Why Does Accessibility Matter?

One day when I was in kindergarten my teacher observed that I had difficulties differentiating colors in the classroom. She pulled my parents to the side after school and informed them that I may be colorblind. Our family optometrist tested my vision with image after image of circles with colored dots. The test confirmed: I was colorblind. I have difficulties telling the differences between certain hues and shades of colors—most notably reds, greens, blues, and purples—based on the way they are used together or as part of a greater color scheme.

Being a passionate artist and graphic designer, I have learned ways to overcome my colorblindness in my art, but I still face challenges seeing and working with select colors. As someone who has had to rely on the labels on the side of colored pencils, asked colleagues to look at my designs, and struggled to play some video games, I am personally affected by the need for accessible design. As a designer, I have put high importance on our audiences’ realities in my work.

What Is Accessible Design?

Accessible design is the ethical decision to create user experiences specifically for people with disabilities. An accessible-first approach paves the way in which user’s interactions with a product or service is made to be more inclusive, meaningful, and replicates the same intended user experience of those without a disability. Making content accessible ultimately makes it more user-friendly for all. 

One in four U.S. adults have some sort of disability—ranging from visual, auditory, physical, neurological, or cognitive. Many design practices have taken an accessible-first approach in recent years to reflect and respect people’s realities. However, as the COVID-19 global pandemic forced more people to their screens, we’ve found that much of the digital world wasn’t accessible as people had thought.

In seeking out ways to remedy that challenge, I turned to experts in accessible design by attending webinars on the topic—many of whom, like me, live with some sort of disability themselves. They modeled what it looks like to lead an accessible conversation over Zoom: For example, panelists audibly introduced themselves by sharing their preferred pronouns, and described the colors and style of clothes they were wearing. Closed captioning was also available.

Accessible Design Experts to Explore:

Regine Gilbert

Kristina Rudolph 

Jenny Mannello

Amber James

Carly Nixon

Best Practices for Accessible Design

As a graphic designer, I rely on typography, colors, images, and other visual elements to communicate a particular tone, idea, and message. However, those that are visually-impaired, for example, may be unable to see or interpret that to its full effect. To ensure that all kinds of visual design are accessible to your intended audiences, some best practices include:

  • Select a legible typeface, font styles, and size. Consider users who have low vision, trouble reading small text, or strained their eyes after a long day of looking at screens.

    Choose a typeface that has distinct letterforms, supports all characters and font styles needed, and is clear and legible for large and small display purposes. Use Regular, Medium, Semibold, or Bold font weights since these are easier to see. Avoid Thin, Light, or UltraLight weights, which are more difficult to see due to their thin letterforms.

Paragraph, or body text, should be at least 16px to ensure comfortable readability on different devices (e.g., desktop, tablet, mobile), but can vary depending on the typeface design.

  • Provide enough color contrast. Consider users who have low vision or other visual deficiencies and need to read content. Select and use simple color palettes that provide sufficient, high contrast when applied to text on images, icons, buttons, or other supporting visual elements.

  • Do not rely on color solely to convey meaning. Consider users who have color deficiencies and are unable to interpret information solely conveyed through color. Use a combination of shapes, colors, icons, and text labels to present different types of information.

  • Provide descriptive text, captions, subtitles, and/or transcripts for multimedia such as images and videos. Consider users who have trouble listening or seeing content. Include descriptive alternative text for images, and closed captions, subtitles, or full transcripts for videos.

Accessibility in design doesn’t just apply to visuals. It extends to strategic text and content design as well. Content creators of all kinds need to pay attention to the way words, phrases, and sentences come together in unison as part of a user’s experience.

In order to make text more engaging and accessible for those with disabilities, some best practices include:

  • Use headings, subtitles, and other hierarchical text structures to communicate a logical level of importance. Consider users who may have cognitive disabilities or trouble navigating large amounts of text or technology.

Heading styles can vary according to font choice, size, weight, or color in order to differentiate it from normal paragraph text. Heading text should be precise, meaningful, and descriptive for users to quickly grasp the main points of the content without needing to read the whole thing.

  • Make clickable links as descriptive as possible. Consider users who may use a screen reader to navigate the web. Screen readers will read out the clickable links, but omit the surrounding copy for context.

Provide users with as much information about an action they are about to take, and/or where the link will lead them. For example, instead of a vague, unpredictable “Click here” button, consider call to action descriptions such as, “Download the full report.” 

One of the benefits of accessible-first design is that it increases information fluency and helps everyone, those with disabilities and those without, navigate and digest the information more easily.

Our Commitment As Communicators

As communicators, and in particular, designers, we are the voice for the user, but we are not the actual user. It is our responsibility to find ways in which anyone can easily access the content we create.

The best way to determine usability is to test it—especially by those with disabilities. Online tools can test the accessibility of content, but these automatic tools only catch 20-25% of issues, according to one testing expert (Essential Accessibility).

Hands-on user experience testing and auditing can show how actual people interact with the design; organizations such as WeCo offer free testing services that are conducted by people who live with some sort of disability.

Accessibility in design is not just a measurement of passing or failing, or checking a box for compliance. Rather, it is an ethical and socially responsible method to create unique user experiences for individuals with different needs. The benefits of incorporating an accessible-first approach have positive and far-reaching results, ultimately helping everyone who engages with your content, not just those with a disability, feel seen and included.

For more information about accessibility in design, we invite you to learn more from the following resources:

Other testing tools: WebAIM Color Contrast Checker

Joe is a designer who helps clients visualize their stories and ideas. He brings his unique creative perspective to all projects, including brand identity for the Center for Advancing the American Dream and the Fetzer Institute’s Study of Spirituality in America. He has also led the visual strategy for international organizations and movements such as Global Fund for Women. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, earning his bachelor's degree in graphic communications. Joe is passionate about exploring and discussing all things related to art, traveling often to new locales that inspire his creative work.