Design+ Accessible Design

In this first instalment of the RGD's new Design+ series, Amy Eaton RGD interviews Jolene MacDonald, founder of Accessibrand™, on best practices and the future of accessible design. 


How did you identify accessibility as your focus?
Based on personal experience and advocacy (both my youngest daughter and myself have disabilities), I realized how much accessibility is an afterthought in all design processes - from the built environment to digital experiences. Accessibility seems to often appear as an add-on to projects when in reality it should be part of the design process from the beginning.
Did you take any specific accessibility training that you would recommend to others?
Currently there’s no specific certification courses. I’ve taken AODA Workplace well-being, two from the Province of Ontario and Adobe Tutorials. Some of our team has taken other courses such as ones by David Berman RGD. The majority of my personal training is from learned experience and self-taught training. I also sit on Accessibility Committees and learn through peers. This link may also be helpful.
Have you noticed a change in the approach to accessible design in the last five years?
Absolutely! More colleges and universities are teaching the importance of inclusion and accessibility in curriculums. The media has been picking up on it also. Software companies are integrating more into their platforms. But we still have a long way to go. Many companies that are not mandated to comply don’t feel they want to invest in it to fix existing issues - as it’s not a requirement, but they are missing out on an untapped market. And it's just good business! Beginning January 1, 2021, in Ontario, all public websites and web content posted after January 1, 2012 must meet WCAG 2.0 Level AA other than criteria 1.2.4 (live captions) and 1.2.5 (pre-recorded audio descriptions). Here is a link to the Provincial page.
You mentioned the new AODA mandates, what changes can designers expect? Do you have any resources you could share?
Designers should be learning as much as they can. The RGD has a great resource that should be reviewed at least once a year. Designers who develop for the web should also read over the WCAG guidelines. Two of our team mates worked together to make a simpler version of WCAG.
Most importantly, designers need to think about the human interaction of anything they design. What is the process, who could be using it - could they be blind, deaf or have a cognitive impairment? We need to think outside of ourselves and what we like.
What are some strategies to help clients take accessibility more seriously?
Many accessibility-based companies can be heavy-handed, using fear tactics or presenting doomsday scenarios to non-compliant businesses. The fines are certainly heavy ($50,000-$100,000 per day) so understandably everyone should be concerned. Our approach is focused on education and empathy. Because our team/staff have all been impacted by disability, we are able to speak from personal experience and explain how these impact us. We discuss how our clients would feel knowing a customer might not be able to use their website or marketing materials just because they haven't didn’t bothered to update their website and we also outline the possible fines. Showing clients statistics also helps. 6.2 million Canadians identify as having a disability. That’s a large piece of the market they may be missing for sales. None of us are immune to disability and, at some point in our lives, disability will impact us all.
At what stage should designers start thinking about the accessibility of their work?
As soon as your project starts! Drill this into your brains: remember that everyone matters and should be able to access your marketing, digital experiences, etc. Disability can affect us all at any time in our lives - young and old. Don’t design something so that you have to go back to try and fix a problem later if you can address it at the start.
What are some best practices all designers should be implementing?
When starting a project - think about how someone will interact with it. Then think about potential traits of disabilities - visual impairments, cognitive disorders, neurodiversity, hearing impairments and physical disabilities. Will they be watching it? Do they have to hear to it? Is it interactive? 
Some basic points that are important to remember are:
  • Write in plain language
  • Avoid contrast issues with colour
  • Keep layout simple and uncomplicated
  • Watch font sizes
  • Layouts should be linear and logical
  • Always offer options for support
What are the largest mistakes you find designers make when designing for accessibility?
I find the biggest issue is designing based on what we, as designers like, instead of what’s right for the client and their customers. Sometimes we want something to be cutting edge and we don’t stop to think about how someone will interact with a product. We want to push the design boundaries, but there is a time and place for that. And that generally is not in customer-facing design. We need to think more about human-centred design. Complicated navigation, layouts and busy graphics may look great, but for individuals who have a disability, these may cause them further impairment and an inability to make a purchase or contact a service.
Do you believe colleges and other post secondary institutions have a duty to educate the next generation of creatives about accessibility best practices?
Absolutely! If we don’t make it part of learning, how will it become best practice? Accessibility should become as common as knowing how to kern! 
What do you think will be the future of design or the next big thing?
That’s hard to say. As designers, we want to make things fancy and exciting, or visually amazing - but the truth of graphic design is it’s the art of business. If you can’t successfully create marketing materials for a business or organization that everyone can access, that is not successful design. The future will need to be simpler and more direct - but it that doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful design. 
What's next for accessible design? Are there any tools, practices or technologies that you think will change the nature of this discipline?
We will see our design software become more integrated to address accessibility. There have been a lot of add-ons and afterthoughts to ‘patch’ up technology but the truth is nothing will take the place of doing live user testing. That’s why we offer that service. Wordpress ‘overlays’ for accessibility, or a program stating you are Level AA compliant may still not be truly compliant depending on the experience of an actual user. The more we discuss it, educate ourselves and learn, the more our industry will change. 
As an advocate for accessibility, do you have any tips that allies can use outside of work?
I think it’s important that we always try to put ourselves in other people's shoes. Try and use assistive devices yourself. Turn on accessibility options on your devices; it will make you realize how hard it can be to navigate something that we may think is simple. Empathy through design is really the key. It’s not about us; it’s about everyone else. 
One last fun question, who is your favourite creative to follow right now?
I don’t have just one. I do love to see all the new student work. I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in portfolio reviews for over 10 years. Seeing fresh minds and their visions helps me to improve my own skills. You never stop learning!
Jolene MacDonald is an award-winning designer, creative director and illustrator. She has been working in the design and marketing industry for over 20 years. In 2017 she founded Accessibrand and in 2020 relaunched as a virtual full service disability collective focused on accessibility. As an advocate for good design, Jolene guides clients as they make accessibility and inclusion part of their strategy.