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Right Under Your Nose: Universal Design in Norway

Updated: May 3, 2019

Photo of people walking in the Sisten Metro in Oslo, two exit signs can be seen
The new Sinsen Metro station in Oslo. Photo: Ruter / Redink - Thomas Haugersveen

Our friend and colleague, Olav Rand Bringa, has been a primary catalyst for universal design adoption in Norway for over 15 years. In this first in a series of articles about their experience, Mr. Bringa explores UD in a wayfinding context.

Universal design has been part of Norway’s national policies and strategies for more than 15 years and is preferred to the traditional approach of accessibility for people with disabilities in public environments. At present, universal design is included in 63 laws and regulations and in practice in several sectors of society. The theoretical concept of universal design has been tested extensively in real-life environments. Universal Design has proven quite solid and Norway’s experiences may be useful in the application of universal design elsewhere.

“Hidden” Universal Design

A few years ago, the interiors of stations in the Oslo Metro were given a facelift. There have been several such renovations since the downtown stations were newly constructed between 1928 and 1977. During a recent round of upgrades, special attention was given to improve the information and signage systems for travelers. The old light blue signs with detailed information of destinations were replaced with new signs with better contrast and a more manageable amount of information. Confusing TV-monitors and out of use ticket-machines were removed and the lighting was improved. Well proven and tested design principles were used and the stations became easier to navigate, which was the intention.

Entrance to Stortinget Metro station in Oslo Norway. Shows key card stations and informational area
Figure 1 Stortinget Metro station in Oslo 2007. Photo: Oslosurf

Shows people walking through main route to metro
Figure 2 Stortinget Metro station 2019. Photo: Olav Rand Bringa

The new design was systematically used on all stations, and one important change produced a rather unexpected outcome. As in most public places, accessible exits were formerly marked with the international accessibility pictogram, and other exits were simply marked “Exit”. In the new scheme, many of the signs to the accessible entrances were altered by removing the accessibility pictogram. In the past, when accessible routes were unmarked, these instances were quickly detected by disabled travelers and corrected by the transport company. In this case, the changes remained unremarked-on.

In the new design, exits which could be used by all travelers were simply marked with “Exits”, other exits were marked with pictograms for stairs, lifts etc. The use of signs was thus reversed. The accessible exit became the obvious exit for all travelers, needing no special marking. Other exits were marked with their specific restrictive properties. The accessibility symbol was only used when the accessible exits were difficult to locate. The new way of using signs and pictograms apparently worked as it should. Even more; it was a subtle, but important, manifestation of a change of mindset.

The new design was not an accidental. Special Advisor Bo Graaner in the coordinating transport organization Ruter explains: “Universal design is imbedded in the new design philosophy. The exit for all travelers is the main exit and this should be recognized in the design”.

Photo of people walking in the Sisten Metro in Oslo, two exit signs can be seen
Figure 3 The new Sinsen Metro station in Oslo. Photo: Ruter / Redink - Thomas Haugersveen

Societal Attitudes

Two surveys from 2018 reveal the Norwegian change in attitudes about universal design over time. In 2017-2018 Sentio Research Norway conducted a survey on the population’s knowledge and attitudes towards universal design. 2000 respondents participated in the survey, and 60 % of them said that they had heard about universal design. Half of them confirmed that they knew what it was, the other half were more uncertain about what universal design meant. People's attitudes towards the concept was very positive, and more than 80% points out universal design of buildings for public use and public transport as very important. When it comes agreement with positive statements, the possibility for people to live independent lives top the list. Interesting enough, close to 90% agree that “Universal design is necessary for some and useful for many”. This slogan was used in information pamphlets and awareness-raising campaigns.

The associations that the public makes with universal design is also interesting: inclusive, important, modern and flexible is on top of the list, and the number of people with a positive feeling about universal design has increased since 2013 when the same question was asked. On the bottom of the list we find terms such as individual freedom, tasteful design, profitable and cosy. These are the less positive associations with universal design and give a good clue to what should be addressed in coming information campaigns.

So, what about the professionals and the politicians, the people who are responsible for designing our surroundings? From 2011 to 2018 Ipsos carried out a survey for The Norwegian Building Authority to map the views of politicians and professionals in municipalities and employees in buildings businesses towards universal design . This survey gives an interesting picture of how the respondents rate universal design over that seven-year period. Positive attitudes towards universal design has been steadily growing, and in 2018 100% of the respondents agree that new buildings for public use such as cinemas, libraries, public offices and schools should be universally designed. High scores are also the rule for universal design of other new buildings like dwellings and for parks and out-door areas. Universal design of existing buildings does not have the same support by these respondents. Ongoing debates concerning the supposed high costs of making existing buildings universally designed may be the reason for this.

When politicians and professionals are asked which elements of universal design are decisive for a good universal solution, physical accessibility tops the list with way finding and understanding of the building second and comprehensive planning with focus on the user close behind.

The new design of the Oslo Metro and the acceptance by the travelers were a silent success. It could not have happened without the professional confidence of the designers and the understanding of the public. The new sign program demonstrated the essence of universal design.

Olav Rand Bringa is a Senior Advisor in the Ministry of Children and Equality, part of the national government of Norway.

You can contact Olav at

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