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Web Posted on: August 24, 1998

What is Design for All

Jim S Sandhu
Special Needs Research Unit
University of Northumbria Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
Tel: +44 191 2274211 Fax: +44 191 2664061
Email: Jim@snru-unn.demon.co.uk

1. Introduction

The design for all approach covers a range of meanings which are synonymous with - barrier-free, inclusive, transgenerational, universal design, etc. Another often quoted phrase associated with design for all is "designing for the broader average." This far the approach has focused mainly on the built environment and products. However, in the last few years there has been an increasing awareness that the approach is fundamental to the provision of public services through telematics and to a barrier-free Information Society. That is the main focus of this paper.

The approach recognises that accessible systems, products, reliable information sources and environments can maximise choice and enhance the ability of the individual to live independently and to exercise citizenship proactively. Underlying this is the fact that although not everyone needs assistive technology or specialised products like wheelchairs, everyone but everyone needs good design whatever the context. Good design enables, whilst bad design disables, irrespective of the user's abilities. That in essence is what design for all is about in the context of public services.

One major development that could ensure progress in the ICT area is the design-by-all phenomenon as exemplified by the World Wide Web. The WWW is a carpet woven by millions of people which is constantly being returned to the loom for further additions and modifications.

The overall philosophy of design for all is best encapsulated in the 1993 mission statement of the European Institute for Design and Disability (EIDD): Contributing to enhancing the quality of life of all citizens by promoting the ideal of barrier free design. Diagram 1 summarises the EIDD philosophy in the context of all aspects of the designed environment.

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2. A Holistic approach

Good design is all about integrating the continuum of micro and macro perspectives of life and world. Central to these perspectives is the designer's ability to carry out the type of detailed analysis which is required. At the core of this context-specific process is the user/information/access/system paradigm. In view of this paradigm, to be effective design for all has necessarily to be multidisciplinary in nature, including access to a broader range of specialities and areas of expertise. Above all the approach requires awareness of a broader range of public service user needs through greater involvement of users at every stage of decision making.

The success of this approach depends on a wide range of variables which are constantly changing and interacting. Examples of these global variables are: legislation, social attitudes, globalisation, technophobia, individual status, quality of design input, technology, standards, etc. Again, an important element of this mindframe is that design does not exist in isolation but is essentially an interactive and iterative process focused on the softmachine itself - people. Moreover, we have to remember that design is no accident, but a mirror of its age.

In the holistic context, we need to understand how people fit into the complex infrastructure of service provision and uptake - as exemplified by the schematic Diagram 1 below.

Diagram 1

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3. Problems

This paper recognises that there are a great number of problems in realising the design for all approach which are briefly itemised below:

a) A panacea: In some sectors the concept is presented as a panacea for all the ills of civilisation. It gives false hope to marginalised groups who may understand it even less than the so-called expert.

b) Vested interests: Professionals have vested interests in propagating their own profession to the exclusion of others, which detracts from the design for all approach which, by definition, needs to be holistic.

c) Clientelism: This is associated with the above but also covers embedded concepts such as supply and demand within a rigid framework. Designers generally lack understanding of the demand side.

d) Resistance to innovation: This focuses on the demand side and refers to resistance offered by professional bodies and public bureaucracies of civic authorities.

e) Ignorance: Professionals rarely like to admit ignorance about multidisciplinary and multi-level issues which can create problems. One instance is the fact that designers rarely understand the relevance of service considerations.

f) Fiscal constraints: This is a problem on the demand side and stems from the economic and financial restrictions imposed on the product or service innovation.

g) Communication between actors: In the context of demand and supply, most public bureaucrats and public administrators have an administrative background, while suppliers of information technology/services have a business or technological background.

h) Information gap: Refers to both demand and supply side and comes from the lack of information on available or developing technology, as well as lack of funding. In this way, public administration is seen as a simple buyer of technology/products rather than as a potential actor in addressing design for all approaches to meet needs.

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4. The City as Locus

Right now, the fastest urbanisation in history is underway throughout the world. How does this figure in our deliberations? How do we utilise the design-for-all approach to make sense of cities which are already cauldrons of chaotic living conditions, teeming crowds and environments from Dante's inferno. How can the design for all approach help to ameliorate such conditions by enhancing the provision of public services? What new design metrics, morphologies and taxonomies do we need to develop to speed up the process of integrating older and disabled people into the city fabric?

The key role of design for all on public service development has been well illustrated in various studies of the city as locus of applied design and technology. Cities need a social technology, which helps to solve social problems - a technology which utilises design for all principles and is characterised by simplicity, flexibility, low cost and accessibility. Fundamental to this process is the need to establish synergy among local public bureaucracies, information technology/products/service suppliers, universities and research institutes, central state bureaucracies and professional bodies.

Diagram 2

The TIDE-TURTLE project is a prime example of this type of synergy which is largely based on design for all principles in the broader context of city services. This evolving project has also highlighted that to be competitive public service providers and related companies have to rethink their organisation to allow them to exploit the potential of ICT.

The real change is not only technological or benefits to end users: the introduction of new forms of integrated and distributed ICT is coinciding with (and creating) sweeping change in their structures. These are becoming more flexible, better able to respond quickly to an increasingly competitive environment. ICT networks in Newcastle which synthesise projects like TURTLE, NEWT, EQUALITY, TASC and DISTINCT are becoming important components of competition, innovation, job creation and change. The ultimate goal (not yet achieved) is to have create a public service network utilising the design for all approach. As illustrated in Diagram 2 above a good start has already been made.

Integral to the above synthesis is the realisation that the Information Society is linked with a new type of social behaviour: more individuality and more flexibility. Disabled people are increasingly using interactive multimedia products and services both at home and at work. Use of ICT in this context also offers an opportunity to the European public sector to recover efficiency. The sector could provide its existing services more cheaply, more seamlessly, and outsource "uneconomic" services to specialists.

These developments should lead to more cost-effective and better quality service being provided. More fundamentally, access to information is breaking up the traditional boundaries between the role of the state (local and national) and the market. In the context of public services ICT technologies allow a much more widespread application of the "pay-per-use-principle", and challenge many of the concepts and structures of communities across Europe.

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5. Conclusion

Demographic, economic and social trends indicate that society faces a number of significant challenges. The caring capacity of society is also changing due to an increase in an ageing population and the prevalence of disability. These changes combined with expanding expectations, and the advent of care-in-the-community policies place design for all on the centre stage. Without the holistic approach advocated in this paper and in the context of public service provision, care-in-the-community cannot really succeed.

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6. References:

Sandhu, J.S. and Hendriks-Janssen, H., Environmental Design for Handicapped Children. Saxon House, 1977.

Sandhu, J.S., A holistic approach to the Design-for-All concept, European Institute for Design and Disability, Newsletter No. 2, 1995.

Sandhu, J.S. and Wood, T., Demography and Market Sector Analysis of People with Special Needs in Thirteen European Countries: A Report on Telecommunication Usability Issues. RACE-TUDOR R1088 Project. University of Northumbria, 1991.

Sandhu, J.S. (Ed) TURTLE: Transport Using Rehabilitation Technologies Leads to Economic Efficiency. TIDE T1194, University of Northumbria, 1994.

Sandhu, J.S. (Ed) Usability Issues for People with Special Needs. A report for RACE-TUDOR R1088. University of Northumbria, 1992.

Bangemann, M. et al., Europe and the Global Information Society. Recommendations to the European Council. European Commission, 1994

Welch, P., Strategies for Teaching Universal Design. Adaptive Environments Centre, Boston, 1995.

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