Universal Design: A Brief History and Why it Matters

Universal Design: A Brief History and Why it Matters

Universal design is design that can be understood and used by all individuals, regardless of age, size, ability, or disability, to the greatest extent possible. Whether it’s a building, product, service, or environment, the goal of universal design is to develop it in a way that caters to the needs of anyone who wants to use it. This isn’t a specialized requirement for a minority use-case but a fundamental aspect of effective design. The principles of universal design emphasize flexibility, simplicity, and a profound understanding of the diverse needs of users. While we see it as a critical aspect of contemporary design, the concept hasn’t been around all that long. In this Insight article we discuss key influences that lead to the development of universal design as we know it today and outline why it is an increasingly essential design approach.

Changing Demographics

Since the turn of the century, advancements in healthcare, improved living conditions, and the elimination of deadly infectious diseases have contributed to a significant increase in life expectancy. In addition, the aftermath of two world wars and medical breakthroughs resulted in a substantial population of individuals with disabilities. By 1994, over 20% of the U.S. population, around 53 million people, had some level of disability. Today, the U.S. population is the oldest it has ever been. The number of Americans aged 65 and older is forecasted to increase from 58 million in 2022 to 82 million by 2050. These demographic shifts underscore the importance of addressing the diverse needs of an aging and disabled population, then and now.

Reading Braille on a medication carton.

The intersection of design and societal demographics has undergone a remarkable transformation throughout the 20th century, particularly in addressing the needs of older adults and individuals with disabilities. In the early 1900s, these groups were true minorities, facing challenges in a world designed without consideration for their unique requirements. Today, the landscape has shifted dramatically, with changing demographics influencing design philosophy and popularizing the concept of universal design.

The Barrier-Free Movement

The term ‘universal design’ was coined by the American architect Ronald Mace, a champion of accessible building codes, and made its debut in 1963 in Selwyn Goldsmith’s Designing for the Disabled, a U.K. text that pioneered access for persons with disabilities in the built environment and was revised in 1997 for a contemporary audience. Goldsmith famously created the dropped curb, now a standard feature of sidewalks across the globe. The idea that the environment needed to be accessible pre-dated Goldsmith’s text by about a decade, and is generally accepted as beginning with the barrier-free movement of the 1950s.  

In the 1950s the barrier-free movement arose in response to the large numbers of World War II soldiers who had been injured or disabled in the war and their advocates. Barriers in the built environment limited their opportunities for employment and education, and the barrier-free movement initiated a push for public policy changes as well as a reimagining of public space. National standards for barrier-free buildings were developed by the early 60s, though they would not be enacted until adopted by individual state legislatures as much as a decade later. The shift from barrier-free to universal design emphasized inclusivity, affordability, and aesthetics, recognizing that features designed for accessibility could benefit everyone.

Paving the Way

It’s easy to criticize the shortcomings of our current mandates regarding accessibility but it’s important to acknowledge the major legislative victories that have brought us to where we are today, and what a dramatic improvement they are on the guidelines of the past. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s set the stage for the Disability Civil Rights Movement, influencing legislation in the 1970s that aimed to eliminate discrimination and provide access to education, public spaces, telecommunications, and transportation. The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 mandated accessibility for buildings constructed with federal funds, marking a crucial step toward inclusivity.

judge gavel on a desk

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was a landmark civil rights law, prohibiting discrimination based on disability. The Education for Handicapped Children Act of 1975 ensured a free, appropriate education for children with disabilities. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 expanded coverage to include families with children and people with disabilities.

The critical turning point in federal legislation was the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, a watershed act that triggered widespread awareness of the civil rights of people with disabilities. This comprehensive legislation addressed discrimination in employment, public spaces, services, transportation, and telecommunications, ensuring a basic level of accessibility nationwide.

From Rehabilitation to Mainstream Markets

While universal design sought to integrate individuals into mainstream design, assistive technology aimed to meet specific needs. Despite their different origins, both fields converged in the middle ground, addressing physical and attitudinal barriers between people with and without disabilities.

African American female IT engineer in wheelchair

The economic downturn of the 1980s impacted funds for the rehabilitation engineering research prompted by the injured veterans of World War II. At the same time, product manufacturers recognized the market potential of assistive products. In 1988, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art showcased “Designs for Independent Living,” featuring products that considered the needs of older adults and people with disabilities. The commercial world began acknowledging these demographics as viable customers. It gradually became clear that a universal design approach could attract buyers beyond the target audience. The success of OXO’s Good Grips kitchen utensils in 1990 exemplified this trend. The products, initially designed for people with arthritis, were appealing to all, not only for their functionality but also for their aesthetic appeal. This marked a shift toward recognizing the marketability of inclusive design. A prominent champion of universal design (and member of the OXO Good Grips development team) is Patricia Moore, an American industrial designer who spent her entire career pushing the boundaries of inclusive design, particularly in the field of gerontological design.

The fields of human factors, ergonomics, and human-centered design are natural allies of universal design, as are the fields of co-design and participatory design, which focus closely on the needs of a specific audience, soliciting and harnessing insights of that audience to develop the solution.

Maximizing Inclusion

The quest for independence and equal rights gained momentum alongside the growth in the disabled population. Baby boomers have embraced inclusive products, challenging stereotypes of aging and gradually normalizing the presence of these products in the market. Buyers of assistive technology now demand products that consider both form and function, suiting their specific needs and use cases. These buyers may be permanent or temporary members of the disabled population, or they may simply like the functionality of the product. The social climate is shifting toward recognizing and respecting the diverse needs of all consumers.

In the 21st century, with our increased life expectancy and our increasingly diverse population, the momentum to develop inclusive products and environments is growing. While ‘universal design’ was a term limited to specialists in design, user experience, computer engineering, architecture, and the like, it is gaining traction outside these fields as its principles yield fruit. Universal design provides a blueprint for maximum inclusion, acknowledging the diversity of the current generation as well as the need to consider the full range of that diversity when building a product, environment, or service.

The demographic, legislative, economic, and social changes that have shaped universal design are propelling the field into the future. When an environment is accessible, user-friendly, convenient, and enjoyable to use, it benefits everyone involved. Through considering the diverse needs and abilities of all individuals during the design process, universal design produces digital and physical environments, services, and systems that effectively meet the needs of people. In essence, universal design equates to good design.

Check out our even adaptive inclusive lingerie project to learn more about universal design, and check out the rest of our Insight series to learn more about the design industry. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development!

Design History Series N. 013

Patricia Moore and Universal Design

In our new Design History Series we highlight iconic women in design history and their innovative work. The historic contributions of women to design are many, and we aim to increase the awareness of these contributions in order to counteract a general trend of underrepresentation. In this issue we celebrate Patricia Moore, one of the key proponents of universal design and arguably its most dedicated champion.


In 1979 Moore was the only female industrial designer at Raymond Loewy Associates, a well-respected firm famous for NASA’s Skylab space station as well as many household products. During a meeting she proposed designing a refrigerator door that could be used with ease, sharing that this was an issue for her arthritic grandmother. The idea was immediately dismissed as, it was explained, the firm predominantly targeted middle-aged male professionals. Frustrated by this narrow focus, Moore realized that she wanted to design for everyone, the elderly included. But first, she would need to understand their experience. 

Photo: Patricia Moore during her immersion as an 80-year-old in her twenties.

With the help of a talented makeup artist, Moore underwent a remarkable metamorphosis into “Old Pat,” employing makeup and elaborate prosthetics to simulate the experience of life as an elderly woman. She wore a range of costumes to indicate different class levels to see how class layered with aging to influence how she was treated. Over three years, she traveled incognito to 116 cities, documenting the prejudices and challenges faced by the elderly. These experiences and insights eventually became her book, “Disguised,” published in 1985. Despite the challenges she faced, including a brutal physical assault during her “Old Pat” experiment, Moore remained committed to empathy-driven design.

In the early 1980s, Moore founded MooreDesign Associates, positioning herself as a central figure in the popularization and adoption of “universal design,” which advocates for the creation of products and environments that cater to the diverse needs of individuals, regardless of age or ability. Throughout her career, Moore has collaborated with major corporations, including Johnson & Johnson, Boeing, Kraft, AT&T, Herman Miller, and 3M. She is especially well-known for her work with Smart Design on the development of the iconic Oxo Good Grips kitchen tools, which have become a benchmark for profitable and elegant universal design. Moore’s philosophy emphasizes that the universal design should transcend age or ability, centering instead on lifestyle. She advocates for designs that seamlessly accommodate changing needs at any stage of life and is aptly known as the “Mother of Empathy.”

A Paradigm Shift

Patricia Moore’s journey aligns with the evolution of universal design, a concept that has redefined how designers approach their craft. The wider adoption of universal design coincided with the societal shifts of the late 20th century. This era, which grew out of the by the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements of the 60s and 70s, witnessed an increasing awareness of diversity and inclusivity, prompting designers to move beyond the traditional, one-size-fits-all approach. Thought it was pioneered in the 60s, the concept of universal design didn’t imply true inclusivity until the early 2000s. It took champions like Moore to bring attention to universal design and demand action from the design community. Moore’s groundbreaking experiment as “Old Pat” drew attention to the unique challenges faced by the elderly, contributing to a paradigm shift in design philosophy and revolutionizing gerontological design. A steadily aging population has underscored the importance of this critical work. Now in her 70s, Patricia Moore remains one of the most influential practitioners of universal design.

The principles of universal design emphasize flexibility, simplicity, and a profound understanding of the diverse needs of users. Moore’s contributions have played a pivotal role in fostering design that prioritizes empathy, inclusivity, and a deep understanding of the human experience.

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Design Object Series N. 003

The OXO Peeler, the Paper Coffee Filter + the Foot-pedal Trash Can

In our Design Object Series we highlight iconic objects designed by women. Thousands of objects that you use and appreciate everyday…surprise! Women designed them! Many of the contributions of women to design have been obscured if not erased throughout history. We want to do our part to counteract this effect by celebrating the women behind a range of objects that you’re sure to recognize. In this issue we salute three women and three designs that have improved our daily lives in the kitchen: Patricia Moore and the universal design principles she applied to the OXO Good Grips Peeler, Melitta Benz and the paper coffee filters that revolutionized the coffee experience, and Lillian Moller Gilbreth and the incredible motion studies that led to the foot-pedal trash can.

The OXO Good Grips peeler

The OXO Good Grips peeler is a best-selling kitchen tool, with over 40,000 reviews on Amazon and millions of units sold. It is also an important case study in universal design and product ergonomics that revolutionized how everyday objects were developed. The design was developed by SmArt Design in conjunction with gerontologist and industrial designer Patricia Moore, one of the founders of universal design. Universal design is the process of creating objects and services that are accessible by all, independent of age, physical size, mobility, ability, and any number of factors. More often than speaking of it as a distinct discipline, we speak of designs that adhere to universal design principles. 

The OXO Good Grips peeler has an incredible history, of which this is just a taste. Serial entrepreneur Sam Farber was cooking with his wife Betsey in the south of France, and Betsey, who had mild arthritis, was having a difficult time using a vegetable peeler. Couldn’t Sam do something about this? Kitchen tools hadn’t been taken seriously on the market, and a ‘nicer’ kitchen tool typically just meant a tool that was made with more expensive materials, not one that offered superior performance. Sam reached out to SmArt design, a company he had worked with before for his range of Copco kitchen tools. He knew he wanted to make a range of tools, so they needed a handle that could be used for many different tool types. “These were little items that had no batteries, no moving parts, but they provided a model that has been moving up the food chain ever since,” Moore explained, “Sam understood the duality of creating–that you need both form and function.” 

The OXO Good Grips Swivel Peeler was developed to have a large, universally comfortable handle with an oval profile that doesn’t accidentally rotate in the hand. Image via OXO.

The development team wanted a handle that would be comfortable to hold for long periods and offer a secure grip even when wet. They found an innovative rubber-like polymer called Santoprene, which was being used for gaskets, this was the first time it would be used for a consumer product. They made hundreds of prototypes to understand the form that would work most effectively, and got feedback from those with all kinds of hand sizes and needs. They decided on an oval profile that wouldn’t easily rotate in the hand, a large, thick grip that would be easy to hold for those with low strength or impaired hand mobility or arthritis (or anyone), and textured fins on either side to provide a more precise grip for those who applied more pressure, and a visual cue of the tactile appeal of the tool. 

SmArt Design went to a Japanese knife company for manufacturing as none of the manufacturers in the US or Taiwan were confident they could successfully execute the delicate fins. This allowed them to have a superb blade, which is another reason that the peeler is such a hit. Not only is it comfortable and convenient to hold for all users, it is wonderfully sharp. The result of OXO’s undertaking is an iconic design object that established best practices for the entire design industry. Moore explained, “We were rethinking how you design. It became a social challenge.”

The paper coffee filter

Until 1908 it was common for coffee grounds and brewing water to share a vessel. The water would be poured directly over the grounds into a pot or mug and the grounds would gradually settle to the bottom of the container, becoming a thick sludge that the drinker would ideally leave behind but of course, that wouldn’t always work. Lots of clean-up was involved with this process, too. The French press was one solution to separate the grounds from the water, though it was only suitable for certain types of coffee and there was still the business of cleaning the apparatus. 

The paper coffee filter would change all of that, effectively filtering out the grounds and leaving behind a neat, disposable bundle for quick, painless clean-up. Coffee made with a filter was smooth, and sludge-free, and the filtration could influence the flavor positively as well.

Melitta Bentz was a German housewife in Dresden, passionate about good coffee. She made a cup each morning, irritated with each granule of ground coffee accidentally ingested. One day, fed up with the mess and inconvenience of the old way, she punched holes in an old tin pot and layered a sheet of her son’s blotting paper inside. She added coffee grounds and hot water, got a clean cup and a relatively clean pot, and never looked back. It’s said that she tested and refined the filter and the porcelain pour-over component with friends during her “coffee afternoons.”

Melitta Bentz developed not only the paper coffee filter but an entirely new system of making coffee based upon those filters. Image via jaune 10.

She was granted a patent within two years, in 1908, and set up a business making paper coffee filters in her Dresden apartment, with her two sons making deliveries and her husband creating displays to explain the new product. When she showed the product at the Leipzig Trade Fair the product took off and the company began to grow rapidly. The product was so clever in part because it was not only a product but a system. It took some education and training to help new users understand the idea, but once they saw the benefits they were quickly converted. The Melitta company is still one of the largest paper coffee filter manufacturers in the world. Though hundreds of styles are now available, the Melitta filter is the ancestor of them all.

The foot-pedal trash can

Many of the vegetable peelings and used filters above end up in our third critical kitchen design object, the foot-pedal trash can. While the concept of public sanitation has been around since the ancient Roman era, the first garbage receptacles didn’t come on the scene for hundreds of years, not until the late 1800s when the careless tossing of trash into streets and public waterways had become a public health hazard that could no longer be ignored. The ubiquitous foot-pedal trash can that we see in kitchens today was only designed in the last 100 years, in the 1920s. The development of this incredibly useful kitchen tool was brought about by an incredibly intelligent psychologist and engineer, Lillian Moller Gilbreth

Gilbreth was remarkable in many ways, most famously for being the model for the super-mother in the Cheaper by the Dozen movies, which tell the story of a family with 12 children and their clever systems for maintaining a functional household. The movies were based on books written by two of Gilbreth’s children. She is also known for her motion studies, detailed time-motion studies she did with her husband Frank Gilbreth in 1911 to understand how workers move when completing tasks as well as the time it takes to complete each task. These motion studies, and later studies around fatigue, were critical in streamlining factory processes. She also gave this kind of careful attention to offices, hospitals, sports arenas, kitchens, and her own domestic labor, determined to optimize those as well. 

The foot-pedal trash can allows users to access the trash with their hands free. Image via Simple Human.

Gilbreth worked as an industrial engineer for General Electric, which led her to design several improvements for the kitchen throughout the 1920s. She observed thousands of women at work, and from the insights she gathered from that research she developed the foot-pedal trash can as well as the shelves inside refrigerator doors, including the egg and butter trays. She also did the research that standardized counter, stove, cabinet, and other fixture heights in kitchens.  Next time you are at the trash can with your hands full, you can appreciate that clever, hands-free foot pedal action and the efforts of Lillian Moller Gilbreth to improve everyday life.

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