Good design was always accessible

Sharlene King
Nov 25 · 5 min read

When I was a freshman in college, we were all plagued with an affinity for tiny-type. Text set at 8pt and even 4pt because we thought it looked better. Lost amongst our pet projects of lofty, elegant stationery design intended to illustrate the superiority of our personal tastes, the function was secondary. We learned quickly that we fell in love with tiny-type because when text isn’t readable, it’s another abstract visual object in the composition — no different from a solid black rectangle.

Fast forward to today, with a month left in the 2010s, we find UX design to be a more significant subset of design. What we know as the internet has been alive for over 20 years, our phones are powerful computers in our pockets, and there are plenty of people who recognize the floppy disk only as a save icon.

As designers, we should embrace constraints and requirements. It’s strange that designers view the WCAG’s AA guidelines as an obstacle. Some designers ask if accessible design is necessary as if their work exists in a vacuum. You’re unhireable if your work is meant for an audience that never grows. Businesses want to grow.

Design depends largely on constraints. There are always design constraints, and these often imply an ethic.

- Charles and Ray Eames, Design Q&A. 1972

The most celebrated of our technology were praised for their intuitive and accessible designs. We loved videos of babies using iOS devices without any instructions. We bashed Microsoft products for their complexity. We looked to Apple’s HCI guidance as industry standards for their humane models. Whatever academic disagreements we have about design and its meaning, we tend to agree that design has to be used or it’s just decoration. There isn’t any nobility in design people can’t use.

When new technology loses its shine, we tend to take it for granted. We’re always forgetting that technology is about assisting us and reducing work. How often have you ridden an elevator and judged someone for using it to travel a single floor? In my office, I know at least 5 people under 50 with sciatica. There are so many chronic illnesses and disabilities that aren’t visible, and we all benefit from elevators, so why begrudge anyone a few seconds?

It wouldn’t surprise me if someone begrudged accessibility guidelines and blamed them for their own lousy work. It does absolutely shock me that a UX designer with the reach and audience of the UX Movement would bash accessible design as inherently ugly.

This article by Anthony Tseng is chock full of unresearched presumptions. Lazy at best, it is precisely the problem with designers today who are more obsessed with winning approval on Dribbble than function. It seems like a college freshman move — complete ignorance of design history and low standards for a designer’s creativity.

Tseng talks about how accessible design sacrifices aesthetic for people with “normal vision” when impacted vision is more common. In spite of medical advances, the deterioration of our vision is a global epidemic. It’s believed that by 2050, the number of blind people in the world will triple. In the US, only 35% of adults have perfect vision.

This doesn’t begin to account for temporary disabilities like sunlight, mobility like riding a bus or train, or physical distance like a laptop in bed instead of a desk.

Most temporary disabilities are created by inept designers like Tseng. We’ve all been there: you’re in a restaurant, cafe, or bar and you want to order something. You can’t read the menu. It’s above the counter, dimly lit, tiny text, and probably in some terrible cursive. It looks great, but you can’t use it because it wasn’t designed for its use-case. Any schmuck can put a handful of words together in a way that looks good, but it takes a seasoned designer to understand how to set the type for its intended use and make it beautiful.

Any UX designer or service designer worth their salt has some understanding of temporary disability. The constraints of different use-cases are what challenge us to be better than someone who only has good taste. We’re industrious and ingenious people looking to solve problems instead of merely painting steaming piles of poop in gold.

Looking at design history, we can see this philosophy imbued in the most revered work. The Eames lounger or the tubular steel chairs of Bauhaus are exemplary designs that were initially created for the disabled.

In 1942, war plagued the world, and we saw massive casualties. During this time, splints for injuries were cumbersome aluminum monstrosities. Wearing them and being transported was hell for the injured.

US Army’s medical corps instructions for original leg splint.

The Eames invented a brace of molded plywood. It was stackable, comfortable, and easy enough for anyone to use or secure an injured person.

Thankfully, for countless soldiers, they didn’t have to rely on the limited imagination and empathy of a designer like Tseng.

Gratefully, we can all enjoy the beautiful and timeless designs such as the Eames lounger that borrowed from its parent design of a little splint.

If you want a career where constraints aren’t part of the challenge, get out of design. If you wish to do timeless work that impacts society, embrace design constraints, and challenge yourself to do better by every user.

In a story twist, I do agree with him that we depend too much on WCAG. If you ran the websites of the current 2020 presidential candidates thought an accessibility check, only Donald Trump came out to pass the AA rating. Ope. According to Miami’s chapter of Lighthouse, a fantastic org advocating for the visually impaired, not one of the 2020 candidates was usable as of June 2019. Consider the ramifications of that as we criticize older people for following conservative politicians and news. Know that 1 out of 3 people who are 65 years old or older have degenerative eye disease.

We can debate the value of aesthetics and function until we’re blue in the face, but the reality is that excluding any user group has lasting and broad cultural impacts — none of them good.

There are endless examples of timeless and accessible design, but I’m scratching my head over recalling any inaccessible design that is worth remembering.

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