universal design

Universal Design and Visual Literacy

Graphic courtesy of http://www.babysignlanguage.com/dictionary/t/tree/

I recently began learning about visual literacy and how it relates to universal design.  Universal design essentially means that the design is accessible to many individuals, regardless of their abilities.  The more people that can utilize the design, the better the design is.  Kari Kumar summed up the rationale behind universal design in a powerful way.  She said “Rather than placing the burden on our diverse student population to adapt to our teaching style in order to succeed in our courses, as teachers we can instead impart as much flexibility into our course design as possible so that all students may have equal opportunity to perform at their personal best” (Kumar, 2010, p. 2).  Additionally, the people viewing the designs are likely visually literate.  Visually literate people are able to make sense of the visual components within a graphic.  If the graphic is designed well, the visually literate people does not need to seek out other information to understand the concept.

There are two basic types of universal design: educational and performance-based. As described by Linda L. Lohr in Creating Graphics for Learning and Performance: Lessons in Visual Literacy (2008), educational designs are meant to teach the person viewing the graphic.  The goal is for the person to retain the information in his/her long-term memory (p. 4).  Performance-based design helps the person viewing the graphic in the moment.  The graphic reminds the person how to complete a task, but the graphic may not be retained in the person’s long-term memory (p. 6).

I immediately thought of the education I received when learning American Sign Language (ASL).  I went to elementary school with five peers that had hearing difficulties, and I quickly became friends with one of the girls.  We wanted to talk to one another, so I studied ASL flash cards.  Many of the signs were easy to remember because the sign resembled the “real” thing I was signing.  One example is the sign for “tree”, as shown in the graphic at the beginning of this blog.  A photo of a tree is shown, and how to do the sign is included in the right hand corner.  The sign is meant to look like a tree standing on land.

The goal of the graphic for the “tree” sign is educational; the graphic is meant to remain within the person’s long-term memory.  The graphic is also considered a transformative visual.  Transformative visuals rely on the person’s previous experiences (schema) and use analogies to make connections (Lohr, 2008, p. 22).  The sign language “tree” graphic relies on the person’s understanding of how trees look, and then mimics making a tree with hands and arms.  The hand rotates on a vertical axis to resemble a tree’s movement in the wind.  The analogy of a real-life physical tree is made with the hand movements of the ASL sign in the graphic.

It is always best to consider reaching a wide audience when creating graphics.  The graphic shown above can be used by multiple age groups to learn the sign for “tree”.  In fact, someone that is unable to read could learn the sign easily as there is a photo representation.  The above graphic is one of the strongest educational and universally-designed graphics I have found to date.


Kumar, K. (2010). A journey towards creating an inclusive classroom: How Universal Design for Learning has transformed my teaching. Transformative Dialogues: Teaching and Learning Journal, (4)2. Retrieved from http://www.kpu.ca/sites/default/files /Teaching%20and%20Learning/TD.4.2.5_Kumar_Inclusive_Classroom.pdf

Lohr, L. (2008). Creating graphics for learning and performance: Lessons in visual literacy (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ:Pearson Education