to assemble, and come with one of those pictorial instruction sheets. But when the team tested the prototypes in a camp in Ethiopia for Somalian refugees, nobody thought to look at the instructions. The idea of following step-by-step pictures to assemble something was not in their culture or frame of reference. And having big windows for ventilation, as these shelters did, caused privacy issues.

Smith: Design is contextual. We focus on output being universal, but maybe we should focus on input being universal instead. What would it look like to equip a broader group of people with the skills to design rather than try to make designs that are accessible to a wider group of people?

I spent three years designing emergency shelters before IKEA started their project. My team thought if we could optimize the flattest pack, lowest cost, easiest-to-assemble shelter, we would finally solve the problem of substandard post-disaster housing. Within a few days of being on the ground and putting up these shelters after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I realized that we solved the wrong problem. There were thousands of unemployed Haitian construction workers who could build housing there faster and cheaper than I could. Masterminding this thing manufactured in China was not the solution. We looked at the problem as if the only tool we had was a hammer and the only solution we had was a nail.

Rittner: In MFA Products of Design, we aren’t thinking about industrial design in the traditional sense of objects and products; we’re thinking about systems and services as well. By looking more deeply at systems or ways of life, you can create products and spaces that are more inclusive and meaningful.

For instance, design for a kitchen frequently means creating surfaces and systems for a person ready to make a perfect meal in a well-appointed space containing all the right products, as opposed to a person in a community where resources are shared and the value of the kitchen is social: learning or teaching how to cook, sharing recipes and skills, having the experience of being in that space together. Cooking in this context has nothing to do with having the perfect product or environment, it’s about the shareability of a communal endeavor. We want designers to consider all kinds of people and start to ask different questions.

Travis: My firm is serving as cultural consultant on the next phase of building New York City’s Second Avenue Subway, which will include stations at 106th, 116th and 125th Streets. What that means is I advise on proposals in terms of their appropriateness for the neighborhoods. For example, it’s good if the designs of each station include imaging native to the tradition of Puerto Rican people and peoples of African descent, instead of just being new, clean and functionally appropriate, aspects we all naturally expect. We’re talking about Spanish Harlem meeting black Harlem as the train moves from east to west—those two cultures give Harlem the fame it enjoys today, and they encompass a lot of separate subcultures. We’re working with local community boards to make sure residents have a voice in our decisions, that we aren’t just making choices without their input.

There was a real need for another train station at 116th Street, which is a significant location in many ways. It’s where the Puerto Rican Day Parade ends, for one thing. The crowding on the Lexington Avenue line at 116th Street on parade day is always incredible. A new subway station just a few blocks away will be a huge convenience for the local population plus the thousands who traveled there to celebrate their heritage. When we talk about “inclusive” design here, we’re talking about public transportation that authentically marks and maps the rich cultural makeup and history of the neighborhood. It’s not just a way to get from point A to point B. It’s specifically designed to mean more than that.

Jacobs: The notion of the complete street is a relatively new idea in vogue in urban planning circles. It’s not about whether someone is handicapped but whether the street exists for all its users, not just for cars. Street design that safely accommodates all users is a form of universality. I once attended a conference in Amsterdam, where I decided to rent a bike to get back and forth from my hotel. I asked the guy in the bike rental place if he had a map of the bike routes, and he looked at me like I was crazy because basically all the roads there are bikeable.

Southern: My company, Final Frontier Design, builds custom space suits and gloves for NASA and private clients. For us, hand functionality would be the metric by which you judged our products’ universality. But this is a tough design problem that involves engineering tradeoffs—weight, cost, complexity, aesthetics—for gloves, tools and control buttons that are comfortable for a range of differently sized hands.

Beyond gloves, NASA does try to provide for some sizing options in space suits. As we’ve designed our IVA [intra-vehicular activity] suit, we’ve tried to think hard about the demands of the anticipated future commercial market. Obviously there is going to be a need for a larger size range for people on Virgin Galactic flights than for those in the astronaut corps, where NASA can only accept people of a certain percentile BMI, height and weight. So is it even possible to think of a universal design solution here, or is the true universal design a custom one, since we are not a one-size-fits-all species? Currently the technology we use for customization is too expensive for mass-market applications, but this will change as it continues to evolve.

Ellison: A progressive definition for universal design is a thing you can use without being reminded of your limitations. It shouldn’t make you self-conscious. A wheelchair ramp is accessible design, but what’s really progressive is a building that has been designed so that the experience of the person on the ramp is just as important as the person using the steps.

I remember an uproar on Twitter about a photograph of pre-peeled oranges at Whole Foods: “People are lazy”; “This is wasteful”; “It’s putting plastic in landfills.” Then other users started saying things like, “Hey, my mom has Parkinson’s and these are so helpful for her—it’s too difficult for her to peel an orange, but she can buy these and eat them, and it makes her feel like she doesn’t have a barrier to food.” I would like to think it’s possible to make something that works for everyone, that doesn’t have a negative impact on the world, but it’s difficult to do.

Angela Riechers (MFA 2010 Design Criticism) is an art director and writer and the coordinator of Typography as Language: Theory and Practice, an SVA summer residency program.

A version of this article appears in the spring 2017 issue of the Visual Arts Journal.

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