Accessibility 101 for Graphic Designers: Plain English Version

By Matt Ballentine

Did you consider accessibility when you worked on your last design project?

Did you think of the wheelchair ramps in front of buildings when I said “accessibility?”

Sure, those are designed for accessibility, but I’m talking about the disciplines of accessibility that apply to you more directly as a graphic designer. I’m talking about the wheelchair ramp sign and why it has crisp white text on a dark blue background. If you aren’t designing something that is usable or understandable to all audiences, specifically those with disabilities, it’s not accessible. I’m here to tell you that it’s not just a big deal, it’s a huge deal.

For designers, accessibility (or accessible design) means considering how you are creating something that is usable or understandable for individuals with disabilities. These disabilities might include:

  • Color blindness (Did you know there are different types of color blindness?)
  • Visual impairment
  • Auditory impairment
  • Physical impairment
  • Neurodiversity

Accessibility is not a new thing. This is not a trend. This is a new standard.  But don’t worry. It’s not that hard to understand, and you’ve been doing it to a degree without even knowing it. Some of it is basic design principles and some is common sense. Here are some practical tips to design for accessibility:

  • Use high-contrast colors:  People with visual impairments may have difficulty discerning the difference between overlapping colors.
  • Type: Use sans-serif fonts, which are easier to read than serif fonts. Avoid using all caps, which can be difficult to read. Use left-aligned text, which is easier to read than justified text. Consider increasing kerning for small font sizes.
  • Avoid using too much text on images: This can be difficult to read for people with visual impairments, and it can also make it difficult for screen readers to interpret the content.
  • Provide alt text for images: Alt text is a brief description of an image that is read aloud by screen readers. This is important for people who are blind or have low vision.
  • Use clear and concise language:  Avoid using jargon or technical terms that may not be understood by everyone.
  • Organize your content in a logical way: This will make it easier for people with cognitive disabilities to navigate your designs. And use some negative space to help everyone out.
  • Provide multiple ways to interact with your designs: For example, you might provide a text-based alternative to a graphical element.

Designing for accessibility makes sense for multiple reasons:

  • It is the right thing to do. Everyone deserves to have access to information and experiences, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. By making your designs accessible, you are helping to create a more inclusive world.
  • It is good for business. Creating accessible designs helps you reach a wider audience and develop a more positive brand image. It shows empathy for your users as it builds a better experience for them.
  • It makes you a better designer. When you design for accessibility, you have to think about all of the different ways that people might interact with your work. This forces you to be more creative and to come up with solutions that work for everyone.
  • It safeguards you, your clients, and your employer against any legal ramifications.  Did you know that more than 11,000 lawsuits were filed for ADA non-compliance in 2021? Lawsuits kill businesses… you know that right?

Designers, it’s your responsibility to design for accessibility. We are not just artists and creatives anymore. We are public servants. Unless you are working on a personal project or for free, we no longer design in the realm of abstraction or expression.

I love this quote by Elle Waters, an accessibility consultant: “Accessibility makes good designers great, and bad designers obvious.”

Which are you going to be?

Here are some helpful resources and light reading: