Intent helps Wilfrid Laurier University promote accessibility with 'Enabling Access Through Web Renewal' Handbook

Case Study by Ben Hagon RGD, Founder and President, Intent


Wilfrid Laurier University is committed to creating a barrier-free environment for persons with disabilities, as well as promoting accessibility and equitable access to services and facilities. In partnership with the Government of Ontario, Laurier wanted to produce a handbook for public-sector organizations with 50 employees or more to help them take the necessary steps to make their websites accessible.



Laurier traces its roots to the opening of the Evangelical Lutheran Seminary in Waterloo more than 100 years ago in 1911. The University has undergone several changes since then, and in 1973 changed the name from Waterloo Lutheran University to Wilfrid Laurier University. Now home to more than 19,000 students, Laurier challenges them to become engaged citizens of an increasingly complex world.

Intent is a design agency focused on working with organizations in the non-profit, charitable and public sectors. We have created award-winning design and achieved positive results for hospitals, libraries, universities, public health groups, international development agencies and cancer care groups. It is our collective mission to help improve the lives of people through accessible, creative and informative branding, communications and design. After reviewing Intent's proposal (submitted for an invitation-only RFP), Wilfrid Laurier University decided our values and experience were a perfect fit for an initiative such as this.



This was a new relationship for us. Along with the handbook, Intent produced a series of supportive videos on accessibility showcasing Laurier students and faculty.



The handbook was developed over one year, with the following objectives: 

  1. To use clear and simple language to tell the story of accessibility and today’s web in a way that will be understood by a wide range of people. 
  2. To utilize the Principles of Universal Design to create a handbook that would be visually dynamic and engaging for the user.
  3. To establish a unique look and feel that would complement Laurier’s  brand standards.


The first task was to come up with a Table of Contents (TOC) to be approved by the client. This was done prior to any in-depth research so that the writer, Nancy Kay Clark, could begin with a strong understanding of what resources and websites to consult and who to interview. The "Why, What, Who, How" structure was set from the very first meeting with the client and subsections were refined later in the process, recognizing that the specifics would inevitably change as sections were researched and written.  


The following content decisions were made through conversations with the client: 
  1. The audience was large public-sector organizations.
  2. The handbook would include one-on-one interviews with students and faculty who have disabilities. These interviews should represent a variety of different experiences. We also decided that the tone of these interviews would be more casual than the rest of the handbook, which is written with a business tone.
  3. The handbook would offer as much practical advice as possible and  include many sidebars and reader entry points throughout.
  4. The book would include reasons why an organization should make its website accessible beyond the legal requirements of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).
  5. The emphasis would be on the “how-to” rather than be a case study of Wilfrid Laurier’s website renewal. Most of the case study material would be placed in sidebars called: “The Laurier Experience.”


Nancy interviewed many people for the handbook, including Wilfrid Laurier faculty and students with disabilities, staffers at Wilfrid Laurier’s Accessible Learning Centre as well as the university's IT and Communications, Public Affairs & Marketing departments. Interviews were conducted by email and telephone. She gathered information from many sources including the ADO and its publications; the AODA; Centre for Universal Design at North Carolina State University; World Wide Web Consortium Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG); and assistive technology manufacturers.


Sections were researched, written and delivered to the client in chunks and out of order. When the first draft was complete, the copy was vetted by the client and the ADO. Numerous changes later, the copy was given to a third-party proofreader for clean-up.

We presented two comprehensive and distinct design approaches:


Concept A: 

A handy reference guide including highlighted terms throughout the text with footnotes directing readers to the glossary, as well as a generous inner margin for supplemental text and information. These techniques would enable readers to follow the core text and jump over to  supplemental information expanding on a particular topic. For quick reference, stepped tabs would visually separate chapters and sections. Visual aids, icons, colour and imagery would be used sparingly in support of a more text-driven approach.


Concept B: 

An easy-to-read book with appealing, supportive visuals. This approach opted for a more straightforward read with visual aids and graphics propelling the content where appropriate with a warm and welcoming tone. Custom icons are used to delineate certain callout section themes within the margins (i.e., “Resources”, “Best Practices” and “The Laurier Experience’). A vibrant colour palette creates impact, but is not the only method of classifying / differentiating content, in sensitivity to those with  colour blindness. Chapters and sections are separated by prominent title pages.


With its simplified, accessible format and visual appeal, Concept B was ultimately chosen because of its potential to deliver the content with the highest level of inclusivity.


Intent wrote, designed and produced the printed 76-page handbook, and managed the development of an accessible PDF for online distribution.


Accessibility was integral to every design decision along the way, with the obvious cornerstone being typography and the utilization of generous size and contrast throughout. The production of the book was also held to the same scrutiny, with the selection of a moderately bright, uncoated sheet to reduce glare. A stitched bind was also favoured over perfect binding to help the book lay flat when opened. For the PDF, Intent worked with Accessibl-IT to create a fully accessible document. 


The Laurier team worked closely with Intent during the writing process, helping to establish the direction for the overall content structure and providing feedback. The client team also helped ensure the availability of students and faculty for interviews. 



Having invested considerable time in researching the topic of accessibility and web design, as well as the Principles of Universal Design, Universal Design for Learning, and the CNIB’s Clear Print Guidelines, Intent became increasingly aware of the challenges associated with developing a handbook that would satisfy these requirements while maintaining a design standard that Laurier and Intent could present proudly. To produce a handbook trumpeting the virtues of designing for accessibility, it was important that we did not fall short ourselves.  


As it turns out, accessible design is actually just plain old good design, just slightly more attuned. A handy pocket book seemed like a nice idea, but there was no way we would be able to set type large enough and still have room for visuals. From there it was a matter of presenting the content and graphics in as clear a manner as possible. Are we applying ample contrast here? Is this colour being used too strategically? Should a mini glossary follow each section or become part of the appendix at the end of the book? Is this infographic presenting the data in a manner that is both clear and compelling?


Developing a publication that would be the first of its kind was another challenge. The topic of accessibility has not been covered in this type of publication before, which meant we had limited content from which to draw inspiration. Utilizing the 'what, where, why, when and how' structure helped maintain relevance throughout and provide an easy-to-follow roadmap for the audience: organizations facing their own accessible website challenges.


Given the size of the organization, risk mitigation tactics were used to reign in the approvals process. Allowing ample time in the schedule was key to obtaining the 'go ahead' from the various stakeholders.


Environmental responsibility is one of Laurier’s guiding principles so the handbook was printed with FSC certified papers. The handbook was printed with ink made from vegetable sources and alcohol-free press dampening systems were used. The printer also used a chemistry-free computer to plate system, eliminating the use of developer and fixer that results in zero toxic waste from the plate-making process.


“Because the project was all about accessibility, the design had to put into practice what the contents were preaching so the handbook is clear and easy to navigate. The project also had to be about Laurier without being for a Laurier audience so the designers used elements of our institution’s branding—our colours and fonts—without making it look like an internal document: I was really impressed with the way that balance was achieved.


“This project has allowed Laurier to promote accessibility while showcasing its renewed website to a wide audience: the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario has referred this resource to other organizations in the province, it is available through the Council of Ontario Universities’ website, and it was shared at a national conference on IT in higher education.” - Lynn Kane, Coordinator, Laurier’s Diversity and Equity Office 


Designer Takeaways

  1. People with disabilities and their friends and family represent too large a group to ignore. The success of your marketing or design initiative could be riding on how accessible it is.
  2. Ditch any negative preconceptions about the aesthetics of accessibility – it can still look great!
  3. Designing for accessibility means applying a great deal of audience empathy – approaching other projects that may have less of an accessibility focus with this same sensitivity can only serve to improve that work as well.

Client Takeaways
  1. There is no way to successfully complete a project like this without the involvement of people from your community with disabilities. If you’re going to do good work, you’ve got to make sure you’re involving your community in the project.
  2. Hire designers with shared values: knowing that Intent 'got it' with respect to accessibility, the client for this project didn’t have to worry that they’d propose designs that would be contrary to these values.
  3. Make open communication a priority. Communicating delays with the design team up front can open the door for them to provide helpful workarounds and solutions. Designers are problem solvers.

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