Thoughts on universal design

I recently spoke to a student about the goals of the One Laptop per Child user interface, and was surprised at how difficult it was to answer the question as to how I felt about taking a ‘universal’ design approach. I was quick to defend my belief in universal design as a means by which to broaden access to, or appreciation of, any designed object, acknowledging that design is necessarily subjective. Yet on further reflection, is universality ever achievable? Is it presumptuous, as designers, to think that we could design an interface that would be universally understandable?

Many would likely deny that universality is achievable, and equally deny that it is a desirable objective to begin with. Does not the most engaging or successful design utilize precisely the uniqueness that stems from individual authorship, or from being suited for a very particular use and/or audience? On the surface, universality seems to contradict both of these factors, suggesting it is not only without individual authorship, but also suited for any audience and use-case.

While there is undoubtedly a world of research to fall back on, I would nevertheless suggest (and in doing so perhaps confess my ignorance) that, at the level of concept, universality in design can be achieved through the use of metaphor and intuition. Universal design is not only language independent—it also relies on universal metaphors. My belief is that there are certain, innately human ways of perceiving the world, translatable into universal metaphors that can inform the design process. They deal with the fundamental elements of perception and interaction, such as our relationship to the spaces we move within, the people we communicate with, the activities we engage in and the objects we make or acquire. The question remains how to translate these elementary modes of perception and behavior into design concepts.

To begin with, one might acknowledge that visual representation is less important for universality than structural grammar, the rules by which design elements are combined to create a conceptual construct. While theories of universal aesthetics exist (modernism and its advocacy of basic geometry), as long as design elements (or signs, in linguistic terms) are expressed as to consistently signify the same objects or object types, a design will have the potential to become intelligible to any recipient. Saussure has said that signs, taken by themselves, do not carry any meaning—instead, they need to be seen in the context of other signs to become comprehensible. In other words, signs express meaning as a divergence between themselves and other signs. (Denis Wood, The Power of Maps, p. 139). The relationship between signs is therefore critical for achieving universality. Herein lies the opportunity for creating familiar relationships which mirror the real world, in terms universal to any human being. The only decisive factors governing aesthetics need be that they are treated consistently in reference to the signified object, and that they allow for easy adaptation and scalability.

In translating universal experience into design concepts, therefore, certain relationships may be self-evident. Thus, people and objects are situated on a plane or field, and each have certain attributes which determine their behavior. Activities link people on a field, and tools are used in conjunction with activities to produce objects. Furthermore, scale can be used as a way to indicate intimacy and focus on the one hand, context on the other. These are examples of generalizable, conceptual metaphors which are culturally independent. Beyond these high-level metaphors, a design framework aspiring to universality needs to be adaptive to allow customization (even personalization) of detailed representations and interactions for a variety of applications and audiences.

As for the question of authorship: there is a level at which subjective experience becomes universal, demonstrated by the sensory response elicited by Monet’s Water Lilies. Design will always carry an element of subjectivity, but through the use of universal metaphor it can aim to address the broadest possible audience.

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