Universal design

What is universal design? 

Universal design is the design of buildings, products or environments to make them accessible to most people, regardless of age, disability, background or any other factors. 

Universal design can be applied to all fields of design, including product design, interactive design, architecture and urban planning.

What is universal design in health infrastructure?

In health infrastructure, universal design means designing spaces in the health environment that are functional for the full range of diversity, and that address the physical, sensory and cognitive needs of most people.

Universal design in health infrastructure aims to reinforce social equity in the health environment through the incorporation of universal design principles into infrastructure and program developments.

VHBA's universal design policy

Our universal design policy is a first for any government authority in Australia. It recognises that human ability is enabled, supported and encouraged by universally designed environments that provide everyone with the opportunity to participate unassisted or with minimal support.

View the VHBA universal design policy

How is universal design different to accessible design? 

‘Access’ and ‘accessibility’ refer to fulfilling a set of measurable requirements (technical notes and specifications) as prescribed in legislative requirements. For example, the Building Code of Australia and other relevant standards. 

This can result in ‘accessible’ features being incorporated as afterthoughts. It can also rely on the addition of specialised features to fulfil legislative requirements, such as lifts and ramps. But mechanical features, such as lifts, can break down and render an entire building inaccessible to sections of the community. 

Universal design separates itself from accessible design by focusing on user-centred design from the earliest stages of a project – not just at the end stage. This can result in the seamless integration of inclusive features that are often invisible and that do not stigmatise users.

What are the benefits of universal design?

There are 7.4 billion diverse people in the world. A universal design approach that caters for the broadest range of users from the outset can result in buildings and places that can be used by most people.

This approach can eliminate, or reduce, the need for expensive changes to meet the needs of some users later. Universal design allows for flexibility and adaptability to meet the diverse range of additional needs of people today – and in the future. 

How much will universal design add to the costs of my project? 

Universal design will typically not add additional costs to a project. Applying universal design principles can often save costs. It does this by lessening the dependence on mechanical features that require maintenance, and by reducing the need to retrofit features to comply with legislation. 

Universal design can increase revenue and financial viability at a facility by catering for a broader cross-section of the community, encouraging increased patronage.

Universal design principles

There are seven guiding principles of universal design.

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


1a. Provide the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not.

1b. Avoid segregating or stigmatising any users. 

1c. Provisions for privacy, security, and safety should be equally available to all users. 

1d. Make the design appealing to all users. 

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


2a. Provide choice in methods of use. 

2b. Accommodate right or left-handed access and use. 

2c. Facilitate the user's accuracy and precision.  

2d. Provide adaptability to the user's pace. 

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


3a. Eliminate unnecessary complexity. 

3b. Be consistent with user expectations and intuition. 

3c. Accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills. 

3d. Arrange information consistent with its importance. 

3e. Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion. 

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


4a. Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information. 

4b. Provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings. 

4c. Maximise "legibility" of essential information. 

4d. Differentiate elements in ways that can be described (i.e. make it easy to give instructions or directions). 

4e. Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations. 

Definition: The design minimises hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. 


5a. Arrange elements to minimise hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible; hazardous elements eliminated, isolated, or shielded. 

5b. Provide warnings of hazards and errors. 

5c. Provide fail safe features. 

5d. Discourage unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance. 

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


6a. Allow user to maintain a neutral body position. 

6b. Use reasonable operating forces. 

6c. Minimise repetitive actions. 

6d. Minimise sustained physical effort. 

Definition: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility. 


7a. Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user. 

7b. Make reach to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user. 

7c. Accommodate variations in hand and grip size. 

7d. Provide adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance. 


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Last updated: 15 February 2024