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"Universals and Particulars"


by James Joseph Pirkl, FIDSA

An article published in the January 2010, Vol-1, No-2 issue of Design For All, a publication of the Design Institute of India.

Copyright © 2010 by James J. Pirkl, FIDSA

“Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous patience.”

                                                                — Hyman Rickover
                                                     US (Polish-born) admiral  (1900 -1986)

I find that time provides a clarifying perspective that enables one to probe the heart of an old idea. Looking back through the lens of a new decade, such concepts as ‘universal design,’ ‘inclusive design,’ and ‘design for all’ begin to appear as—old ideas.

Fifteen years ago Elaine Ostrich, co-founder of Adaptive Environments, described universal design as “an approach to design that honors human diversity. It addresses the right for everyone—from childhood into their oldest years—to use all spaces, products and information in an independent, inclusive, and equal way.1  Certainly, few would argue against the philosophical desirability of such a goal. But, like “world peace” and "sustainable environments,” intent is not a methodology.

Collectively, we have been very successful at communicating our intent—the message has spread throughout the world. Our swelling, collective efforts have triggered new buzzwords, spread public awareness, reordered priorities, opened up new markets, and influenced design thinking.

We should congratulate ourselves. At the same time, however, we should recognize that we have not enjoyed the same success in producing a workable methodology that may help the design and marketing communities to expand the diversity of user accommodation. Perhaps a discussion of this issue may produce a useful model and help fulfill the dream of an old idea.

The Problem 

If we acknowledge the desirability of maintaining the highest quality of design integrity, we must also recognize that it is often impractical or impossible to provide all deserving user groups with identical accommodating design features. Thus, our dilemma: the more diversity of accommodation we seek, the more fragmented the markets becomes; and the greater the need for acquiring and applying specialize knowledge about each market segment. When products and environments are designed for one segment of the population—without reflecting specialized knowledge about that segment—they cannot be used, or are rejected by some or all persons within other groups. The result is discrimination by design.

Recognizing the reality and frequency of such situations, we continue to search for effective ways to accommodate the wide diversity and particular needs of various excluded groups. But in our global pursuit of a common goal, we have blurred the public’s perception of our task with a confusing array of identifying banners: Accessible Design; Adaptive Design; Aids for Daily Living; Aging-in-Place; Barrier-Free Design; Design for All; Equitable Use Design; Gerontechnology; Inclusive Design; Life Span Design; Sustainable Design; Transgenerational Design; Universal Design; and User-Centered Design. There’s a lesson to be learned from the old adage, “less is more.” Reducing and consolidating this multiplicity of confusing terms would be a good start.

We can begin by asking ourselves how we can (1) clarify the public’s perception of our collective content; (2) isolate and prioritize the essential problem solving elements; (3) sift out the redundancies; and (4) articulate a common set of design strategies and prescriptions that address both the universal and particular needs of our various targeted constituencies.

Universal vs. Particular

Our discussion starts by questioning and determining who our audience really is. A penetrating view by Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca reveals, at the basic level, just two: a "universal audience" and its opposite companion, the "particular audience."2

Figure 1 illustrates how the universal audience is, in fact, an interactive collection of differing particular audiences—each with a varying set of accommodation requirements. It also illustrates that such particular audiences comprise an interactive collection of two polar-opposing accommodation spectrums: (1) normal/ disabled and (2) young / old.

Figure 1

Figure 1   Positioning Map of the transgenerational relationship between universal and particular audiences.

Perhaps an example will help clarify the somewhat complicated roles and functions of particular and universal audiences. Suppose that Company A is designing a bathtub for the homebuilding market. The company recognizes the dramatic demographic shift that is rapidly increasing the number of home sales to aging Baby Boomers and beyond.

Specialized knowledge about this newly targeted particular audience suggests that, to attract a share of this swelling market, the new bathtub must entice and convince this target audience that the new design: (1) is free of symbolic negative stereotypes; (2) accommodates a wide variety of physical and sensory requirements associated with human aging; (3) will help bridge the anticipated transition across life's stages; and (4) promotes and maintains dignity and self respect. But at the same time—and of equal importance—the new design must continue to attract the company's existing customer base. Not an easy task!

The logical question to ask now is, how “universal” does a universal design need to be? In the above hypothetical case, suppose the new bathtub's design, appearance, and functional advantages attracts a large number of aging consumers; some are impaired or even disabled—but not everybody; not even everybody in the new target audience. In light of this assertion,

Brembeck and Howell offer a fundamental truth about truly universal design: They ask, "What entitles us to call the outside [all inclusive] audience universal is the universality of the opportunity for everyone in a specified large community to receive it."3 Thus, from an accommodation viewpoint of the company's new design, everybody might just as well be a Baby Boomer or beyond.

Distinguishing between universal and particular audiences is an extraordinarily useful tool for planning, conducting, and analyzing a particular design strategy. Not only can relative standards be applied to accomplish a particular purpose but, again, according to Brembeck and Howell, normative standards within a particular group’s culture or subculture become equally important. Design accommodation directed to both particular and universal audiences is interwoven in proportions dictated by the ages, abilities, situations, and people affected. It is important, therefore, to recognize that any product or environmental design that is not completely customized for one group will fall somewhere on the continuum shown in Table 1.


TABLE 1    Percentage of reliance upon the criteria of particular and universal audiences.

Particular               0                25               50                75              100

Universal            100               75               50                25                0

Source: Brembeck, Winston L. and William S. Howell. Persuasion: A Means of Social Influence, second edition, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1978, p.192.


A product or environment, then, becomes universal or particular to the degree in which: (1) the stated design criteria accurately describes the targeted audience(s); (2) its design fulfills its original inclusionary intent or purpose; and (3) it achieves its projected distribution within, and acceptance by, its intended target audience(s).

The Target Audience

If we accept the idea that the core purpose of “design” is to achieve an anticipated result by addressing and fulfilling the particular needs and expectations of the target audience, we must also acknowledge, from our own experience, that not every product or environmental design achieves the desired result of serving everyone. Thus, we are led to conclude that no design can fulfill all expectations, in all cases, and be truly universal—in contrast to particular.

Accordingly, in order to design and market products and environments that effectively accommodate the widest audience of those in need of accommodation, we must, above all else, be clear about the ‘who’ we are really designing for. We must define the target audience at the outset—and in a manner that determines and ensures the intended results. Of all the aspects of the design process, this may be the least understood and most ignored. Yet, this step is key to achieving a design’s advantage for, and acceptance by, the intended users.

Accommodating Diversity

Unfortunately, many designers overlook the fact that effective design accommodation requires more than just following the dictates of a new set of generic principles or the latest collection of ergonomic charts and diagrams—regardless of their validity. The design community must continually remind itself that most consumer products and environments are designed for people, and that people fall within a very wide interlocking spectrum of human diversity—of age and ability.

Clearly, accommodating diversity through design is not an easy task. While the process is creative and innovative—it’s also an interdisciplinary problem-solving activity. It requires a mind-set well beyond that inferred by the popular media’s verbalized lists of “should’s” and “cannot’s” offering authoritative formulas under such labels as “inclusive,” “universal,” and "design for all." Such descriptors imply that the spectrum of humandiversity can best be served by “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

Psychologist and ethnographer Stephen B. Wilcox refutes this view, believing that “the term inclusivedesign is preferable and less confusing, in that universal design implies that a given design is aimed at everybody.”4  Others, like Joseph Koncelik, former Director of Geogia Tech’s Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Assess, agree that “universal” design is a ‘one size fits all’ concept. He asks, “why would any designer assume that any given product must suit all people no matter what their capabilities.”5

On the other hand, some descriptors like “life-span,” “gerontechology,” and “transgenerational” identify different intents that recognize and focus on the particular needs of a narrower audience segment—the aging population. Koncelik suggests that, “with regard to problems that are related to aging and infirmity, there are two approaches, “universal and transgenerational,” and that these approaches differ in the intellectual constructs that compete for attention in design service today.

Researchers like James Leahy of the Center on Assistive Technology, University at Buffalo, agree. He has “found it beneficial to speak of transgenerational design (TD) rather than universal design(UD) when making presentations to company executives” because “TD piques the interest of corporations trying to tap into the aging Baby Boomer market.”6 Such division of meaning shows the difficulty we face in clarifying the growing confusion over terminology—not only for the public, but a also within the design and manufacturing communities as well.

The Dilemma

It should be clear from our brief review that we are on the horns of a dilemma: In order to expand the diversity of accommodation throughout the universal landscape, designs must accommodate the special needs of an increasing number of particular audiences—and this requires the application of specialized knowledge.

In other words, the more we target the beneficiaries of design accommodation, the more segmented the “age” and “ability” markets become. Moreover, accommodating each additional segment adds to the hierarchy of key design decisions based on: (1) level of complexity and (2) technical development issues. Increasing diversity by adding new segments requires the application of a corresponding base of specialized knowledge about the additional impairment or disability to be accommodated—an essential ingredient for a successful design solution. See Figure 2.

Figure 2

Figure 2    Model of the interlocking relationship between the need for specialized knowledge and diversity-caused market segmentation.

Looking again at Figure 2, part of the solution lies in understanding that design is only one part of the total human accommodation effort. Specialized knowledge about, and experience with particular audiences and their levels of impairments and disabilities, is also an essential ingredient. The design must correlate with those particular needs and types of accommodation required within each particular segment.

Reinforcing this point, Vogel, Cagen and Boatwright affirm that “the challenge in developing truly innovative products is first to identify a unique set of goals, then to identify a set of variables that can be modified to reach those goals, and then to understand the real versus perceived constraints on those variables.” In this connection, those constraining design requirements must be based on specialized knowledge about the needs of those particular audiences anticipated to interact with the new design.

Accommodating the Particular

The Positioning Map in Figure 3 shows the relation between universal accommodation and particular transgenerational infirmities. Its universal landscape reveals a diverse location of particular infirmities, ranging from mild to severe and from young to old.

Image 3.

Figure 3.   Positioning Map of the relation between universal accommodation and particular transgenerational infirmities.

An examination of the various interlocking areas reveals examples of typical injuries, impairments, or disabilities that normally occur at different age levels. Collectively, they express four simple truths that help explain the interrelationship of increasing age and our physical and sensory vulnerability: (1) young people become old; (2) young people can become disabled; (3) old people can become disabled; (4) disabled people become old.

Moving from left to right and from bottom to top within the various sectors, one encounters levels of increasingly severe conditions that require a corresponding level of design accommodation. Each level also requires a similar level of appropriate specialized knowledge required by the design in order to achieve appropriate solutions. As an added universal advantage, most resulting designs also accommodate conditions found in the lower level segments as well.

We can summarize the above analysis with the following assertion: The more diverse the desired accommodation, the more universal the design solution must be—and—the more particular the design solution, the less diversity will be accommodated. In a crowded world of diverse ages and abilities, where population aging is poised to explode, it is inevitable that the need for accommodating an ever-wider diversity of ages and abilities will gather increased attention throughout the globe.

The need for design accommodation is vast—but it is not vague. It is task specific. It should, therefore, be eminently clear that intention, intuition and guesswork are no longer sufficient to expand today’s boundaries of accommodation diversity. It takes a conscious effort to embrace and merge an increasing number of particular populations into the larger universal landscape.

We must continue to expand our design priorities— beyond solutions that just focus on function, practicality, and liability—and achieve desirable designs that also extend the user’s independence, freedom, dignity, and self-respect. As the onrush of technological innovation continues, its use can serve to help evolve and define new tenets of design.This can be accomplished with the help of the specialized knowledge that is continually emerging from the dedicated international interaction of concerned professions—and professionals.

Perhaps it’s another idea whose time has arrived!

1   Elaine Ostroff and Leslie Kanes Weisman, “Universal Design, Beyond the ADA: An Introduction to Creating Inclusive Buildings and Places.” Lecture notes developed for the Universal Design Education Online website (2004).

2  Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation (University of Notre Dame Press, 1969, p. 31.

3  Winston L. Brembeck and William S. Howell. Persuasion: A Means of Social Influence, second edition, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1978, p.192.

4  Stephen B. Wilcox,“Increasing Sales by Considering Disabilities.” Design Management Review, Vol. 16 No. 4 (Fall 2005): pp: 49.

5   Craig M Vogel, Jonathan Cagan and Peter Boatwright. The Design of things to Come, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharten School Publishing, 2005, p. 155.

6  Leahy, J.A. (2004). Transgenerational Design and Product Differentiators in Product Development.
leahy_2.htm. Accessed 20 December 2007



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