Designers vs. Accessibility

Designers are often resistant to accessible and inclusive design practices. This post explores possible reasons why with a proposed solution through a shift in process.

This is the full version of the article written for the March issue of the IDA-N: Inclusive Design Monthly Newsletter, Vol. 2 Issue 3.

Graphic design combines creativity and functionality with a healthy mix of collaboration, aesthetics and problem solving for both on-screen and on paper. There is an aspect of art in a graphic designer’s work, but I’ve always felt that function is the more prominent feature of graphic design.

Design is, generally, about displaying information in an easily digestible, meaningful way for the widest possible audience. With this view in mind, I’ve found it surprising that designers are so resistant to accessible and inclusive design practices. This was perplexing and frustrating at first, but the more I work with other designers and clients, the more I come to understand two possible reasons why.

Taking away from designers

No one likes being told how to do their job – especially by people who have never done your job! The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) has brought up an entirely new framework to graphic design. There is confusion about and between legislation, policy, design guidelines, branding, and best practices.

For example, a client requests a poster for an event. The designer creates the poster that is compelling, informative, and legible. Then the client comes back asking whether this is AODA compliant. The designer feels like their skill, style and judgement is being undermined by legislation.

Clients often come to designers demanding 12 pt. font and sans serif font like Arial or Verdana for everything because that’s what example they were given during their accessibility training. Yet, by making all text 12 pt. the design may sacrifice other things such as whitespace and hierarchy, which also apply to accessible design. Although their intention is good, it can create other problems.

It is our jobs as designers to speak to the widest possible audience and we are trained on this. If making text 12 pt. for a project with small dimensions, such as an ad in a newspaper or in the sidebar of a website, is going to make everything squished and unreadable, we need to inform the client. We need to tell the client why we feel this is not the best way to approach the project. Designers need to feel like they have a voice and the power to make good design happen.

It can also be helpful to send other designers or clients a link to the Information and Communication Standard, pointing out that the AODA says nothing about how big a font should be or what type of font should be used. The only time it gets specific is with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), but the focus is more on scalability and contrast. Other helpful links like WebAIM or tools such Tanaguru Contrast-Finder can also help enable the designer to make and defend informed design decisions.

Shift patterns and process

Change is exciting, but it is also scary. Arguments on the long-term benefits and the financial arguments behind inclusive design are often unconvincing. Accessibility and inclusive design principals can be pushed aside when time and money is tight. Other priorities like meeting deadlines for press or the launch of an event come into play.

Everyone is busy. Everyone is stressed. Overwhelmed and under-supported staff cannot take into consideration the future or take the time to update their skills. Even designers who are aging or seniors themselves have trouble seeing the value altering their practice to meet the changing needs of the world. Disability and the aging demographic are not associated.

Without the time or support to upgrade skills and adjust to new ways of doing things, people will continue doing what they are familiar doing because it makes sense to them and feels like a better use of time than fumbling through unknown territory.

We all need time to grow and support one another in the learning process. It is not efficient for one designer to create a document and another designer to restructure it so that an accessible PDF can be posted online. The time efficiency of tagging documents within existing industry software like InDesign, running scripts to apply metadata as ALT text, or Action Scripts in Acrobat sound great, but if a designer has never done coding before, you might as well be asking them to get on a rocket ship to Mars.

Good design

Good design is accessible design. Design is about accessing information – whether that’s a dance theatre performance, or a budget meeting at a civic centre. This information can be presented in different ways. There is no one size fits all approach to graphic design – nor is there to accessibility.

There is great virtue and promise in inclusive design. Focusing on compliance is the wrong way to approach creative problems. Saying “I need to do this because the law says so.” isn’t going to bring around positive change. To get designers behind the AODA, we need to put the power back in the designer’s hands. We need to talk about accessibility in a knowledgeable way and make inclusion useful and practical rather than a burden.

Designers need to integrate new ways of designing into their projects. Two possible ways of doing this are by looking at the role of the graphic designer and the power they have through visual communication and how documents are created. To do this, there needs to be a shift in the pattern and process in which designers work in. The shift is a more complicated problem to approach – one that will need ongoing troubleshooting.

We can’t wait for everything to be perfect. We are designers. We are doers. However, the individual or the government cannot make a difference alone – we need to work together. Together we will build a better world for everyone.


Author: nchitty

Inclusive designer based out of Toronto.

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