International Association for Universal Design Japan

Mr. Keiji Kawahara, Executive Director

Mr. Kawahara’s Research

My research theme at university and graduate school was ‘Design for the Handicapped’. In 1970’s, Sweden was the leader in this field, and I was also studying design journals and academic papers published in Sweden and other European countries. At that time, the concept of ‘The Handicapped’ was a generic term for people in various situations, such as the physically handicapped, the elderly, the sick, pregnant women, infants, people pushing a stroller, and travelers with heavy luggage. It was a very convenient term. In other words, ‘Design for the Handicapped’ was a concept very close to the current ‘Universal Design’. However, over the years, that term was misunderstood and now people have gradually stopped using the term handicapped in a generic manner, because it means physically handicapped or disabled.

Touch Me Table Clock

‘Touch-me’ was designed when I was studying at graduate school (Royal College of Art) in the UK and was commercialized after returning to Japan. It was designed as a table clock for the visually impaired, but most people can use it and they were buying it as a fashionable clock without being aware of who is was actually designed for. This was exactly what I was aiming for – it was a product that represented a universal design.

Initially, I was working as a freelance industrial designer, but as the work load increased, I set up a company and hired some designers to work on our many projects. As the manager, I shifted to running a comprehensive business and was eventually able to concentrate on plans and proposals mainly to large manufacturers. Although there were various fields of interest such as medical/welfare equipment, information technology equipment, home appliances, housing equipment, and industrial/machinery equipment, I always worked with human centered design in mind.

During the product development process, I was able to interact with a variety of people including wheelchair users, visually impaired people, and people with hearing difficulties as users of products and equipment. I was also able to work with more people with disabilities in the establishment and operation of the International Association for Universal Design (IAUD).

Universal Design

I think Universal Design is a term and concept coined by Ron Mace and his colleagues in the Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University, around the mid-1980’s and it was introduced to Japan in the beginning of the 90’s. Ron used a wheelchair himself and was taking on a role of a Director to lead many activities on universal design, but unfortunately passed away in 1998. There was an international conference on universal design named ‘Designing for the 21st Century’ held in New York 1998. It was said to be an epic event attended by various researchers and scholars from all over the world. I missed it but was able to participate in the second one held in Providence 2000 and thought to host the third one somewhere Japan. I started to organize an Executive Committee with some leading Japanese manufacturers. They were just beginning to realize the importance of universal design for their businesses. After several negotiations with Adaptive Environments, the original host of Designing for the 21st Century, we finally agreed to cohost our own international conference.

In November 2002, we were able to hold the 1st International Conference for Universal Design in Yokohama close to Tokyo. It was a great success and Prince Tomohito, the Patron of the conference, suggested we inaugurate a new association concentrating on the study of universal design to realize better societies for everyone. International Association for Universal Design (IAUD) was therefore established in November 2003, exactly one year later. More than 100 companies became members. I took on the role of Executive Director and have been there for 17 years.

Universal Design Benefits Everyone

IAUD defines that Universal Design (UD) is the creation of designs for equipment, buildings, and the immediate living environment that can be used by as many people as possible irrespective of age, gender, race, culture, customs, nationality, or ability. In this sense, it should benefit not only people with disabilities but also many people in various conditions. In order to achieve that, designers or manufacturers have to create things and environments that are usable and accessible to as many people as possible.

Universal Design Projects

There have been various research activities for projects and working groups in IAUD for the past 17 years as illustrated in the figure above. Some are complete while others are still ongoing. It can be said that IAUD members have enjoyed benefits for years, being able to incorporate the knowledge and know-how learned into their companies. However, memberships have been gradually decreasing as economic conditions decline especially since the financial crisis caused by the Lehman shock. The interest in Universal Design seems to be shifting from manufacturing to service, therefore we should now concentrate our efforts on the field of service design. Currently the most successful is the International Design Award business, which started in 2010. Every year, high quality entries are awarded, but it is a shame that it is not so well known internationally. We have to focus more on promotion. I think that we should go back to the starting point and carry out activities focused on the international conference business. However, it is difficult to hold international events such as the Olympics and Expo in this pandemic situation, so we must incorporate methods such as online meetings on the Internet and international conferences as well.

IAUD collaborations

We collaborate with various persons with disabilities, and elderly people among member companies are also eagerly participating in IAUD activities. In addition, we also have some organizations of people with disabilities as members, so we collaborate according to the content of our activities. We are always thinking about contributions to world peace through the realization of a universal design society that respects each person’s humanity. IIAUD is building a network (see Figure above) with Universal Design-related organizations and research institutions in each country who have been involved with activities such as international conferences and international design awards. In addition, some representatives of the organization have been appointed as IAUD counsellors.

Funds for the work of IAUD

In the past, funds were generated through membership fees and profits from various businesses, but membership fees have decreased as the number of members has decreased, so we are now focusing on international conferences and international design awards from now on.  

For more information about the work of IAUD, visit: www.iaud.net/global