Universal Design Principles for Visual Media

The universal design approach goes beyond the technical requirements for the accommodation of persons with disabilities and towards their full participation in the ongoing social fabric of the world in which we all live. Universal design allows people of all abilities to experience media together, at the same time, in the same place, on the same channel.

Universal design also integrates accessibility features in a manner in which fully-sensed persons can also benefit. Research has shown that optimizing technical attainability, sensory responsiveness, and cognitive load improves learning and retention for all sensory abilities. [Author: Bill Fischer]

A photograph of many instructional street signs in a cityscape

The Core Principles


The attainability of information has been supercharged by digital hardware and networks that can deliver searchable media containing text, audio, animation, video, and interactivity in a single product.

  • The cell phone is the lowest common denominator. If a household owns only one digital device, it is probably a cell phone. It can deliver text, audio and visual media that allows simultaneous multiple modes of access for a spectrum of human abilities including: sight, hearing, touch, and cognition.

  • Nearly 90 million people are still living without home broadband internet speeds, with over 20 million of those living in hard-to-reach rural areas. The FCC estimates $40 billion would be needed to bring broadband to 98% of Americans. And to close that final 2% gap, Another $40 billion.


Responsive design maximizes the user experience for every user regardless of ability or device. The media can automatically respond to the user no matter which device they are using or abilities they may have. A couple of examples include:

  • Websites and digital documents that automatically change their layout for phones, tablets and laptops as well as integrated image alt tags, headers and descriptive links.

  • Videos that includes integrated captions, visual narrative writing, and voice-over, as well as sound design that includes environment and foley.

Cognitive Load

Cognitive load is the sum total brain cognition Utilized to navigate or experience a digital or physical environment.

  • This includes information that the design asks people to store in their working memory in order to make sense of content that appears later in the experience.

  • It happens when a user interface is inconsistent from instance to instance in a way that resets the navigation mental mapping process.

  • It happens when images, animation and video have poor or constantly-changing visual hierarchies or a confusing narrative.

  • Creating meaningful, clear and accessible information hierarchies that accommodate every person, in every situation, requires a dedication to separating Signal from Noise. This term was coined by John Pierce, an Information Theory pioneer along with Claude Shannon, and others. They developed tools such as algorithms, decision theories, and design processes to separate meaning from peripheral, nonsensical and otherwise distracting information. It applies to the auditory, visual, olfactory, touch, and taste senses in humans.

Applying The Core principles

Progressive Enhancement

Progressive enhancement starts with the most baseline type of information that most persons can access regardless of their sensory abilities: Text.

  1. Create the content in a visual narrative form that can be navigated and understood as text alone (semantic design). When that text is either read or heard by the user or audience, they should have an experience that is informationally, emotionally and narratively complete.

  2. Enhance the experience with graphics, illustration, motion and sound design. This enhancement will responsively engage more parts of the brain for those that can receive it through their available senses, and add socio-emotional as well as entertainment values.

  3. Assess the cognitive load required to engage with the composited media. Then, reorganize and simplify it as needed to separate signal from noise while maintaining the socio-emotional and entertainment values.

  4. Check for device and environment attainability in a variety of device types, sizes, and places. Then, adjust the layout, color, contrast, volume, motion, and interactivity to be attainable in all of the expected conditions.

Managing the Complexity of Universal Design

Keeping all of the goals and requirements of Universal Design in one's working memory while also engaging with the tools, methods and content considerations involved with "making" is impossible. An iterative, phased process is the best approach. The I-See-U Universal Design Guide was built to help make that possible.

  1. Develop and use a tool kit for performing ongoing testing.

  2. Refer to a design checklist through all phases of development, then test and iterate until all the boxes are checked.

  3. Perform field tests in a range of expected conditions with a range of audience and user types.