1 in 7 people have a disability that affects the way they interact with the world, and in turn, every single brand, product or experience.
That means 1 in 7 people can’t read that custom typeface, because it pushes legibility to the extreme. That means 1 in 7 people can’t see the logo you’ve laboured over, because chartreuse doesn’t meet contrast ratios.
And yet, at university I was taught to ‘never use a typeface bigger than 11 point’. We were taught about ‘good’ design, without consideration for who ‘good’ design left out. And after leaving university, I had next to no idea of what accessibility was.
Until I became one of the lucky few from DesignStudio Sydney that was given the incredible opportunity to work with an organisation revolutionising the disability support sector.
I had a lot of learning (and unlearning) to do. Let’s dive in.
ACCESSIBILITY IS BIG BUSINESS
Accessibility is no longer optional. It’s essential for any and every business — whether you are in the disability sector or not.
The disability sector
In Australia, the NDIS completely revolutionised the disability sector. Over $13 billion will be committed to the NDIS over the next four years and the average person’s budget sits at around $67,000. During our project working with the disability support organisation, I met a man who was even able to purchase a car through his funding.
The NDIS created a seismic shift in the industry, making people with disabilities a compelling customer base to win over. This was incredibly empowering for these people. To be treated as a consumer meant they had the power to choose what brands they wanted to engage with, and what brands weren’t worth their time.
Consider the 1 in 7 who live with a disability and the impact that their engagement has on businesses, regardless of sector. Beforepay has hundreds of thousands of customers. Go1 has millions of learners across the globe. How many of these people aren’t experiencing these brands in the way we have assumed they would?
Brands are becoming increasingly digital, with over 2 billion people shopping globally online. A major concern for e-commerce is often SEO, with search engines like Google generally ranking accessible sites higher than others. In the UK, roughly 69% of customers with access needs exit out of a webpage if it’s hard to navigate. That’s an estimated £17.1 billion lost.
OKAY, SO WHAT ACTUALLY IS ACCESSIBILITY?
It’s the stairs leading into the building that disable the wheelchair user. Not the wheelchair.
Matt May, Head of Inclusive Design at Adobe, defines accessibility as how well a product is suitable for every individuals’ needs and preferences. What I love about this definition is that he positions accessibility as fundamental for every individual — able-bodied or not.
While it seems like a finicky detail, this positions designers in a crucial role with a lot of responsibility. We sit somewhere in between the user and the brand, quite literally designing their experience.
We can create concepts for how a website can make you feel. We choose type hierarchies, colour combinations and we art direct photoshoots. We are well versed in this language. Accessibility needs to start with us. We can either be a gateway or a barrier to their experience.
DESIGNING USER FIRST
I am able-bodied. This means I cannot speak for nor truly understand what it’s like to live with a disability. The only way I will know if my work is accessible is by asking the user.
All too often, only a single (usually able-bodied) perspective is considered for how a brand may be experienced. The reality is, people with disabilities rely on many alternate avenues that are either left to the last minute or left completely out of the design process.
Turn on voice command on your computer and go to a website you’ve designed. Tune in to the dry and robotic prose of Siri describing every single piece of content. How could you reimagine this experience?
During the project, we learned sign language and explored websites using just the tab key. I even tried navigating my way to the studio using Microsoft Soundscape, a map delivered through 3D sound.
This will never come close to the lived experience of disability. However, it brought an awareness to the multi sensory experiences that designers can employ to help create accessible brands.
Hand over the tools
When the project began, I thought I had discovered the ‘Accessibility Bible’: the WCAG. I believed that if I followed their guidance down to every letter, I could design the world’s most accessible brand. But as it turns out, just because you comply, doesn’t mean your work is accessible.
I began interrogating my work like never before. What’s the guidance around logo marks? What about graphic devices overlapping with imagery? I was asking questions that had no answers.
I knew I was going to get it wrong — it’s inevitable. That’s why it’s so important to listen to your user. Hand over the tools. Let them decide what works best. Because they know, better than anyone, what their needs are.
Things are changing. Products and platforms are already making accessibility a priority. Adding closed-captions is now the standard on apps like TikTok and Instagram. The Whitney's online exhibit, Vida Americana, described artworks vividly through alt-text. Designers are keen to react.
While the industry has a long way to go, the foundations of human-centred design are already in place. During our immersion phase at DesignStudio, we like to assume we know nothing. We interrogate and listen deeply to uncover what the user needs. And then we put that insight at the core.
That’s what I love about being a designer. No one’s experience will ever be the same. There’s always new industries, more to learn and people will always surprise you.
From now on, instead of designing for the 6 people who interact with a world designed for them, I’ll be designing for the one person whose experience I could change tremendously. If every designer did this, we could build a truly inclusive landscape and hopefully, transform the industry.