This is Universal Design

One of my pet peeves is the way that the meaning of a term deteriorates when it is improperly applied to something. In the case of Universal Design, this sometimes happens when people say things like, “redefining this word to include the full range of human experience around X is a kind of Universal Design or “oh, the availability of these shoes in every color is a kind of Universal Design!”  There are also examples that use “good design” discourses, that follow the explanation of a the merits of a particular design by saying, “this is just good design!”


It is, of course, politically strategic to define and apply Universal Design as a concept in this way. But then things like this happen:

Mitsubishi Outlander “End to Pretentiousness” – Directed by Erich Joiner from Steam Films on Vimeo.


The language of inclusivity and exclusivity, as well as “design for all,” clearly applies to economic privilege just as much as able-bodied privilege. However, this is a clear example of the co-option of inclusivity language from a context where it has clear meaning — design for all as an approach that privileges disability access. Also, let’s be honest, a $19,000 car is not “accessible.” Buying that car does not eliminate other economic barriers to driving, like the cost of car insurance and gas, or the necessity of credit and a social security number, or a number of other things that may prevent a person from becoming a card-carrying member of the car culture club.


I wrote a post about a year ago on the similar co-option of the language of flexibility in modern design. At the time, I did not know as much as I do now about the history of this concept, which pre-dates Universal Design and originates in more normate-centered design discourses. In the 20th century, flexibility is a design tool taken on by the U.S. military to design clothing and spaces to fit the range of soldiers. Still, in a contemporary design context, it is interesting to ask what the marketing teams behind these products think about their target consumer and their politics. Is selling something as inclusivity really going to get anyone to buy it? Isn’t the problem precisely that not enough people care about inclusivity?

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