Universal Design

Universal Design promotes the idea that spaces and products should be designed to be accessible to as many people as possible. In this section, learn how this practice can be used in museum spaces. 

Three people sitting on a bench in an exhibition space

What is Universal Design?

Universal Design promotes the idea that spaces and products should be designed to be accessible to as many people as possible. It was first introduced in the 1970s by Ronald Mace, an architect, educator, consultant and accessibility advocate. As a wheelchair user, Mace found navigating buildings difficult, so he spent his career revolutionising the building code to ensure buildings were usable by everyone.

The Principles of Universal Design

Universal Design was created so that disabled and non-disabled people could enjoy going places and using products together without experiencing barriers.

Ronald Mace created seven principles for designers to use in their practice that would remove these barriers:

  • Equitable use

  • Flexibility in use

  • Simple and intuitive use

  • Perceptible information

  • Tolerance for error

  • Low physical effort

  • Size and space for approach and use

In 2007, World Health Organisation stated in their International Classification of Function, Disability, and Health that Universal Design is the most promising framework for accessibility.

Universal Design in Exhibition Design

Mace’s seven principles of Universal Design can be applied to exhibition design, ensuring that exhibitions are designed for everyone to use.

Below are some examples of how Universal Design can be applied to exhibitions.

Equitable use

With equitable design, the designer intends to allow all people, disabled or not, to visit and experience all the aspects of the exhibition. Think about how people will enter and move around the exhibition, as well as the potential barriers they could face.

Common barriers include steps, lighting, and placing wall panels or objects too high on a wall. Arts Access Aotearoa has a useful accessibility checklist that will help museums audit their current exhibitions.

Flexibility in use

To make exhibitions more user-friendly for people with diverse abilities, museums can provide multiple methods for people to experience different parts of the exhibition. For instance, if an exhibition includes a video with audio, the museum needs to provide captions. Not only does this give people who are Deaf or hard of hearing the ability to understand what is happening in the video, but it is also beneficial for anyone whose first language is not that of the exhibition. Additionally, if the video is uploaded to the museum’s website, captions are required under the New Zealand Web Standards.

Simple and intuitive use

Designing intuitive interactives allows people of diverse abilities to engage fully with them, including disabled people, children, and people who do not speak the language of the exhibition.

Writing labels in plain language instead of academic language allows more people to understand the content, even if they are not experts in the subject material. In many instances, written text can be replaced by using symbols for facilities, locker-room protocols and safety and emergency signage, so it is a good idea to look over your signage and work out what signage can be supported with a visual aid.

Perceptible information

A multi-sensory approach supports a richer experience for all visitors. It is best practice to share information in forms that can be understood by as many people as possible. Consider how information can be shared with people who are blind or have low vision. Options include replicas, handling objects, and audio descriptions. These solutions do not have to be expensive but offer visitors a much richer experience.

3D printed replica of the Logie Cup, hand-painted by Roswyn Wiltshire. Image courtesy UC Teece Museum, University of Canterbury

Tolerance for error

Minimising hazards makes an exhibition more enjoyable for visitors and less stressful for kaimahi. Consider whether any parts of the exhibition could result in hazardous scenarios. For instance, if there is a case protruding from the wall and nothing at floor level to indicate that it is there, a blind person who uses a cane may walk into it.

Observation and conversations with your communities will help clarify how ‘mistakes’ that people make when using the exhibition will affect their enjoyment. For example, if a person is using a touchscreen to find out more information about objects on display and they click the wrong object, make sure that returning to the previous page is a simple task. Creating ways for people to go back to previous pages or undo certain tasks are good examples of tolerance for error.

Low physical effort

By designing exhibitions that require little effort to travel through, explore, and understand, you are allowing people to focus their energy on enjoying the exhibition without wearing themselves out or worrying about ‘doing the wrong thing’.

There are many places where this principle can be employed. Automatic doors, large-print text, and chairs around the exhibition are some examples, but also consider how a person with a disability may interact with a space. People who are hard of hearing will struggle to hear people or audio tracks in large, open spaces as sound bounces around them. A redesign of these buildings is expensive and time-consuming but there are cheaper alternatives, such as installing acoustic foam or putting audio tracks in more closed-off areas where there is less echo.

Community Consultation

It is important to consult the local disabled communities to learn about their experiences and how you can improve their experience. Their insight will tell you what is working well, point out problems you may be unaware of, help you define objectives and measures of success, and set priorities in your accessibility work plan. Beginning in 2020, Te Papa began working on a project to improve the museum experience for the Deaf Community. Digital Producer, Amos Mann and Theresa Cooper, an NZSL consultant, worked together to create an NZSL guide for twelve items on display at Te Papa and five orientation videos. To learn more about their work, check out the case study: “Accessibility in NZSL: Collaboration to increase the use of NZSL” as presented at the 2022 National Digital Forum.

Meanwhile, in 2021, Canterbury Museum and MBA student Kase Craig have been working with the autistic community to improve their experience at the museum. They focused on the ways people move between galleries and how unwritten rules of the museum could be made clearer for visitors. To learn more about their work, read the case study: Nothing about us without us, learning from the Autistic Community.



Connell, B., Jones, M., Mace, R., Mueller, J., Mullick, A., Ostroff, E., Sanford, J., Steinfeld, E., Story, M., and Vanderheiden, G. ‘The Principles of Universal Design’ The Center for Universal Design, April 1, 1997. Retrieved February 1, 2021