Ronald Mace

“Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.” – Steve Jobs.

The ambiguity of the term design leaves much to interpretation. The overwhelming subjectivity transforms design into art, while its extreme objectivity makes it rather factual and reluctant to create a personal impact. Recognizing its value and maintaining a balance between the two results in a good design. But due to its subjective behavior, allowing the design to be accepted and embraced by all is the real challenge, making it multifaceted. Given that humans are at heart and the focus of this artistry, identifying specific user problems and responsibly coming up with a solution that caters to a comprehensive range of people, regardless of their differences, is crucial.

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Enabling Village by WOHA in Singapore_©Photo by Edward Hendricks

These differences in terms of their race, gender, age, socioeconomic, cultural background, mental or physical abilities, and disabilities are considered and deliberately addressed. What significantly dominates is the purpose of intricately creating and its ability to deliver. The goal is to celebrate this diversity creatively by inclusion without outlining the differences. Inclusion by design in architecture and construction broadly means making it accessible for all, and striving for equality, thus making it globally accepted. This conscious contribution of designing products and environments that are barrier-free and easily attainable by the disabled without any further need for modification is defined as “Universal Design.” 

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Ronald Mace, father of Universal Design_©
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Ronald Mace’s handwritten notes (ca. 1990) record a brainstorming session on the differences between Universal Design, assistive technology, and barrier-free design, using the disability movement term “crip” to describe the population of disabled users. ©Joy Weeber.

Ronald L. Mace, a design pioneer, was the visionary of Universal Design. Born in 1940 and disabled at the age of nine, he was diagnosed with polio leading the rest of his life with a wheelchair and additional help. In denial of accepting all the barriers he began to see and experience in his day-to-day life, Ronald dedicated his career to focusing on accessibility and easing the discomfort of the vulnerable. He pursued a degree in architecture in 1966; striving for success, he began to build unusual homes that could accommodate and house the needs of the disabled with a wheelchair. He began to recognize the issues with existing architecture, thus underling the required changes. It started with expanding the door width to create ramps while maintaining the aesthesis to please visually. In 1985, he imagined – a means of designing a structure, at little or no additional cost, to make it not only attractive and functional for everyone, including the disabled. Defining it as “Universal Design,” he decided to share and spread the idea while it was still at its nascent stage with the urge to create an inclusive surrounding that accepted a diverse range of people in a healthy, functional built environment. Ronald eventually gained international recognition as an architect and product designer, citing his ideology of aspiring not only for global acknowledgment and implementation but also for inspiring designers and architects to absorb the idea.

“We can make anything more universally usable, but to do that, we must pay attention to details.” -Ronald L. Mace.

The idea of Universal design is a broader concept that caters to the needs and requirements of everyone, and not just the disabled section of society. There was significant confusion amongst various disciples of professions about what comprised the idea. The changes in narrative and proliferations introduced multiple innovative prepositions, becoming an evolved term for a “good design.” Thus, drawing distinctions to express this coherent idea was quite a complex process. The universal design philosophy challenged the conventional practice of designing from the micro to macro level. Consequently, Mace helped distinguish between assistive technology and barrier-free and versatile design.

Throughout history, there have been various reasons, natural or artificial, that bring about a change in our physical being, and people, in turn, have constantly modified their physical environment to make it more habitable and adapt to these changes. Thus, the need to evolve and accept the complexities of humankind has never been so demanding. Universal Design is one of the most fundamental values of design that ties the community together, making them aware of each other. Not only does it impart acceptance of diversity but also encourages participation of the disabled, which blurs the lines of differences and creates an equal ground for all. Along with designing accessible houses, buildings, and products, Mace was a member of AIA, advocating and assisting regulations for the disability community passed through the legislature prohibiting discrimination and promoting equality. He founded the center of Accessible Housing in North Carolina, now known as The Center of Universal Design.

After the demise of Ronald Mace, a group of young architects and designers at his center explored and dug deep into his ideologies to guide and help the current and upcoming generations. These are the seven principles of Universal Design:

UD Principle 1: Equitable Use

The design is fair, practical, justified, and marketable to people with varied competencies.

UD Principle 2: Flexibility in Use

The design is adaptive, agreeable, and wide-ranging for all individual preferences and abilities.

UD Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use

The use of the design is straightforward, less complicated, and easy to understand, irrespective of the user’s understanding, learning, skills, or disability.

UD Principle 4: Perceptible Information

The design communicates directly to the user, sharing necessary information successfully, despite ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

UD Principle 5: Tolerance for Error

The design reduces threats and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions, ensuring the safety and security of the space and user.

UD Principle 6: Low Physical Effort

The design must not be complicated and can be used efficiently and comfortably and with minimal fatigue.

UD Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use

Appropriate size and space are provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

Modulor by Carpentier (2011)_©;

Due to his vulnerability, Mace’s theory revolutionized a section of design theory, changing one’s perspective of delivering its form, function, and equality. Universal Design is an ongoing process rather than a result of a space or a product. It continues to evolve and adapt to include the present, and changes will arrive shortly. This human-centric approach to design that Universal Design supports is user-friendly, convenient, and respectful of the user’s dignity, rights, and privacy.

Reference :

  1.   Design vs. Art: Objectivity & Subjectivity – KELSEY SELIS

  1.   Barrier Work – Building Access

  1.   Center for Universal Design NCSU – Ronald L. Mace

  1.   Universal Design as Access to Justice – 


  1.   Ronald Mace and His Impact on Universal Design – Center for Disability Rights,age%2C%20ability%2C%20or%20situation.


Vruti Desai is an architect and a designer based in Mumbai with a master’s degree in Architecture from Pratt Institute in New York. Being a multi-disciplinary artist, designing signature spaces and creatively expressing narrative experiences that enhance everyday human activity was an ideal way to combine these interests.