Visual Literacy and Universal Design

Airplane Exit

(Image courtesy of Kamerakinder (2005), Wikimedia Commons:

After reviewing the concepts of visual literacy and universal design, I searched the Internet for a visual example of design that is inherently accessible to the greatest amount of individuals regardless of their demographic, educational, economic, or social attributes (Lohr, 2008, p. 8). Essentially, after researching many images this week, I found what I believe is one of the most common and important examples of universal design in our society. In short, the image I selected as an example of universal design is a picture of the instructions on an emergency exit door on an airplane. Ultimately, this example of universal design is an important, life-saving set of instructions that must appeal to the diverse set of individuals who travel in planes around the world on a daily basis. In other words, this design must be easily understood so that all individuals understand its meaning in an emergency without the need for adaptation or specialized instruction.

In examining the image more closely, I noticed it utilized a five-step process, denoted by numbers one through five, to translate the order and process of safely opening the emergency door in an emergency situation. Specifically, in each of the five steps, the design shows an exact design replica of the emergency door on which it is posted. Each specific design of the door is complete with highlighted door handles that instruct an individual on where they must specifically interact with the door to complete the instructed action. Next, each of the five steps show an ambiguous sketch of a human to translate to an individual where human interaction must take place with the intended object. Additionally, each window uses a highlighted, red arrow to translate to the individual viewing the image what direction they must interact with the emergency exit to complete the step. In the end, the five-step process demonstrates an individual unlocking the top of the door, unlocking the bottom of the door, pulling the top down, removing the door, and placing the door outside of the plane.

Ultimately, the above image is a great example of universal design because it is it useful to people with diverse backgrounds through its use of an ambiguous sketch of a human, facilitates the user’s accuracy and precision by highlighting important elements and instructions, eliminates unnecessary complexity by simplifying the process to five steps, provides adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings by using the color red to highlight important actions, and allows users to maintain a neutral body position while completing the action demonstrated by the seated sketch of a human (Hitchcock & Stahl, 2003, p. 45). In short, the design eliminates many barriers that typically limit accessibility. Specifically, this universal design allows unencumbered participation by everyone that encounters it. In the end, it is an important, life-saving design that promotes social equality and equal use.


Hitchcock, C., & Stahl, S. (2003). Assistive technology, universal design, universal design for learning: Improved learning opportunities. Journal of Special Education Technology, 18, 4, 45.

Lohr, L. (2008). Creating graphics for learning and performance: Lessons in visual literacy. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson/Merrill/Prentice Hall.