Editorial: Shouldn’t All Design be Human-Centred?

Currently, the various cousins and alter-egos of universal design (accessible design, inclusive design, human-centred design) remain in the realm of selected advocates. For many architects and designers, this is considered a “speciality” area of design, pursued by few and mastered by fewer. A growing body of accessibility specialists has seen the opportunity left by the void in the profession and is helping to fill it, providing design services that often could be provided by architects.

human-centred design, Quadrangle, 100 Broadview
Lobby of 100 Broadview Avenue in Toronto, a residential conversion designed by Quadrangle with human-centred principles and universal access. Photo by Brandon Barre.

Part of our obligation as architects is to help drive social change. In my own capacity as an architect and the Accessibility Champion at Human Space, Quadrangle’s recently launched social-impact consultancy division, I recognized that it’s time for all architects and designers to incorporate the broad spectrum of universal design principles into their everyday practices. Our building codes and regulations are by nature slow to evolve, and consistently represent a bare minimum rather than good practice. Architects and designers should not rely on these baseline regulations for guidance, but should instead strive to move from basic compliance to best practice.

Much has been written about why we need to pay more attention to universal design, largely focused on our aging population and the associated increase in physical limitations. But it comes down to social justice and untapped opportunity. It’s unacceptable that some people can make full use of our public spaces and buildings while others must make do with a more arduous or predetermined experience. When we embrace rather than just accommodate diversity, we devise better solutions for our workplaces, social spaces and urban realm. Embracing truly inclusive design principles results in spaces that are richly beautiful and full of surprising elements of delight for all users.

To work their magic, inclusive design principles need to be fully integrated from the very beginning of the design process, and considered in all phases thereafter. If treated as an overlay—as merely another requirement or obligation—the full potential will never be seen. When designers shift their perspective from seeing an obligation to seeing opportunity, that’s when the magic starts to happen.

There are other things that need to happen as well. The bylaws and building codes need to go further. Our attitudes must change. Additional funding sources for retrofitting must be developed. The elephant in this room is the vast stock of existing buildings that are ignored in our current specialized standards and funding will be required. But the onus is on us to stop building new barriers. Here’s what all architects and designers can do now:

Make this an integral part of your practice. Talk to your clients, educate your employees, encourage your designers. Make it an integral part of your work, not an afterthought.

Do more. Aim to go far beyond the codes and regulations. Baseline compliance is not good enough. Incorporate flexibility and adaptability onto your designs. Needs change, people change, technologies change. Ensure that your work will stand the test of time.

Learn. Educate yourself and your team about universal and human-centred design. Study best practices, and see what the leaders around the world are doing. Understand the laws and regulations so you know the baseline.

Collaborate. Seek input from end-users; consult with persons with disabilities. Work with accessibility specialists if your team needs additional support.

There is no excuse for designing places, spaces or things that exclude people, whether it be through intention or neglect. All design should be human-centred. It’s time.

Susan Ruptash, OAA, FRAIC is Principal Emeritus 
at Toronto-based Quadrangle.