7 Universal Design Principles to Reach Audiences

Article 8 min
Follow these 7 universal design principles to ensure all members of your intended audience get the message.

Let's say you're preparing a meal for a group of friends. Dan is allergic to peanuts, Maria is vegan, Joanna is gluten-free and Kevin is lactose intolerant. You might offer substitutions, alterations or extra dishes so everyone can eat.

As a military communicator, your intended audience, likewise, has a variety of needs and expectations. You may be familiar with guidelines for distributing the right information to the right audience, but it's equally important to ensure you reach everyone in that audience. You play an important role in ensuring that those who are supposed to receive the messages you create can perceive, navigate and understand them. This commitment to equal access drives the seven principles of universal design, which provide guidelines for accessible design. It is not only good practice to design materials with the broadest possible accessibility in mind; it is required by federal law. Understanding and implementing the seven principles of universal design will help you create media that seamlessly abides by Section 508.

It's the Law

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that when Federal agencies develop, procure, maintain or use EIT (electronic and information technology), individuals with disabilities have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access and use by those who are not individuals with disabilities, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the agency (U. S. Access Board, n.d.). To comply with this law as a military communicator, the information that you are in charge of communicating needs to be equally accessible by all members of your target audience. Refer to the U.S. Access Board for more information about Section 508 and ICT Accessibility.

Section 508 has been in place for decades, but as the internet continues to push the frontier of communication mediums, its application has expanded. Your digital work, both internal⁠—and external—facing, needs to follow Section 508. You can refer to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, which the DoD is required to follow, for specific questions. How do you go about putting Section 508 and its guidelines into practice? Use the seven principles of universal design.

What is Universal Design?

Universal design refers to a movement and ethos regarding composition that ensures materials can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability (National Disability Authority, 2020). By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all users throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples' needs. Simply put, universal design is good design (NDA).

The seven principles of universal design are intentionally broad in order to apply to a wide variety of situations. Think of them as guidelines stemming from a mindset that can shape the way you approach content as a whole. This approach ensures that the complete user experience is captured at every stage of the implementation process (Section508.gov, n.d.).

Explore the National Disability Association's definitions of each principle and consider the tips for implementing and abiding by the principles.

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The 7 Principles of Universal Design


PRINCIPLE 1: Equitable Use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.


  1. Provide the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not.
  2. Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any users.
  3. Provisions for privacy, security and safety should be equally available to all users.
  4. Make the design appealing to all users.


  • Provide well-written text transcripts for audio content.
  • At spoken events, provide a sign language interpreter.
  • Caption photos and videos.
  • Provide audio descriptions of visual elements in videos.
  • Add text alternatives to images.
    • Text alternatives are brief but informative descriptions of an image, meant to be read aloud via screen readers.
  • Convey information in multiple ways. Don't use color as the only way of conveying information, for example.
  • Think carefully before including flashing content.
    • Warn users before presenting flashing content.
    • Provide alternatives.


PRINCIPLE 2: Flexibility in Use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.


  1. Provide choice in methods of use.
  2. Accommodate right- or left-handed access and use.
  3. Facilitate the user's accuracy and precision.
  4. Provide adaptability to the user's pace.


  • Provide options to stop, extend or adjust time limits when possible (i.e., interactive content).
  • Provide audio controls for sound that automatically plays for more than three seconds.
  • Provide options to stop/pause/hide moving, blinking or scrolling content.
  • Provide the ability to switch off animations unless they are essential.
  • If your content is hosted online, consider offering a downloadable version.


PRINCIPLE 3: Simple and Intuitive Use

Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level.


  1. Eliminate unnecessary complexity.
  2. Be consistent with user expectations and intuition.
  3. Accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills.
  4. Arrange information consistent with its importance.
  5. Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.


  • Review visual materials for clutter or inconsistency.
  • Make sure fonts are uniform and don't distract from the message.
  • Ensure your visual content uniformly directs the eye.
  • Use the clearest, simplest language possible for your target audience.


PRINCIPLE 4: Perceptible Information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.


  1. Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.
  2. Provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings.
  3. Maximize "legibility" of essential information.
  4. Differentiate elements in ways that can be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions).
  5. Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.


  • Make information distinguishable by separating the foreground from the background.
  • Emphasize the most important information through placement, pacing, size or other methods.
  • Check that image alt text and transcripts are compatible with screen readers.


PRINCIPLE 5: Tolerance for Error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.


  1. Arrange elements to minimize hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible; hazardous elements eliminated, isolated or shielded.
  2. Provide warnings of hazards and errors.
  3. Provide fail-safe features.
  4. Discourage unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance.


  • Warn users before presenting flashing content such as strobe lights.
  • Make warnings legible for all ways people access content such as visually and through screen readers.
  • Make warnings stand out from the rest of the content in multiple ways.
    • Bold text, text box, color, symbols, isolate the information, etc.


PRINCIPLE 6: Low Physical Effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with minimal fatigue.


  1. Allow the user to maintain a neutral body position.
  2. Use reasonable operating forces.
  3. Minimize repetitive actions.
  4. Minimize sustained physical effort.


  • Make sure your text and graphics aren't too small or too big.
  • If your content requires a lot of clicking, try to get all the information across with the least amount of clicks/taps (without over-cluttering).
  • Avoid phrases like "click here." Use descriptive link language so users don't have to puzzle out where an unknown link might take them.

Size & Space

PRINCIPLE 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use

Appropriate size and space are provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use regardless of the user's body size, posture or mobility.


  1. Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user.
  2. Make reach to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user.
  3. Accommodate variations in hand and grip size.
  4. Provide adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.


  • Size graphics appropriately.
  • If information is being physically presented in a booth, theater or conference, consider size and space.
    • Make sure wheelchair users can enter the space, attend comfortably and interact without barriers.
  • During a spoken event, ensure the sign language interpreter is visible to the entire audience.

Implementing Universal Design

Though universal design principles are a vital resource, digital content requires some specificity that a general set of principles can't always provide. In addition to the tips explored above, when starting to create digital content, begin with an outline to organize your main points (Digitalgov, 2019). Ask yourself: What are you trying to get across, and how will the intended audience get this information?

Universal design is the best practice not only for creating 508-compliant products that are accessible to all, but also for changing how you think about design. From the ground up, incorporating the spirit of universal design into your creative process will make your content stronger, more efficient and better aligned with command goals. After all, content that reaches your intended audience to the greatest possible extent is content that achieves commander intent to the fullest.


Digitalgov. (2019, August 13). An introduction to universal design for content creators.

National Disability Authority. (2020). The 7 principles.

National Disability Authority. (2020). What is universal design.

Section508.gov. (n.d.). Universal design: What is it?

U.S. Access Board. (n.d.). Information and communication technology: Revised 508 standards and 255 guidelines.

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