Graphic Design for the visually impaired; A neglected dissertation

Have I forgotten everything I once wrote?


A few weeks ago I attended the fantastic Future of Web Design conference. Jam packed with eager designers, developers, planners, strategists, product owners and more, all hungry for fresh web design inspiration.

After a cracking start from Keynote speaker Stephen Hay on ‘The Art of Deception’, I opted to stay on The Main Track for the second act entitled; ‘Design Like You Give a Damn: Creating Accessible Interfaces that Everyone Wants to Use’.

The speaker was Léonie Watson, unknown to me 24 hours prior. It was the topic that caught my interest and sounded right up my street.

Events like this feel like an indulgent day of soaking up opinion from industry leaders. But though I love design, I often find myself drawn towards talks with somewhat more meaning. Topics about making lives better, rather than what can sometimes feel like an audit of current design trends.

And so Léonie Watson began her 40 minute slot.

The immediate differentiator of which being that Léonie used a screen reader throughout, to read aloud each of her slides, as she’s blind.

Perhaps, in fact almost certainly, this was not intended to be the key take away from her talk. But since I intend for this blog post to be one of honesty, I confess that it had a huge impact on me.

More specifically, it was the first time I had heard or experienced somebody using a screenreader.

Hang on a minute

It was at this point that I had a sudden realisation.

How on earth is this the first time I’m hearing a screen reader?

Not only have I been working as a web design professional for nearly 10 years, but many moons ago I actually wrote the following degree dissertation:

To what extent do graphic designers consider their visually impaired audience, and is this a ‘reasonable’ attempt at inclusive design?

And yet here I am, ten years later, feeling totally unqualified on the subject, ashamedly so given my once eagerness, and seeming commitment to it.

Making up for lost time

Having dusted off my dissertation and refreshed my dismal memory, I realised that Léonie’s talk rang true, because she discussed a topic that I had once been passionate about.

Obviously the digital world is unrecognisable compared to back then, so a lot of my ramblings are no longer relevant. But the underlying reasons for focusing on inclusivity are still as valid as ever.

Therefore I tip my hat to Léonie, and share with you some of her very convincing arguments for each and every one of us to start changing our ways.

Accessibility does not stifle innovation

Read the rule book about accessibility, then rip it up — Design like Banksy

I loved this quote. Léonie encourages us to challenge and experiment. It’s not about being chained to a chair and rehashing the same boring websites. There is actually a lot of room to innovate, you just need to understand, and be mindful of accessibility along the way.

Accessibility isn’t difficult, its just unfamiliar

Again, further to the above. It’s often just a few tweaks and considerations that can make a world of difference to the visually impaired user. It’s not difficult. We’ve just been being lazy.

Percentages are unreliable and irrelevant

When asked what percentage of people use a screen reader, the above is what Léonie replied.

Which is precisely the point.

Does it really matter how many people use one? If it’s a low percentage are you going to rule them out? Accessibility just makes more sense for us all.

For example Léonie talks about people being hungover and finding it more difficult to focus. And how running apps use large fonts so runners can focus on the moving screen. I myself find some contrasts difficult to see, and sometimes increase font sizes if I’m tired and have some reading to do on screen.

If we’re designing the best experiences for each and every one of our customers/users/human beings, then the likelihood is that one of them needs a site that is optimised for one of many accessibility requirements.

Whether they’re on the autistic spectrum and require clear instructions, or they’re dyslexic so might read patterns differently, or they’re blind and need a screen reader. Or they’re just hungover.

Think about your future self

Given that we’re all a little self obsessed, I liked this final argument of Léonie’s. If you find it hard to empathise with others, then consider how you’ll feel when your own eyesight deteriorates.

Will you just sit back and accept that you can no longer do the things you used to do online, because the sites are not optimised for the likes of you?

Slapped wrist

I’m grateful to Léonie Watson for reminding me just how important inclusivity and accessibility are. And I slap my own wrist for taking 10 years and one very smart woman to remind me of such.

I’ll end with my concluding paragraph from 2005.

I think I might have been on to something.

The visually impaired needn’t live their lives feeling isolated, unaware and unable. Design can help prevent this, and surely improving somebody’s life is worthier than any other reward a designer can achieve.
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