In the late 1980s, Sam Farber, a retired housewares manufacturer, was making an apple tart in the south of France when he noticed that his wife Betsey was having trouble peeling the apples due to her mild arthritis. So he started working on a design for a new potato peeler that was easy to hold, with a big comfy handle, finally settling on soft black thermoplastic rubber with fins. It was thought to be a niche product, since it cost three times as much as a regular metal peeler, but it took off in the marketplace because it was easier for everyone to use. It was a great example of what became known as universal design.
"It’s hard to think of a vegetable peeler as radical," Farber told The Los Angeles Times in 2000. "But I guess it was." Now OXO is huge, making dozens of products, all based on the principles of universal design.
It's important to note that universal design is different from accessible design, which is primarily about providing access to people in wheelchairs. The Americans with Disabilities Act ensures that they have access to public spaces and multifamily housing. There are about 1.7 million Americans who must use wheelchairs or scooters, and about 1.2 million of them suffer from osteoarthritis. The ADA has been a boon for them.
But there are 75 million baby boomers in America, and only a small proportion of them are going to need full wheelchair accessibility. This is why I rant about the giant bungalows in retirement communities with big garages for the wheelchair van. They look at one aspect, a vague nod to accessibility, and ignore the things that would make life better for everyone — the seven principles of universal design. Ron Mace, one of the thinkers behind universal design, wrote:
Universal design is not a new science, a style, or unique in any way. It requires only an awareness of need and market and a commonsense approach to making everything we design and produce usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible."
These are seven basic principles that he and the team at the NC State University College of Design figured out:
Principle 1: Equitable use
The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
These are the new Bombardier Flexity streetcars being introduced in Toronto. They have a very low floor; one door has a fold-down ramp making it wheelchair-accessible. But every door is easier to use for older people with canes or walkers, parents with strollers, shoppers with bundle-buggies. It really is a breeze to use. Another example is the automatic door at the supermarket; yes, it makes entry easy for the wheelchair-bound, but also for anyone pushing a cart.
In designing homes, it would mean flush thresholds at entry, wider corridors and doors, wall reinforcement where grab rails might be needed, or for when solid baby gates are needed. Stairs should be 42 inches instead of the usual 36 inches to provide for future chair lifts, or a closet might be designed for future conversion to an elevator.
Principle 2: Flexibility in use
The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
This is where the OXO GoodGrips products come in, but also where interior designers and architects have to think about what they specify more carefully. For example, these free-standing bathtubs are all the rage at the interior design shows this year, but for older people, the safe way to get into a tub is to sit on the deck or the edge of the tub and swing your legs in. These tubs make that impossible.
Principle 3: Simple and intuitive use
Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level.
Prior to the iPhone, using a cellphone meant dropdown menus, tiny buttons, and having to learn new strings of commands for every phone. Steve Jobs insisted that it be simple, with little intuitive icons that anyone could understand immediately. The rest is history. In our homes, we should keep it simple too. Everyone is talking to Alexa and and asking Siri to turn on the lights, but switches work really well, too.
Principle 4: Perceptible information
The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.
When Honeywell introduced the Henry Dreyfus-designed T-86 thermostat in 1953, it was an instant hit — easy to install, easy to read, easy to use. In the Smithsonian, they describe its "ease of use and maintenance, clarity in form and function, and concern for end-user." It's still in production and the Nest knocked it off for their smart thermostat. Everything in our homes should be like that.
Principle 5: Tolerance for error
The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
This one's personal. Four years ago, my 96-year-old mom went to a nice lunch and afterwards was coming down these stairs, holding the arm of another guest. There is no handrail, no markings, dark granite and the bottom step is two inches high to meet the slope of the sidewalk. My mom didn't see it; the young woman helping her didn't hold her tightly enough; my mom hit her head and almost died, and was never the same. She finally died last year, but we really lost her then.
This isn't allowed anymore, but the building was from 1974 and therefore didn't have to fix it retroactively. These kinds of trip hazards are everywhere and cause endless numbers of deaths and injuries. They are in our homes and cities. They can hurt someone of any age, but with 75 million aging baby boomers, they are a disaster waiting to happen.
Handrails. Good lighting. Proper marking and signage. These should be everywhere.
Principle 6: Low physical effort
The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
This is why lever handles are such a good idea. Unlike standard doorknobs, they are easy to open if your hands are full of stuff, if you have trouble grabbing things, or if you're a small child reaching up. They work for everyone more easily than knobs. They are a little more expensive (at least the good ones that don't sag are) but it's not very much more.
Principle 7: Size and space for approach and use
Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture or mobility.
We have traditionally put light switches at 48 inches from the floor and outlets at 12 inches for no good reason; it was simply the standard. But 42 inches and 18 inches make it easier for everyone — those who have to reach up because they're in a wheelchair, or those who have to bend down and aren't that flexible. It doesn't cost a dime.
In our kitchens, we should remember the "eyes to thighs" rule: put everything that we use often between the height of those two body parts. In Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's seminal Frankfurt Kitchen of 1926 you could reach everything easily, and there was a lower section where you could sit down while you worked. An interesting trend in today's kitchens is to raise the dishwasher so you're not always bending down to get stuff out of it. We're going to see more of this, the end of the tyranny of the 36-inch high counter, where the kitchen design adapts to the human body instead of the other way around.
In our bathrooms, the dumbest thing anyone ever thought of was the idea of putting a shower head over a tub. Imagine the designer of the first one, thinking "let's mix soap, water, a curvy metal floor and hard surfaces together. What could possibly go wrong?" But not everyone can afford the space or the extra plumbing. In my own bathroom, I moved the controls from the centre of the tub, put a floor drain outside the tub and shower outside the tub. I have not installed grab bars, but have blocking behind the tile for when I decide to do so. There's no extra plumbing cost, and it works wonderfully.
It's just common sense.
As Ron Mace noted, universal design is just common sense. It works for almost everyone: children, parents with strollers, aging boomers; it's not just about people in wheelchairs. Transit expert Jarrett Walker has noted that "the unique feature of a city is that it doesn't work for anyone unless it works for everyone." The same should be said of our homes.