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Design for all: a lesson in accessibility

Date Posted: January 27, 2017Reading time: 3 minutes

by Deanne Loft

Graphic Design is a process that combines the elements of visual communication and problem solving to communicate a message—our goal is to make that message clear and accessible to the largest possible audience. The term accessibility refers to the ability of anyone, regardless of disability or special needs to use and benefit from anything in their environment.

In this blog post I will be focusing on text-based communication, however, many of the principals I will discuss may be applied to other areas of communication including web and environmental design.

Grids & Hierarchy
Grids are usually the first device designers reach into their toolbox for. Grids provide a framework on which we can organize elements and information. When used effectively, the structure grids provide act as signposts, helping readers identify content and process meaning quickly across multiple pages. In the same vein, hierarchy creates an explicit and logical order which benefits readers of varying abilities. The example below illustrates how both are used. Notice key content such as section titles, page numbers and secondary information can be found in the same location from page to page.

Design grids

An easy way to increase accessibility in print materials is by choosing a substrate that reduces glare. Try choosing a non-coated stock for your documents, you may also use a warm white paper stock instead of a bright white stock.

Approximately 5% of the population exhibits actual colour blindness, but other factors such as age, injury or environment can contribute to how people perceive colour. Therefore, it’s a good idea not to hinge any major design decisions based purely on colour. Now, there are a few rules of thumb that we can follow to make the communications we create more accessible. Ensure that there is always a 70% difference in colour value—for example between type and background. You can check this by converting your work into grayscale. Achieve optimum contrast between colour hues by selecting colours that are on the opposite side of the colour wheel (complementary colours). If colour hues are too close they create visual vibration and cause eye strain.

Examples of colour contrast

When it comes to typography, there are two questions designers should ask themselves when designing for accessibility—how legible is my chosen typeface? And how readable is it after it’s set?

Legibility is determined by specific typographic traits. People read the shape of familiar words, rather than individual letters—this allows us to process information and determine meaning faster. When designing for accessibility, it makes sense to choose typefaces with easily recognizable letter forms. Display fonts, while stylish, often are not the most legible.

Accessibility Fonts

Readability is related to legibility but specifically refers to the speed at which a reader can digest content over paragraphs and pages. Designers call this typesetting, and it refers to how characters are set in paragraphs.

Typesetting alignment examples

Two key factors in readability are point size and line length. Optimal point size can be hard to determine since there are many factors to consider: the x-height of a typeface, audience, and context of your final product. It is important to be sensitive to these factors when making decisions. Line length—or column width has a tremendous impact on readability on an overall document. Columns that are too short are awkward to scan, and columns that are too long create eye strain and make it difficult to find the beginning of the next line. A good rule of thumb is that no line should be longer than 90 characters.

Accessibility, A Practical Handbook on Accessible Graphic Design
2010, The Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario

For more information please visit the Association of Registered Graphic Designers.