Academic journal article Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences

Universal Design Problem Solving

Academic journal article Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences

Universal Design Problem Solving

Article excerpt

Universal design is made up of four elements: accessibility, adaptability, aesthetics, and affordability. This article addresses the concept of universal design problem solving through experiential learning for an interior design studio course in postsecondary education. Students' experiences with clients over age 55 promoted an understanding of both universal design and basic design. Interior design is about improving the quality of people's lives, and students were persuaded that built environments should be barrier free because the resulting physical environments are more accessible, functional, pleasing, and safer for everyone.

Universal design is described as "good" design, providing maximum opportunity and choice for all users throughout their lives and a strategy for improving the quality of people's lives. For the student, however, the challenge is to experience problem-solving using universal design issues, so that classroom theory can be applied in the field. The supposition is that fieldwork could enable junior-level interior design students to integrate theory and practice while learning universal design, the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the standards of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Since design standards like those adopted under ADA are minimum standards, the course stresses the broader concept of universal design. Universal design solutions are simple and almost invisible; surpass the minimum standards of ADA to truly meet human needs; integrate people having a variety of abilities; use innovation to transcend ability; are affordable; and accommodate children, people of all sizes, and older people.

This article reports on a teaching methodology for a course that focused on applying universal design knowledge through experiential learning in postsecondary education. The portion of the course dealing with universal design problem solving has the following objectives: incorporate team approaches to design solutions; interact with an accessibility specialist; practice design intervention at facilities for the aging with users who have a variety of physical and mental challenges (and increase students' academic motivation through this direct application of knowledge); apply barrier-free design concepts, ergonomics, and human factors data (FIBER, 2002); and develop independent thinking and research skills.


Knowledge of ADA and specifications for barrier-free environments can be tedious to study. The course was designed to develop positive learning experiences and to employ experiential teaching techniques, a pedagogy that can be an effective means of teaching complex cognitive abilities, such as the application of universal design.

Learning occurs as students move through a cycle of concrete experiences, observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. Experiential learning allows for maximum participation and helps students become more self-reliant and analytical (Kolb, 1984).

Experiential learning is founded on the premise that experience should be the basis for learning. Students have opportunities to experience and master course information when they apply the information to specific problems. This learner-centered approach draws on a common set of activities that simulate life and career experiences (Stiffler, 1990). Experiential learning creates active learners and fosters understanding and knowledge through repetition and by actively engaging students in the course material (Jackson & Caffarella, 1994).

Stiffler (1990) found that when students personally experience design barriers, observe barrier-free solutions, and work with disabled or elderly clients, they can explore their feelings and attitudes about special-needs design, in addition to learning important concepts. Chang, Tremblay, and Dunbar (2001) suggested that, in addition to providing sources of information regarding universal design, postsecondary interior design education should play an explicit role in expanding students' knowledge and increasing their sensitivity. …

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