Beyond Universal Design and Using Standardised Dimensions on Projects

There are manuals that all the design world uses; Neufert Architect’s Data© is one better known. They all teaches us optimal dimensions for all spatial design requirements.

The point here is that these are the norms that have been based on Caucasian profiles. We, as designers, are nonetheless using these norms regardless of where we are, regardless of the difference in different racial ethnicity’s physical general appearance!

Right………………? I think not.

Is the physique of a Caucasian male and that of an Asian male has the same spatial dimensional requirements?

I am about to find out the hard way;

Well through years of being crammed with standard dimensions I didn’t think twice when a project came along to design some service stations for a restaurant.

The service stations would serve as the placemat holders and cutlery storage for the restaurant during service, providing easy access and esthetically pleasing storage space.

Little did I know, I would be facing a “huge” problem with this project, pun intended.

A few requirements from the client were essential to the dimensions and aesthetics of these service stations

  • They were to be large enough to hide stray plates that would rest before being moved to the kitchen.
  • They were to be large enough to keep all the equipment to support the restaurant
  • The stations were to match the restaurant interior mood and the overall style of the space
  • With this brief, I designed the stations using the NORMS and dimensions from the trusted manuals.


Within a few weeks all the designs were done and approved for mocking up. Perhaps it was because all the people that reviewed the stations were mostly non-Asians, so there never was a comment regarding the size of the stations. And so, the stations passed through the approval stage and onwards to production they went.

Upon delivery, I was present to see the manufacturer unload and set up the stations. Nothing had struck me to be odd about the dimensions.

Well not until the people who were to use them stood next to the stations that we realized…OOPS!

The service staff at the restaurant were standing behind these brand-new stations and they were completely eclipsed by them! From then on, I learnt always to include actual users to learn their crucial opinions during the review and mockup period.

So, at least we got the “hiding the dishes” bit right, but it all begs a slightly larger question:

Is “universal design” and its standardised dimensions enough?

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