HEWI MAG / Knowledge

Is Universal Design invisible?

Thomas Bade, head of the Universal Design Institute, provides an answer

The philosophy behind the term Universal Design focuses on people and their individual needs - regardless of age, size or weight. HEWI has been living this philosophy for more than 40 years. Where this philosophy comes from and what it means in our daily lives is outlined by Thomas Bade, head of the Universal Design Institute, in his statement. 

Thomas Bade, Director of the Universal Design Institute

Universal Design as a design strategy in Germany has developed steadily but hesitantly over the last 15 years. Often its importance was assessed and valued more highly abroad than in Germany or Europe itself. This applies in particular to the Asian countries of Japan and Korea. They are still considered by many to be pioneers of universal design. From my point of view, this evaluation or assessment needs to be partially re-evaluated.

This also results in a significant way from the industry's willingness or need to deal with demographic change. Here, the factors of the surrounding fields of lifelong learning, life and work, play a central role.

But where then is good universal design outstandingly developed and visible? Before we begin such a reflection and look into the future, we should nevertheless venture a look back into the past. 

Where does the design philosophy "Universal Design" come from? 

This review has to start with Ron Mace. It was the American architect, who died in 1998, who formulated the guiding principle of Universal Design (together with a team of researchers, architects and designers), which is still valid today, as follows:

"Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design."

It is important to note that Mace deliberately did not refer to norms and laws. He wanted to create a creative attitude and awareness that would achieve a self-determined and independent lifestyle for as many people as possible. 

Why Universal Design should be invisible

Mace went beyond the usual DIN-EN-ISO assessment scenarios with this requirement. Similar to the sociologist, planning theorist, economist and art historian Lucius Burckhard (1925-2003), Ron Mace called for an invisible universal design.

Himself physically disabled, Mace did not want to be reminded on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis that there should only be special, special or special products, access and architectures for him.

He challenged the hitherto existing view of a foreign-determined way of life. Perhaps this different view also scraped from Kassel to Bad Arolsen. For Lucius Burckhard taught at the University of Kassel from 1972 to 1997 in the department of architecture, urban planning and landscape planning.

And perhaps HEWI was motivated by Burckhard's question "What use is the most beautiful tram if it doesn't run at night?" to think and design not in terms of products but rather in terms of scenarios, places and lifestyles.

Back in the here and now

Universal Design creates scenarios for learning, vocational training and further education for appreciative and supportive working environments in the home office as well as in the corporate headquarters, enables intercultural coexistence in public and private spaces, helps to shape living from young to old and plays out its strengths in the health and care sector

The principles of "Universal Design" have long been applied to the tried and tested "LifeSystem", the professional system for care. It scales the scale of design to the very logical benchmark: it has to be people.

How Universal Design developed in Germany and Europe

In the first place of this "first mover", this fundamental universal design attitude, is certainly the sanitary industry of Germany and Europe. At first hesitantly, but then more and more intensively, this industry was challenged by demographic parameters to focus on the needs for aesthetics, comfort and safety of its female customers.

Depending on the company culture and history, this is still interpreted either technically or aesthetically. Even when viewed objectively and critically, HEWI simply stands for both - for the technical, safe aesthetics of its products in the most diverse spatial environments. For this sustainable universal design attitude, the HEWI company as a whole was awarded a UNIVERSAL DESIGN SPECIAL MENTION 2020.


What does this mean for the future?

The current reality of life formulates the challenges for the future almost mercilessly. Places of living and working are being rethought, redesigned, digitalized and literally clean.

We will have to learn to live with COVID and its unpleasant relatives in the future and will take care of supposed trivialities. A hygienic aesthetic of our living environments will become one of the keys to a sustainable and liveable future.

It may sound presumptuous. Nevertheless. Universal Design becomes system-relevant and also more digital. Nevertheless, let's remain critical and vigilant, because loosely based on Burckhard, what good is it if the digitized and AI-optimized tram doesn't run at night? 

Where does Germany stand on the subject of universal design compared to other countries?

Where do we stand in Germany with our universal design attitude compared to our direct and indirect neighbours? Like almost always in midfield? Well, I think at least in the front midfield.

Some flashes on this. Japanese industry remains the benchmark. In almost every company philosophy, Universal Design is there in the company code of the big players (e.g. Toyota, Hitachi, Fujitsu, Panasonic). On the way to an inclusive universal design attitude, however, many hurdles are still visible in the social economy sector.

In South Korea, by decree of the mayor of the city of Seoul, work is being done with power and pressure and remarkable commitment on a city of universal design. The end of the road there does not seem to have been reached yet. Too much remains to be done to overcome the definition of stigmatising accessibility.

Universal Design in Russia radiates from Moscow. Here, too, there are impulses worth seeing, especially coming from the self-help groups based in the capital. Current political tensions are also contributing to the reluctance of American and Western European funders and the universal design process seems to be delayed.

The American universal design community is currently understandably focused on the equality rights of all citizens and securing the achievement of "Obama" health insurance.

Norway is the undisputed and clear leader of the universal design movement. Here, the overall political consensus is that the principles of a universal design society for all citizens must be implemented in all areas of political, social and economic life by 2025. Admittedly, the gap is not small for Germany, but it can be significantly reduced if the "first movers" such as HEWI take the lead. 

Universal Design ensures economic growth

Finally, a request and a wish for readers and fellow writers. In 2008, the twelfth and final thesis of the Weimar Declaration on Universal Design stated: "universal design ensures and promotes economic growth". This thesis is currently the subject of heated debate, and rightly so. Perhaps this discourse could also be accompanied by the following expert contributions rather as follows: "universal design ensures and promotes qualitative and responsible growth."


Thomas Bade

Thomas Bade sees social entrepreneurship as a central element of his work and has been committed to the goal of anchoring universal design in business, science and society for 15 years. He is co-founder of universal design e. V., signatory of the Weimar Declaration, lecturer at the Technical University of Munich and, since July 2016, managing director of the Institute for Universal Design there.

"From today's perspective, universal design does not see itself as a translator or advocate of specific life designs, but rather functions as a systemic designer of a life and work that is always in motion."

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