Principles of designing for all ages and abilities

Sherwin-Williams hero - Paint and universal design

Painting rooms different colors helps break up spaces for those with impaired vision.

From adding contrast to reducing glare, AIA partner Sherwin-Williams explores the role of color and design in creating spaces that work for everyone.

Design is universal, making it important for architects to focus on the impact of factors including accessibility, functionality and safety, at every stage in the life cycle and for every ability level. The desire to remain independent—whether in the home, in the community, or at the office—resonates with everyone, and design is increasingly important in making that independence possible.

The principle of universal design is focused on creating environments that can be accessed by people of all ages and abilities, and helps professionals think about subtle yet important touches that can make a space functional and comfortable without sacrificing style. Spaces that incorporate these principles benefit those of all ages, sizes, and abilities while maintaining a seamless and beautiful atmosphere.

Though these elements can manifest in a wide variety of ways, there are seven core principles of universal design:

  1. Equitable use: Create spaces that are equally useful to people with diverse abilities.
  2. Flexibility in use: Incorporate elements that can be adjusted based on preference and ability.
  3. Simple and intuitive use: Select items that are easy to understand, regardless of experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible information: Ensure that necessary information is easily discernable, regardless of ambient conditions or user’s sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for error: Minimize hazards and adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  6. Low physical effort: Create spaces that can be used efficiently and comfortably with minimum effort and risk of fatigue.
  7. Size and space for approach and use: Consider how elements can be reached, manipulated, and used regardless of body size, posture, or mobility.

The role of color, sheen and light in universal design

Choosing the right paint can go a long way toward making a space not only accessible, but functional for all. Color, sheen, lighting, and quality all go a long way toward improving a space and allowing it to be accessed by all. Here’s how to apply universal design when choosing a coating:

  • Color: When specifying colors, make sure there are high levels of contrast between furniture, fixtures, floor coverings, and other items that need to stand out for a space to be safely navigated by those who are aging or have other vision impairments. An all-white bathroom may feel bright and clean, but monochromatic schemes are hard on people with certain vision impairments.
  • Sheen: Often overlooked, sheen can play a big role in making a space usable for those of all ages and abilities. A higher sheen coating can intensify glare and further distort colors. By using a matte or flat finish, you can mitigate this and make walls and objects clearly visible. Non-reflective coatings are another great option for ensuring glare remains minimal.
  • Lighting: Overall, it’s best to err on the side of having more light because it ensures everyone, regardless of eyesight, will have the best chance of seeing things clearly. A lighting system designed with universal design in mind should include a mix of ambient lighting as well as specific task lighting to enhance color perception.
  • Quality: Quality is another important and often overlooked factor when specifying paints for universal use. By choosing a high-quality, long-lasting coating, you can ensure residents are disturbed as little as possible by the need to repaint.

How to apply universal design principles

While considering the space and abilities that need to be accounted for in projects, consider these recommendations that apply the principles of universal design:

  • Have at least one entrance without steps to allow people of all ages and abilities to enter the space.
  • Consider versions of everyday objects that are more versatile, such as an adjustable handheld showerhead, which allows for flexibility for people of all ages and sizes.
  • Use rocker light switches placed at a sensible height for easy access.
  • Contrast wall color so aging eyes can see fixtures more clearly.
  • Add a slip-resistant additive to the topcoat of concrete in garages and on front steps.
  • Keep cabinets, shelves, and appliances within reach.
  • Utilize an open floor plan with 36-inch wide doorways and hallways to allow for easy use, even for those in wheelchairs.

By incorporating universal design principles into plans, professionals can create more accessible residential and commercial spaces that are usable for every generation. And while aging eyes see color sheen and light differently, certain colors, color schemes, and finishes can improve functionality in subtle and stylish ways.

To learn more about the role of color and design on aging in place, watch Sherwin-Williams’ CEU course “Universal Design for Independent Living.”

AIA does not sponsor or endorse any enterprise, whether public or private, operated for profit. Further, no AIA officer, director, committee member, or employee, or any of its component organizations in his or her official capacity, is permitted to approve, sponsor, endorse, or do anything that may be deemed or construed to be an approval, sponsorship, or endorsement of any material of construction or any method or manner of handling, using, distributing, or dealing in any material or product.

Image credits

Sherwin-Williams hero - Paint and universal design

Sherwin-Williams

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