5 Problems With ‘Universal’ Design

In the past, I have interviewed potential clients who requested a design with "universal appeal." On the surface, I completely understand their concern: they do not want to alienate potential customers with visuals that are too "out there" in terms of design.

This is a legitimate desire (and I let them know that), but it is also misguided (I do not let them know that).

These clients suffer from a common issue that I, and likely many other fledgling designers, once faced: the desire to appeal to everyone.

It is not my job to correct these potential clients’ misguided marketing tactics. My job is to design highly targeted materials for clients who understand the power of a niche. So, I typically send these individuals – who would likely be difficult clients if I were to work with them – politely on their way

However, if you are a designer struggling with a similar problem, do not worry. Today, I am here to help you by exposing five of the biggest issues with "universally appealing" design and providing guidance on how to avoid falling for its seductive trap.

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1. It’s Actually Not Universal at All

Consider who you are truly trying to satisfy when creating a so-called ‘universal’ design for a client. While you ponder this, allow me to share a story about a friend of mine who works in catering.

She provides hundreds of pre-planned meals to large groups of people at various events. Quite often, she encounters an individual who approaches the catering cart and requests a unique dish that the crew has not prepared.

Chefs must become adept at politely declining unusual requests, particularly when working on the go.

There simply isn’t enough time to address every specific person’s needs when there are hundreds of people to serve. The primary objective of any chef catering an event is to ensure the highest number of attendees have the best possible dining experience.

Know Your Audience

When designing a practical solution for a niche audience, it is necessary to prioritize the needs of the entire group over the desires of outlying individuals. Thus, a client who requests a ‘universal’ solution is not genuinely attempting to appeal to the masses.

target audience

Instead, they are an outlier trying to satisfy their own perception of what their target market wants. It is evident that they have not conducted any research to determine what the majority of their market would actually respond to best.

2. It’s Bland and Tasteless

Just like the world’s finest dining, the realm of design encompasses numerous, multifaceted flavors. Creating the "perfect" design that appeals to everyone is impossible. However, this does not mean you should constantly strive for the most unique and peculiar design in the world. Some people actually prefer fast food over an elaborately prepared gourmet meal, and that’s okay.

You simply need to know your audience.

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Remember, fancier does not always equate to better. Just as many people find opera music boring and may prefer pop music instead, your niche audience might not appreciate your highly sophisticated design work. If you are a gourmet chef, embrace that.

But if you are a short-order cook, embrace that instead. Whatever your market’s definition of "bland" might be, ensure you embody the opposite to make the most significant impact.

3. It Violates the ‘Magic Mirror’ Rule

If you’re familiar with the fairy tale Snow White, you know that the evil queen gazes into a magic mirror, which tells her who the fairest lady in all the land is. The answer, of course, is supposed to be herself.

The queen has no desire to see anything that does not directly support her belief that she is, indeed, the fairest of them all. Am I being overly analytical about Snow White? Perhaps, but I have a point, darn it!

In our modern world, where people have infinite choices, if they perceive that a product or service offering is not like a ‘magic mirror,’ designed specifically for them and them alone, they quickly lose interest and close the browser window.

magic mirror

‘Why should I waste my time sifting through your sales copy to find the parts relevant to me when your competitor is targeting me and my needs specifically with all of their copy? I don’t want to see examples of people and situations that are not relevant to me. I’m the fairest one of all, and I only want to see targeted marketing that supports my opinion.’

4. It Only Comes in One Size

If you believe that people do not tune out and devalue things not directly targeted at them, consider your own buying habits.

When was the last time you purchased a product or service from a ‘one size fits all’ company? Did you genuinely treasure that item? Where does that item now rank in your hierarchy of possessions? Could you easily replace it with any one of a hundred different items from a different store?

This is what clients think when they encounter a designer who tries to cater to everyone.

I am not suggesting that cheap or bargain items do not have their place. It makes little sense to purchase, for example, an expensive designer pen when a cheaper one from the dollar store will do the same job.

However, for important purchases like freelance design work, your client must know that they are getting real value, and not simply a generic solution that only comes in one size.

5. It’s in the Wrong Language

Finally, consider the language you use to appeal to your target audience. This does not mean you should literally hire a translator, but rather recognize that every niche group has its own unique and distinct ways of communicating and processing information.

This principle applies to visuals and user experience as much as it does to words and copy. You will need to adjust your communication style depending on the age range, income bracket, or education level of your viewers.

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For example, if your target audience is men aged 25 to 45, this is far too broad and ‘universal’ to make a significant impact. A 25-year-old man has almost nothing in common with a 45-year-old man in terms of life goals or desires. Even a niche market’s sense of humor can drastically influence their perception of your design.

audience segments

Avoid the mistake of using the same language for every niche. Instead, learn the specific needs of your target market and become fluent in addressing them.


Designers who attempt to cater to a wide variety of individuals ultimately shoot themselves in the foot. While it may seem intuitive, it is actually counterproductive. By trying to please everyone in the target market, they ultimately end up pleasing no one.