Breaking Down Universal Design

Perhaps the most difficult task of converting campus furniture to a universal design is grasping exactly what that term means in the first place. In residential building terms, universal design has come to mean making accommodations for various handicaps: zero-step entries, 32-in.-wide doors, and levered door handles, for instance.

If only it were that simple for a college campus’ classrooms and residence halls.

Shawn Green, vice president of product management for KI in Green Bay, WI, considers universal design a philosophy that seeks to respond to the design community’s need for product solutions that are intuitive, affordable, functional, and, most importantly, visually enhance the types of spaces they seek to create. He observed that you achieve this by not only understanding the need to address a diverse range of body types, but also by how those individuals will engage a product. Additionally, the product design as universal solution must work within virtually any setting from casual to formal.

In other words, universal design isn’t something you can own or define in a strict contextual sense, said Jeff Korber, president of CBT Supply, which manufactures Smartdesks. Instead, it’s really about the process of how people learn in different environments. He compares universal design to tree leaves: oak, maple, beech, and poplar have different shapes, but perform the same function for their tree in a life cycle. “So, if you create an environment that can adapt itself to the changing seasons — statistic courses, English courses, career development meetings — by reconfiguring the furnishings in the room, you have universal design,” he explained.

Ready for yet another twist? Universal design means the furniture is for any student who interacts with it, so it can be adjusted by the user regardless of their physical make-up, added Amy Hoffmann, marketing director for Hertz Furniture.

It’s definitely a turnaround from traditional college classrooms, where furniture choices have leaned toward prescriptive, in Green’s experience. After all, the manufacturers themselves offer products for a lecture hall versus a classroom, seating for cafeterias versus common areas and libraries. Universal design at KI means a product needs to work across five such markets, but not to the point where it becomes a cross-trainer that sacrifices different attributes. “It’s more about the fact that in a university setting, there is a shift from being more autocratic, authoritative, professor-led student engagement to decentralized environments where learning happens anywhere,” he noted. “Technology, higher collaboration, and interface mean furniture has to become far less prescriptive.”

So, if you can reconfigure a space to do collaborative work, individual work, and one-on-one work within those four walls, then you have what experts are striving to define as universal design, Korber summed up.

What’s the Big Deal?

Then is universal design a concept administrators need to specify in the first place — or simply leave it to designers to incorporate seamlessly as part of the industry’s evolution? Korber lands on the “forget about it” side, if it means asking for it by name. This cut-and-dried approach leads to turning universal design into a marketing catch-all phrase rather than an actual description of furniture, in his opinion — much like the “ergonomic” label became misused as a competition selling point rather than a science.

“Then if you don’t say you are universally designed, you’re out — you’re not as good as the next guy,” he added. “There’s a danger to labels, as they get overused and lose their meaning.”

Instead, administrators need to comprehend and get on board with the universal design approach to the end result. “Now, the end result will be products that you buy, but you really have to think about the higher-level meaning before you just go pick furniture that’s ‘universally designed,’” Korber noted. Under this umbrella, almost any classroom product can fit into a universal design, he added. If it offers interchangeability, fit, geometries that foster human interaction, reconfigurability, mobility, and storage ability, you don’t need a “universal design” hang tag.

For example, KI offers a casual lounge collection designed specifically for the university market that throws the idea of folks sitting in a traditional posture out the window. Therefore, it’s much bigger and more generously proportioned than traditional furniture, the better to fit unorthodox seating styles for people who truly want to lounge even if they aren’t specifically in a lounge. “We let the user dictate their level of comfort to sit cross-legged, lying in the chair, or sitting on the arms.

“It’s an aspiration to say, ‘Can a product be stylish, affordable, comfortable, but be able to play across numerous applications without looking out of place?” Green observed. “It’s like buying clothes: You buy a pair of khaki slacks and a blue blazer, and all you have to do is rotate your shirt and shoes.”

Likewise, Smartdesks’ pieces fit together or break apart in various puzzle formations, including whether the student wants to flip up a stand for his laptop on individual desk surfaces. “If you have a class of 30 people and four show up, why do you need 26 empty seats? You can roll them up and have a party. Do whatever you want. These are the issues in universal design,” Korber assured.

The best news is that manufacturers say these newer, more thoughtful designs are affordable, too. “When we examine cost, we move beyond pricing to address value,” Green said. “If a product can perform at a higher level with regard to comfort and planning, it can justify an incremental shift in pricing. This mindset applies to universal products only if they are durable and extremely flexible.” And with an emphasis on universal design, an institution can standardize on a fairly small product offering that can go virtually anywhere. 

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