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Companies that Shine through Universal Design

September 21 2011 | by

oxo measuring cup

Amid a new Fast Company report of American companies that “get” innovative design are a handful of manufacturers whose wares vastly improve the lives of people with disabilities. It is marvelous to see these products get their due.

The collection of superbly designed goods is considered so iconic, Fast Company sketches them as ice-blue abstract illustrations – you can distinguish each product simply by their cool aesthetics, sleek lines, or sexy shape.

But never mind sexy. Fast Company says these goods are “pragmatic,” with pure usability and “marketplace appeal” built into them. They are the result of a breakthrough by American innovators who realized that making high performing and expertly designed products that “focus more on the needs of real consumers” can enhance profits and drive customer loyalty.

Glimpses of universal design principles sparkle in many of these goods. Universal design is the idea that products and places should be made for use by the widest range of users possible, including people with disabilities. Like OXO’s measuring cup, with its comfy ergonomic handle and unique curves. OXO is committed to universal design, saying it makes products “for young and old, male and female, left- and right-handed and many with special needs.”

Herman Miller is another design standout.  The company makes office furniture systems that nicely fuse design and ergonomics. Interestingly, it was not until the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 that Herman Miller began prioritizing accessibility and usability. The book Universal Design Handbook by Wolfgang Preiser and Korydon H. Smith details how the company grappled with helping their business customers comply with the ADA for employees who were blind, mobility impaired, deaf, short statured or had a variety of muscle-skeleton issues. Herman Miller created the Design for Accessibility handbook in 1995 and today consults companies on how to design systems for people with disabilities, such as a wheelchair user or little person who can’t reach the top of a four-drawer file cabinet.

Of course, Apple is on the list. Apple reigns supreme in technology design; its iPod and iPad devices are revered among the disability community for different reasons. People who are blind love the built-in screen-reader and voice navigation engine. Children with autism and learning disabilities can communicate, read and write using special needs iPhone and iPad apps. Apple is one of the first companies to enable people with disabilities to use a mainstream device for the same cost as everyone else, instead of clumsier and more expensive assistive technology.

A couple of other design superstars to mention are Starbucks and Whirlpool. Starbucks gets accolades for its European-styled cafes and iconic coffee cups. But people with disabilities are taking note of Starbucks’s bent towards social responsibility and raising awareness about disability causes. The company just released a newly designed Braille-embossed Starbucks card in honor of October’s National Disability Employment Awareness month.

Whirlpool makes ADA-compliant and universally designed kitchen appliances like drawer dishwashers, ovens and refrigerators with bigger handles, and stovetops with buttons and graphics located on the front or positioned closer. One electric stovetop model, WFE115LX, is a one-piece steel console with labeling that’s 48% larger than similar models. Of course, being ADA compliant is necessary for Whirlpool, but for a 100-year old American company to slowly break free from its old business practices is impressive.

Finally, there’s Livescribe, a uniquely designed smart pen that makes an audio recording simultaneously with pen marks on paper. A student can go back to a specific scribbled word in his notebook, touch the pen to that spot and hear a full recording of what the speaker was saying when the mark was made. It’s a nifty device for students with learning disabilities like dyslexia, dysgraphia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.The pen is a hit at Landmark College for kids with learning disorders, and it’s cool to hold and use, too.

It’s great to see so many companies with ties to universal design and disabilities on this list.  As far as the long-term applications of über design on people with disabilities, Fast Company sums it up nicely: “If you study American history, you see that when innovation has been married to good design, it has yielded unprecedented economic growth.”

That goes for companies as well as consumers with disabilities. If this group of 54 million Americans can use more mainstream products in the workplace and lifespace, their potential for success grows more boundless.



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