Design for All as a contemporary approach to design

I was in the United States, it was the first half of June 2009, and I was wandering along the boardwalk that runs along the Ocean. It was, for me, my first time in the United States and I have no hesitation in expressing my deep disappointment. A place without identity, or at least as we Europeans understand it, and without any points of reference. I finally arrived in a bookstore wondering if I would ever find something to read in the original language; immediately at the entrance there was the Design and Architecture section. I won’t hide the fact that I was pleased, a bit because I had immediately found my spot in an immense (like everything in America) bookstore and a bit because I would have spent the next few hours in a place other than fast food, a clothing boutique, an exhibition. Among the featured books I found the one I would have bought shortly after: “Design meets disability” by Graham Pullin. The subject did not sound new to me, precisely because at the same time I was developing a project for a very special washbasin for the disabled for a company (Goman) and my research had encountered Universal Design and its applications several times.

From the first few pages it’s clear that: “Universal design is the term that is associated with a wide-ranging design methodology, and whose goal is the design and implementation of buildings, products, and environments that are accessible to all categories of people with and without disabilities.” Among the multitude of possible examples of Universal Design, the first ones the author chooses are the iPhone (at the time it was the 3G); the reason lies in the numeric keyboard that the operating system had arranged in such a way as to occupy the entire screen. The numeric buttons were, and still are, oversized, and therefore the dialing of the required phone number is extremely accessible even to the elderly. This shows that the target audience is not, as might seem obvious, only the disabled population, but mainly those who live in the third, and above all the fourth age. It becomes clear that advanced age is among the main themes addressed by the disciplines and by the design processes for broader users.

A few data can help to understand its scope and value. It must be said that the definition of the elderly tout-court is vague and flexible; both in science and in relations between the individual and society, the element that is taken as an indicator of aging is represented by chronological age. In other words, an elderly person is defined as having passed the conventional threshold of 60-65 years of age. Still conventionally, the third age can be defined as that which goes from 60-65 to 75 and the fourth age as that which goes beyond 76. In the European Union there are currently more than 70 million people over 60, which corresponds to 20% of the entire population.

In 2030 in Italy, according to an Eurispes research, we will have an elderly person every three citizens. It’s obvious that there’s nothing in common between people of the same age group; in fact, we find very youthful, lively and self-sufficient seniors in their 80s. Equally evident is that approaching the third age, and especially the fourth, is more likely to lead to the appearance of diseases, illnesses and other types of complications.

But going deeper and back to the topic, Universal Design isn’t the most correct approach, or at least the most complete and comprehensive one to deal with such a complex and heterogeneous issue as design for the whole population. Universal Design, which is very popular in the United States, is very focused on the final product using rules that are easy to apply; this allows for short-term results and benefits, but it completely fails in creating an awareness of social inclusion in decision makers and designers. Therefore, the methodologies proposed by this discipline don’t allow to measure the respect for human dignity, because it can’t be measured with purely objective parameters. In this sense, Design for All differs radically.

Design for All is design for human diversity, social inclusion and equality.” “Designing Design for All means conceiving environments, systems, products, and services that are independently usable by people with different needs and abilities.” It’s a design process that takes conscious use of the analysis of human needs and aspirations and requires the involvement of direct users. Therefore, unlike other disciplines, all elements of the project that don’t constitute social discrimination or codes of ghettoization of users are covered. That’s the key point that allows Design for All to take a privileged, more contemporary perspective, while at the same time increasing the factors of analysis in the project. In fact, all of man’s senses (5) are involved and so it can be defined as a holistic approach, which undoubtedly turns out to be a creative and ethical challenge not only for designers and planners, but also for entrepreneurs, public administrations and political leaders. Finally, it’s important to specify that by “All” is meant all the people who want, desire or must benefit from the project, and not “all” in a strict sense.

There are several examples where this design process has been applied with considerable success. The accessible environment (even if often discriminatory) par excellence is certainly the bathroom, also because it is regulated by precise laws when it is used as a public service in contexts such as bars, restaurants, hotels, trade fairs, etc… Less obvious as an example is Autogrill’s effort in recent years to have facilities following the Design for All guidelines. At the moment, Autogrill’s truly accessible hospitality and rest stop sites are in Ravenna on the E45 and in Villaroesi Est on the A8 Milano Laghi. These two buildings are accessible in all their parts in a non-discriminatory manner, the shelving can be reached by everyone (children, adults, the disabled), the furniture (seats and tables) is light and easy to handle, there are adequate colour contrasts, and counter-top areas are also accessible for wheelchair users, etc. Even the bathrooms of the Villoresi Est structure have an original and almost sui genereris conformation that is not only non-discriminating, but more comfortable and functional. It’s no coincidence that the DfA Italia Association has awarded Autogrill with the Design for All Quality Mark.

Among the various inclusive products, either on the market or under development, the Delicanter, designed by Paolo Favaretto, still deserves a special mention. It’s a blown crystal decanter with a bottom almost spherical hosted by a base made of wood or metal. In this way it is also (but not only) possible to serve the beverage (wine or liquor) without the slightest effort, because it’s sufficient to rotate the decanter without lifting it. It’s a project that opens the path for those who have difficulties in handling weights (especially if weights are unbalanced) or have lost precision in performing daily gestures. This kitchen accessory is just one of a long series of innovative objects that can underline the importance of creating a usable and comfortable world for everyone through a design that is increasingly attentive to people’s needs.

If it’s evident that Design for All (like other similar disciplines) is aimed primarily, but not exclusively, at the elderly (for accessibility and independence) and therefore at a very large segment of the population, it’s surprising how it’s not such a widespread and perceptible approach and method in daily life. Research shows that 90% of products in Europe are not fully accessible and there is an urgent need for education but above all a design sensitivity that completes the work and effectiveness shown by the application of local or international regulations such as, for example, the removal of architectural barriers. It’s just enough to think of Ikea, whose worldwide diffusion for both furniture and furnishings and low-cost, democratic design, to show how the topic of “accessibility” is not a priority; at the moment, in fact, there is a kitchen for the disabled and not much more. From the perspective of Design for All, Ikea immediately becomes a less democratic reference and with a visibility that should make you think. In this way, unfortunately, we can speak of a phenomenology of exclusion, social and perceived. The reasons that do not push Ikea towards a more declared social inclusion are multiple and perhaps unquestionable, but certainly this multinational is currently missing an opportunity.

In fact, Design for All can be an economic lever for companies that shouldn’t be ignored: it makes possible to satisfy the majority of customers by giving comfort, ease and pleasantness of use even to groups that are excluded or penalized, it builds customer loyalty because it enhances their specificity, and it gives a creative and non-discriminatory response to safety and disability standards. Obviously, increasing the possibility of using an environment or a product means increasing the number of users or consumers, but above all, in the current panorama, for a company it means differentiating itself and showing itself socially active, contemporaneous. It can be said with certainty that designing Design for All does not mean applying limits or restrictions to the project, but that it is an opportunity to develop products, systems or environments that have a strong innovative value and, if desired, bring new languages and solutions; famous is the phrase of Paul Hogan, president of EIDD Design for All Europe “Good design enables, bad design disables”.

It’s about time that Design for All, or more generally Design for People, is treated, considered and valued with the same commitment with which the theme “sustainability” and its surroundings have been treated in the last decade. If a product cannot disregard its environmental impact, it is now no longer acceptable that a product does not consider the possibility that it be used by people with different abilities. The future of design is consequent, as History teaches us, to the future of mankind; the only certainty is that mankind is surviving longer and longer and the difficulties generated by this phenomenon must be faced.

If Design doesn’t take care of it, it’s out of History.


Graham Pullin, Design meets disability, Mit Pr, 2011

Avril Accolla, Design for All — Il progetto per l’individuo reale, Franco Angeli, 2009

Luigi Bandini Buti, Ergonomia Olistica, Franco Angeli, 2008

Gilardelli Daniela, Progetto “Idea DfA” — Il primo progetto italiano di introduzione del Design for All nelle PMI e le linee guida emerse, Camera di Commercio di Milan

Manipulation and/or reproduction (in whole or in part) and/or telematic dissemination of this work is permitted with prior approval of the authors. This essay was published in 2012 within Bootleg 5/10.