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.

What is Universal Design?

A short summary on the meaning and history of ‘Universal Design’

Universal Design is design for everyone.

Now, you might think, “There’s nothing special about that. Aren’t most things designed for everyone, just with variants on function, style, and price tag?” Well, actually, the answer is no.

Most things are designed for the ideal consumer, a person who is presumed to have 20/20 vision, full use of their legs and hands, perfect cognitive function, and financial means. These presumptions on who will use a product, service, or environment exclude a group that is the size of China. People with disabilities cannot be ignored.

Universal Design aims to meet the greatest number of needs through one, intuitive design – and that’s not just the disabled! A popular example of Universal Design is the ‘curb cut’ which you probably take for granted every time you see it – but it’s actually one of the first examples of the founding principles that would go on to establish Universal Design. What is a ‘curb cut’? That’s the short slope you often see between sidewalk and road, where pedestrians are meant to cross to the opposite side of the street. This was implemented in reaction to the increase of wheelchair users after World War II, before the term ‘Universal Design’ came into being. The curb cut not only made transportation for disabled veterans easier, but was also appreciated by people with strollers, shopping carts, and cyclists. Universal Design doesn’t just solve problems for one sort of user, but makes an improvement for everyone.

The term Universal Design originated in the USA out of the Civil Rights Movement, driven by Vietnam War veterans. The initial focus was on disability and the physical, built environment. It later spread to affect all areas of design, from product design to public transportation. Today, it plays an important role in guiding businesses, policy makers, and designers in ensuring that goods, services, and environments can be accessed by everyone. Greater access to these things results in a stronger economy and society.

Universal Design benefits everyone.

The Virtues of Change, Time & Letting Go In Grad Studies

Three pieces of advice for graduate students working on their Major Research Project (MRP) or thesis.

This was originally written as a speech to be given to current students at OCAD University interested in hearing how alumni organized data, conducted research, and wrote their Major Research Project (MRP) or thesis.

Creating your MRP or thesis can be both an exciting and daunting experience. As designers and artists, we have unique opportunities to impact the lives of many through our work. However, knowing where to start, when to stop, and what to do in-between can make it challenging.

So to help you along, I’m going to pass on three pieces of advice that I drew from my own MRP experience: first, change is okay: secondly, don’t look for what’s not there, and lastly; remember that time is of the essence.

 Change is okay.

Education is about learning, about self improvement and innovation. Your graduate studies will expose you to many new ideas and modes of thinking – and if it doesn’t, then perhaps you’re in the wrong program. So, it’s natural that your MRP or thesis topic may change over time.

When I first came to OCAD, I arrived with the ambitions to continue my work in typography for the visually impaired. However, I soon became discouraged by the amount of quality work that was already done in this field. I felt like I needed to find a new focus – but had no idea what to do. The answer came through an RA-ship I was doing when we were approached with a design problem: user fatigue and eye controlled technology.

Now, it help illustrate this – think of how you feel after you’ve watched a few hours of TV or time scrolling through Pinterest or studying intensely for an extended period of time. Your eyes get sore, your vision is blurred, you feel mentally exhausted… Now just imagine if you were doing that without the use of a mouse, a keyboard, a touch screen, or switch? What if you were doing all of that – controlling a computer AND absorbing information – with only your eyes?

Well, for some people, that is currently their best option for communicating with the world. And after looking at the existing interface on eye controlled systems, I thought, “You know, with my background in graphic design, I bet I could help alleviate that!” and had all of a sudden found my new MRP topic.

Stop looking for what’s not there and just make it!

I think its safe to say that we all want our work to stand out. We all want to do something new and innovative – and the best topic for an MRP is a topic that hasn’t been explored yet. However, its also good to have a sound base on which to work on – but don’t look for what’s not there!

When I began my literature review, I was convinced that there would be research address user fatigue on eye controlled systems. There maybe was a sentence here and there, but for the most part research was on skill acquisition. I had to make my own data to work from!

To any other researcher, this would have been great! Virgin territory! An untapped resource! A thesis goldmine! But to me, this was unfathomable. How could have no one else looked into this and published a paper on it? It had to be somewhere… So, I spent the duration of Masters looking for information that wasn’t there – or thinking obsessively about it, filling up my Zotero data management account with all the related and unrelated papers I found along the way.

Remember that time is of the essence.

There’s always things we feel we could have done differently at the end of a big project, and for me, I would have liked to have managed my time more effectively. I feel like I spent 90% of my time researching or thinking about research, with much of that time spent looking for data that didn’t exist.

Had I just accepted earlier on that there was no research in this area, I would have been able to focus on collecting my own data and spend more quality time on the design component of my MRP. That is my biggest regret.

Overall, I’m very happy with the written component of my MRP. I am very proud of my work. I was working on writing my MRP all through the year and found the suggested deadlines for sections helpful to keep me on track. I continually had friends and family proof read my writing and give me feedback. I think that my writing style is straight forward, influenced by my communication training and background in sales and marketing. I wanted my MRP to be clear to anyone who picked it up – not just people in academia, the assistive technology or design field. It was really helpful to have non-designers and non-techy people to read my work in addition to academics and my advisers who were working in the field.

So looking back on two years of research, thought, writing, and designing, those were the three key pieces of advice I can bring to you today: Change is okay, don’t look for what’s not there, and remember that time is of the essence. Stop obsessing over the details and just start doing – it will save you a lot of unnecessary stress.

You can read more about my work at

Inclusive Design & Ontario’s Economy

Why accessibility and inclusive design are vital for Ontario’s economic growth and stability.

Chair with a sign reading 'visible' next to a stack of televisions and Spirit Synott in a wheelchair with the word 'valid' pinned to the back of the chair
Dance performance by Spirit Synott. Photo by Nell Chitty.

I originally wrote this as a speech for Toastmasters this past summer. I remembered it today and thought it would make a blog post.

What are your thoughts on the inclusive design and Ontario’s economy?

The changing economy of Ontario is an exciting place to be today. We have unique opportunities to impact the lives of many, including persons with disabilities. Inclusive design may seem like a challenging and a poor use of resources. However, it can powerfully impact Ontario’s economy and give it the push it needs to gain power on the international stage.

There are three main reason that businesses and organizations in Ontario will benefit from inclusive design. First, Ontario’s consumers are growing older, and inclusive design will help businesses meet the needs of its changing demographic. Secondly, inclusive design encourages more creative and innovative problem-solving which will add value to products and services. Third, the cost of exclusion is higher than inclusion and will save Ontario business owners and organizations money in the long run.

Ontario’s consumers are growing older.

The face of Ontario is changing. The workers, residents, and consumers of the province are growing older. We all become disabled in some way sooner or later, thus it is important that products, services, and environments can continue to meet the needs of it consumers, or else a huge market is left ignored. Inclusive design can accelerate Ontario’s economic growth by reaching a market the size of China- the international disability market. A market that large cannot be ignored by Ontario businesses.

Our population is not getting younger. Catering to the disability consumer market will help Ontario become an international leader in social and human centred design.

Inclusive design encourages more creative and innovative problem solving which will add value to products and services.

In reality, no-one wants design for all; everyone wants design for me. Whether its something as personal as the organization of applications on your dock or desktop, or the features of a new car or home, we all want something unique to ourselves. Ontario businesses need to offer the ability to customize a product to meet an individual’s needs and wants- and especially the flexibility of the digital world can allow us that freedom.

Inclusive design adds value to a product- just think of Siri on your iPhone, the TTC stop announcements, or closed captioning on the TV when you’re at the gym or a noisy bar. It adds value. For example, Nestle improved their packaging so that people with arthritis could open their coffee containers with ease. Although the new packaging had a higher consumer price tag, it improved sales.

When a product or service is easier to use and access, it increases consumption. Ontario needs higher consumption of its goods and services. It is good for the economy. When these things are made easier to use and to access, Ontario will thrive.

The cost of exclusion is higher than the cost of inclusion.

When the available goods and services do not meet the needs and wants of its residences, there are long-term social and economic challenges. Social problems lead to an unhealthy society as a whole. Studies have shown that more equal societies do better on many measures of social health and wealth, improving the quality of life for all residences. A unhealthy society becomes a cash drain on the province and businesses.

Think of the workplace as an example. Poorly designed work environments cause stress, and stress creates disabilities. Well designed workspaces and equipment increase employee productivity, which increases Ontario’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Additionally, it is estimated that increased workforce participation among people with disabilities will increase the GDP per capita in Ontario by $600 per annum. The Prosperity and Economic Progress report of 2009 stated that Ontario is not as productive as its competitors. With Ontario’s shrinking labour pool, the province cannot afford to loose further productivity.

Ontario needs inclusive design.

As a young professional, those are some of my thoughts and research on how inclusive design can help save Ontario’s economy. The reality that Ontario’s consumers are growing older, that innovative problem solving adds value to goods and services, and the high cost of exclusion are three of some of the reasons that businesses and organizations will benefit from inclusive design. We as a province cannot afford to merely catch up to our competitors. Instead, Ontario needs to build for the future.


Donovan, R. Lecture. Inclusive Design Summer Intensive. OCAD University, Toronto.17 July 2012.

Donovan, R. “Mining the disability market.” BBC. (2011). Web. 29 April 2013.

Hassell, J. “Beyond Inclusion and Reverse Inclusion: how fully engaging with the needs of disabled and elderly people can turbo-charge innovation and profitability.” Hassell Inclusion. (2012). Web. 29 April 2013.

Henry, S., Arch A., Brewer , J. “Developing a Web Accessibility Business Case for Your Organization.” W3C. (2012). Web. 29 April 2013.

Kemper et al. Releasing Constraints: Projecting the Economic Impacts of Increased Accessibility in Ontario. Martin Prosperity Institute. (2010). PDF. Web. 29 April 2013.

Smith, K. “What We Can Learn from Digital Outcasts.” Accessibility and Inclusive Design Meetup Group Toronto. Devlin, Toronto. 29 May 2013.

Treviranus, J. Lecture. Inclusive Design Summer Intensive. OCAD University, Toronto. 18 July 2012.

Wilkinson, R. G. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London: Allen Lane. Print.