Office Design

Principles of Universal Design In The Workplace

Darin Herle
August 13th, 2019
handicap space for accessible design

Universal design in the workplace: A workplace must integrate elements of accessible, usable, and universal design to be fully inclusive.

Roughly 1% of the population, or 2.5 million people, have some kind of disability. But not all offices are equipped to accommodate these individuals. 

As a result, creating a workplace where all feel comfortable, safe, and set up for success is the foundation of any positive employee experience. But how should companies approach this?

In this article, we’re discussing the meaning of each design principle and how your company can adopt inclusive design elements throughout the entire space.

What is inclusive design?

At its core, inclusive design is about the diverse nature of people and how it drives usability. Instead of creating a space, product, or service that works for everyone, the idea is to create something that can be used in a multitude of ways as to not exclude anyone. This flexibility makes it a design available to all. 

As Susan Goltsman, a founding principal of the design firm Moore, Iacofano, Goltsman (MIG), once said, “Inclusive design doesn’t mean you’re designing one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways to participate so that everyone has a sense of belonging.” In other words, this type of design is rooted in the idea that despite age, size, weight, or disability, all can use it fully.

Inclusive design is made up of three primary principles: accessible, usable, and universal. Though they sound similar, they’re quite different and serve unique purposes. Each of these design elements is critical to creating spaces, products, and services that can be used by all; however, companies that don’t seek out to learn the facets of inclusive design often fall short when it comes to execution.


So how is inclusive design realized in the workplace?

From restrooms and elevators to phones and conference spaces, there are many ways to make an office more inclusive and safer for all. Let’s take a look at the three principles of inclusive design and how they can be applied in the workplace.

architect planning workplace design

Accessible design in the workplace

This type of design may be what you immediately think of when you hear the words “inclusive design.” Accessible design focuses on the properties of products, services, and facilities that are accessible to people with disabilities. This type of inclusive design directly speaks to the disabled community and their needs. Accessible design is most known due to requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

What makes accessible design unique from usable and universal design is that it’s focused on individuals with disabilities, whereas the other two are more concerned with overall usage in design. 

In the workplace, accessible design can take form in various ways. It’s crucial to approach this with a well-rounded mindset, as disability isn’t a black-and-white matter. 

Handicapped washrooms

Adding handicapped washrooms to your workplace is not only a primary component of being ADA compliant, but it makes for a better, safer space for all. Although, it’s not enough to include a stall with a low-seated toilet and sink and an automatic paper towel dispenser. A washroom must have other features such as grab bars, a ceiling track hoist, and perhaps a shower to accommodate every individual to be truly accessible to all. 

Braille signs

Braille has been used since the 1800s and continues to be a revolutionary way visually impaired people access spaces and use products and services. Adding Braille where necessary throughout the office not only helps visually impaired individuals navigate the workplace, but it ensures all can access the office without issue.

Color-contrast settings on screens

People who are visually impaired or color blind may have difficulty reading or accessing a digital screen due to light sensitivities. Adding devices with color and light contrasting settings ensure that everyone can use it as intended without issue.

Recognizing that disabilities are diverse is the first step in designing something all can use.

accessible restroom sinks

Usable design in the workplace

The International Organization for Standardization defines usable design as the “effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction with which a specified set of users can achieve a specified set of tasks in a particular environment.” In other words, products, services, or spaces created with this type of design can be successfully used for their purpose by the people they were designed for. 

Usable design looks at the way a product, space, or service is used rather than if it’s convenient, simple, or quick for the user. Scott Belsky, Chief Product Officer and Executive Vice President of Creative Cloud at Adobe, said about usable design: “rule of thumb for UX: more options, more people.” 


The fundamental difference that sets usable design apart from accessible design and universal design is that it isn’t necessarily about all people. More often than not, people with disabilities are excluded from usable design, hence the importance of all three types of design.

Despite this, good usable design is essential because it’s the difference between something being used and not being used—and used correctly. For example, take a door with a door handle with a sign that says “pull” above it. If it were clear that to open the door you need to pull it, then a sign wouldn’t be necessary. Requiring a sign means the design isn’t a success. 

How is usable design implemented in the workplace? Here are a few examples.

Reception desks

Let’s say your office has a large entrance area, but the reception desk is located at the far end. Because of where the reception desk is placed, it’s not immediately noticeable to those visiting the office, which can be confusing. To apply the usable design principle would mean moving the reception desk near the front of the entrance to make it clear to visitors.

Ergonomic desk chairs

Sitting at your desk all day can be taxing on the body. Ergonomic desk chairs work to alleviate pain points (literally) that come with working at a desk for long hours. The great thing about ergonomic desk chairs is that it can be used by people of various heights and weights and with different needs.  

Collaborative spaces

Areas designed to promote productivity, creativity, and collaboration are a valuable asset to any office. Collaborative spaces like this are designed to foster teamwork, which can strengthen a team or serve as a place to tackle a new project. These open rooms are typically designed with plenty of seating and tools like whiteboards, TVs, and A/V hookups, which are primers for an excellent brainstorm session.

usable design reception desk

Universal design in the workplace

According to the National Disability Authority, universal design is, “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.”

Universal design is rooted in the concept that anyone regardless of age, height, weight, or ability, can use it to it’s fullest. Also, universal design is made up of seven principles.

  1. Equitable Use: the design is usable and marketable by all people with various abilities
  2. Flexibility in Use: the design is accommodating to various individuals and their preferences
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use: the design is easy to use and understand no matter the user’s experience, knowledge, language abilities, or concentration capabilities
  4. Perceptible Information: the required information needed is appropriately communicated to the user, no matter the user’s capabilities
  5. Tolerance for Error: the design reduces potential risks and consequences of unintended actions
  6. Low Physical Effort: the design can be used with minimum fatigue
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use: the design is appropriate for users of all sizes, mobility, and postures to use as intended

Each of these principles ensures a product, service, or space is truly universal. For the workplace, universal design can be implemented in various ways.

Curb cuts

Curb cuts, also known as curb ramps, are concrete ramps that allow wheelchair users, bikes, and other wheeled vehicles to access sidewalks. Many curb cuts also have tactile paving with raised circular bumps to notify visually impaired individuals that they are crossing a street or moving toward a sidewalk.

Door handles

Instead of doorknobs, door handles allow everyone—including those who may not be able to grip and turn a doorknob—to open a door. By adhering to the “closed fist” rule of design, individuals who are unable to open their fist or grip a doorknob can use the door without issue.

Adjustable desks

Desks that can be adjusted to accommodate different heights is a great example of universal design. Being able to adjust the height of a desk is a simple yet effective way to ensure all employees can use their desk comfortably.

Door handle adhering to closed fist rule of design

Approaching inclusive and universal design in your workplace

Inclusively designed spaces and products are an essential part of not just making an office available to all employees, but of fostering a positive employee experience. Together, these three types of design can make for a workplace that prioritizes inclusivity.

When thinking about how to make your office more inclusive, consider various angles:

  • Who needs to be or should be involved when planning or designing
  • Create a focus group that tests and verifies the usability of the products, spaces, and services you’re looking to implement
  • Hire inclusively, but make sure your space is accommodating and accessible to all

Inclusive design isn’t about checking boxes to be ADA-abiding—it’s much more than that. It’s about creating a safe, comfortable office culture and space that all employees feel confident in accessing and using successfully.

Want to learn more about how OfficeSpace Software can change your facilities management for the better? Contact us today, and a member of our team will help you get started.

Photo Credits: AbsolutVision, Pixabay, Shutterstock, Pixabay, Jonathan Petersson