When I first heard that we would have to be writing about accessible design, admittedly, I was worried. I thought that I had absolutely no experience with the topic. I didn’t really know anyone who was deaf, and I certainly didn’t know anyone who was truly handicapped. After thinking this, I pulled open my computer with the font set to large, moved aside my quarter keyboard (which makes gaming easier since my hands are small), checked my phone set to vibrate (because I never hear it ping), turned on the audiobook for this class (knowing I was too slow at reading to get the book finished in time for the essay deadline), and then asked my mother’s husband why he has to blast the TV constantly when he also requires the subtitles on. It wasn’t until my slight dyslexia caused me to read a boy’s name and register it as a girl’s name later that day in which I realized my previous thoughts on having no experience with accessible things or disabilities was possibly the dumbest thought I’d had all week.
Not only do I, and many people I know, have some form of impairment or disability in one way or another, but almost everyone I know uses accessible designs every day. In fact, most designs that were originally made to be accessible designs were so good at helping people that they simply became universal designs that we use every day. Accessible design is a design way of thinking that allows something to be experienced easier and by a broader range of people and should be a part of any design process.
What is Accessible Design?
The technical definition of accessible design is an important question to address to really understand my writing. Although the simple answer to the question of “what is accessible design?” would simply be a design that is accessible, it’s necessary to dive deeper into that statement. In our reading Accessibility For Everyone, Laura Kalbag creates two interesting definitions that tie the terms accessible design and universal design together.
Kalbag defines accessible design as more of an afterthought in the design process focused on people with disabilities (Kalbag 5). Kalbag shares that accessible design is not always as convenient for those who need it and is unlikely to be used by people who don’t have those disabilities (5). She goes on to state that “universal design considers the needs of a diverse human population” and would result in a design that is used by everyone (5).
I somewhat agree with this statement, but I also disagree with the specifics. To say universal design and accessible design are two different things feels as if to say that universal design is no longer an accessible design, which would be incorrect. I think that universal design should be considered a subsection of accessible design. To me, universal design is simply an accessible design that is so good at allowing accessibility that it became universal. In other words, everyone found it much easier to use and better overall so it became the new main design or feature. In even simpler terms, universal design is just the best of accessible designs. Later I will dive into more of the exacts and parameters of accessible design, but a solid definition is a good starting point for now.
Why should we care about accessible design?
Now that we know technically what accessible design is, we can move on to why it is important. I feel it is important to address why one should care about accessible design to begin. After that, we can jump into describing and sharing examples of good accessible design and how one can bring it into their work. To make this easier, I will make it a list.
- Accessibility opens the design up to a broader audience: This is probably the first thought anyone has when they think about accessible design thinking, that it allows for more people to use something. Making something accessible allows for a broader range of users to be able to interact with a design, increasing its effectiveness. Any design that is made should have a goal of reaching the broadest audience possible.
- Accessibility is currently in style: Take a look around and you’ll start to notice that accessible design is very common. Accessible designs are all over the internet, from Instagram to Target, the trendiest posts and ads often adhere to the rules of accessible design. Ads are keeping things simple and minimal along with plenty of contrast. There’s obviously a reason for this and the bottom line is people like accessible designs because they’re easy on the eyes.
- Accessibility can give a competitive advantage: Just as Kalbag stated, “the wider your audience, the greater your reach and commercial appeal” (38). On top of this, if a site is more accessible than its competitor, people will often flock towards the accessible site out of frustration from the other. This makes a site or design better than others and increases the audience.
- Accessibility helps with the general ease of use: Accessible design, when done well, is oftentimes easier to use than design that was not done with accessible design thinking. The rules of accessible design, (such as contrast, simplicity, and variation), mean that design made with accessibility in mind will often fall under that universal design category and attract more users.
- Accessibility is sometimes legally required: In some countries, it is required by their laws for sites to be accessible and sites that aren’t made with accessibility in mind can be sued.
What are examples of good accessible design and how one can bring it into their work?
Now that I have covered a general definition of accessible design and why one should want it in their work, I will share some examples of what good accessible design and bad accessible design looks like. To follow these, I will make some general guidelines. Like I stated earlier, accessible design is usually intertwined with generally good design anyways. If you want a site or product that looks nice, following the steps to accessible design is a solid way to start.
As you can see, my first two examples are sites called Parramatta Park and SmartBear. Parramatta Park is an Australian site I found from googling examples of accessible designs, whereas SmartBear I found by googling examples of forward-thinking companies. The first example of good accessible design I noticed right away was the high contrasts between many elements. While Parramatta Park takes a more appealing approach of breaking up the information in boxes and using lots of big images, SmartBear still accomplishes good accessible design by using dark wording on white backgrounds.
Another thing both websites do well is their use of font changes and highlighting as your mouse moves. Both sites change the color of their links when you hover over them and have a pretty good variation of font sizes to break up the text. One thing I especially liked about SmartBear was how they used little pictures next to their links, so you had an idea of what the page was if you couldn’t read it. Parramatta Park also does an excellent job of picking colors and labeling pictures for those with vision impairment. Both of these sites are very good examples of accessible design even though they weren’t both listed under my search for accessibility. Next, I will move into some examples that could be better.
As you can see, my example for a design I thought was only somewhat accomplishing our goal of being accessible is the Patagonia website. Interestingly enough, I also found this site on the same list as SmartBear for forward-thinking companies. This brings up an interesting point as well about how a company may be portrayed as forward-thinking and trailblazing but not really as successful as we are led to believe.
Right away I noticed as well that Patagonia does a good job of using color contrast with black and white, although many of their background images (such as the one shown) have a lot of white in them as well. Having white images under white text isn’t always the best idea, although they have done a decent job of masking the image with a darker shade. Another thing Patagonia could have done better is changing (or sometimes not changing) their texts. On their site, they have a lot of variations of strange font styles. Having many strange fonts, unfortunately, is not always easy to read. While they change the font style a lot, they don’t seem to change up the font size as much as they should. This design choice leads to long walls of text that are hard to look at, such as in the second photo.
Another thing I would say they failed at was consistent navigation. Each click brought me to a different page that wasn’t easy to find my way around or back from. This quickly makes a site quite frustrating for anyone to use. On a final note, it seemed like many things were a bit hidden, such as the ability to change the language. Things like language and currency change should always be quick to find. When things are hidden, weirdly written, or hard to read it makes a site hard to navigate. These are just a few examples of things I felt Patagonia failed at when creating their design as a “forward-thinking” company”.
A guide to leave with…
Now that I have explained that good accessible design is simply universal design which everyone should enjoy using, why everyone should want to use accessible designs, and given examples of accessible design out in the world; I will end on a simple guide to use for your own designs. While it is obviously not a complete guide, hopefully, this will help everyone start to become a better designer and create a more inclusive design world.
- A good contrast ratio: Visual impairments can make it hard for people to read certain texts against some backgrounds. A good contrast ratio makes it easier for everyone to read.
- Clear labels and changes with links: Make sure any feedback for something being typed incorrectly is highlighted and made clear. It can also be helpful with navigation to underline links or change their color when they have been used or when scrolling over them. Highlighting links can also help if someone doesn’t use a mouse but instead uses keyboard navigation.
- Consistent navigation: A clear sight map or breadcrumb trail can make a site much easier to navigate. This clarity can help make a site feel much less cluttered and frustrating.
- Big and simple headings and spacing with lots of white space: Many conditions like ADHD make it difficult to navigate cluttered or compact information. This can cause someone to get easily overwhelmed and give up on the site. Bigger headings and lots of white space are a good way to make sure one can breathe a bit while navigating a site.
- Variation in size and easily readable fonts: Similarly to number 4, leaving the font all one size can make it hard for people to navigate or tell what is what. Using one font size too much easily creates a terrifying wall of text that no one will want to approach. Make sure you pick a normal font so your design can be read easily, and there is enough variation to break up the information.
- Control over many aspects: Not being able to control movement or volume can frustrate anyone. Sites like the desktop site for Tiktok don’t allow for volume control, which personally leads to me leaving it because it is too loud! Make sure any videos, slideshows, and music can be controlled easily.
Kalbag, Laura. Accessibility for Everyone. New York, A Book Apart, 2017.
Lillyman, Tim. “5 beautiful and accessible websites for design inspiration in 2020.” Internetrix, Internet Solutions Australia Pty Ltd, July 2020, 5 beautiful and accessible websites for design inspiration in 2020. Accessed 3 March 2021.
Parramatta Park. “Parramatta Park.” Parramatta Park, Greater Sydney Parklands, 2016, https://www.parrapark.com.au/. Accessed 17 March 2021.
Patagonia. “Patagonia.” Patagonia.com, Patagonia, Inc., 2021, https://www.patagonia.com/. Accessed 16 March 2021.
SmartBear. “SmartBear.” SmartBear, SmartBear Software, 2021, https://smartbear.com/. Accessed 16 March 2021.
Thomas, James S. “Web accessibility examples: 5 sites doing it right.” Inviqa, Inviqa UK, 4 February 2020, https://inviqa.com/blog/web-accessibility-examples-5-sites-doing-it-right. Accessed 16 March 2021.