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Universal Design: Sense and Sensibility


The CD player that Naoto Fukasawa designed for the Japanese manufacturer Muji is as simple as it looks and about as simple as it gets. It’s a square box, mounted on the wall, reminiscent of a domestic ventilation fan. There is a shallow circular recess on its face where one obviously puts the CD and the only thing to do next is to tug on the pull cord that hangs down underneath. One pull sets the disc spinning and music playing; another pull switches it off again. Delightful!

It comfortably accommodates many kinds of disability: There is no visual display, so it is easy to use with impaired vision; the main control is a generous pull cord, not a tiny button, so it can be used with reduced dexterity too. Its very simplicity also makes it approachable to people with learning difficulties or other cognitive impairments, because you don’t have to decode cryptic icons or be familiar with the conventions of computers or ATMs. A recurring theme in Fukasawa’s work is products that can be used without thought by tapping into a cultural familiarity with objects that precede and transcend digital technology.

Along similar lines is the latest generation of Apple’s iPod Shuffle. A tiny product, too small for a legible display, it instead incorporates synthetic speech that speaks the track names. This interaction seems entirely in keeping with a mobile device that anyone might wish to operate eyes-free, whether because it is tucked safely inside their pocket, or they are negotiating a crowded sidewalk, or they are visually impaired.

What’s interesting here is that both the Muji CD player and the iPod Shuffle eschew a screen, even if that means abandoning some functionality. But in each example, form and behavior more than outweigh these limitations. The result is an uplifting lightness of touch that appeals to all.

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    An Introduction to Universal Design

    Mention universal design and see your companions’ eyes start glazing over. Though formally flashy chairs and posh penthouses may reside at the sexier end of the design world, universal design actually affects us all. So pay attention and prepare to learn something - your less hale days aren’t far off; none of ours is.

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