As technology and media platforms have become more accessible, diversified, and prevalent for all audiences, guidelines have changed dramatically in terms of their basic structure and requirements. These new changes in requirements have in turn, and predictably, affected businesses and website creators.
Businesses and graphic designers, as well as developers are now required to create websites while adhering to ADA compliance laws. ADA stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act, and it sets the standards for what constitutes an accessible design. This is a federal law that makes it necessary for websites to be accessible and accommodating for people with disabilities. State and local government agencies, private employers, and businesses are all subject to this law, and must be in compliance. One major issue that businesses are currently experiencing when it comes to ADA compliance and the laws it is based on, is that most business owners are not familiar with them, since it is a relatively new concept to most. That being said, the danger of not being in compliance with this law is that businesses run the risk of being the subject of highly financially damaging lawsuits.
As technology becomes more advanced, it needs to become more accessible to all people, including an increasing aging population and individuals with disabilities. While the physical realm of businesses has had laws and protocols to protect and assist people with disabilities for a while now, these protocols need to be transferred to the digital realm as technology becomes more necessary and ubiquitous to everyday life. This is especially true while dealing with a global pandemic as the world has become virtually completely dependent on the internet for all forms of communication, and to a large extent, business transactions. Since a virtual presence is now indispensable, and the fact that these online presences now need to be in compliance with ADA laws, the issue is now expounded as many business owners have little or no knowledge if their websites are ADA compliant.
It’s exactly for this reason that the WCAG2 guidelines and documents are used by the law as the defacto set of rules which constitute whether or not a website, or online presence is in compliance. These guidelines incorporate the most recent rules and regulations ensuring compliance to the ADA guidelines for websites. These documents are also a way to guide graphic designers, developers, and businesses alike to develop an ADA compliant website with accessible web content for all people. This process involves both the creative side, as well as technical aspects of the website creation. The ultimate goal is to make websites more usable for people with a wide range of disabilities, while the challenge then becomes to use these rules and guidelines, but still make a website that is aesthetically pleasing and elicits a good user experience for all.
Creative aspects of website design for Graphic Artists
Graphic designers are accustomed to using various fonts, design tools, different software, color schemes, etc., to create work that captures an audience’s attention. Just like a painter with various brushstrokes, graphic designers have similar methods that elicit artistic expression, and an emotional response. Prior to the ADA compliance law, graphic designers brainstormed ideas and created out of the box work, without limitations, that would draw the attention of their targeted clients, primarily through the use of color. One of the most important lessons to learn in studio art regardless of your media or medium, is color contrast, which is when you place a vivid color next to a dull one or differing textures. The proximity of two contracting colors is frequently used in design with great success, to draw the attention of an audience, usually to signify importance. Contrast is important as it adds variation and distinction. Naturally, it draws a viewer’s eye to a particular spot or area of interest, and guides them around, acting like a map of sorts. Color contrast also strengthens the focus of a piece, and the exploration of arrangement of lights and darks, opposite hues, texture, and size.
The downside of the ADA laws is that it limits the ability to experiment with color contrast in websites freely. Obviously, this disrupts the traditional design process for graphic designers which means that more time and creative strategy must be used. Elements such as color and contrast ratios are under stricter guidelines. Graphic designers face the challenge of still being able to elicit positive aspects of color contrast with limited availability of the color spectrum.
What are the creative dangers a graphic designer experiences when complying to the ADA law?
It is very clear, as briefly mentioned above, that the WCAG2 rules, and ADA compliance in general are very constraining for graphic designers. In fact, they must follow protocols and rules for font sizes, page structure, menus, images, tables, forms, color contrast, carousels, and more. Due to these limitations, website designers often access online tutorials which dictate a specific format that a website must follow, which manipulates and incorporates text size, placement of imagery, and how elements must be structured on a page, etc. This is like instructing a painter that they can only paint with one singular style brushstroke that has to be one size, shape, color and texture. Studio is a world that has minimal constraints and artists use their freedom of expression without limitations…
Today, one of the biggest challenges for Graphic designers, as briefly aforementioned, is color. For example, due to the stringent rules and regulations of designing an ADA compliant website, a company’s logo colors may lack enough contrast between them causing the natural color flow of a website, and its various elements to not be visually accessible to all individuals. A graphic designer must therefore modify colors, or even make the distinction with the company they are working with, to change the brand colors altogether, in order for them to pass ADA requirements for individuals with visual impairments. Color contrast and the lack thereof is a common issue and complaint that comes up that is a direct consequence of the smaller spectrum of colors that can be used. By modifying colors, the ADA regulations are reducing the color spectrum that can be used to less than 50% of what would otherwise be available.
Furthermore, websites are not permitted to have subdued or vibrant colors, which drastically affects the styling of a website. There is also the predicament where one must be more conscious about the combination of text and color. An example of this is when smaller font sizes are used for specific text on a website, and are paired with a background which uses very light colors. Using larger text sizes is a good technique designers employ to help resolve these types of issues, but it is not a catch-all. Especially now with contact submission forms, a graphic designer must use heavier contrast to guide people on what to do and where to type. Thus, ensuring compliance from a graphic design standpoint is an extremely time consuming process, especially when they run into complications, or added complexities delivered by their clients, who can, for example, insist on the use of downloadable documents that are not ADA compliant.
On top of all of the color contrast challenges a designer must face when designing an ADA compliant website, another thing they need to keep in mind is animations. Animation is extremely restricted when it comes to ADA regulations, and this has the downside that websites are not as creative, and lose some of their flash. Animated gifs are sometimes used these days on websites and it is required that a stop or pause option should be put into place so people who are reactive to moving images are not affected by this.
Ever since the implementation, and enforcement of the ADA compliance laws, a designers main focus has shifted from being freely creative, to getting users information as effectively as possible, while also being as inclusive as possible, and thus maintaining compliance. This has made a graphic designer’s job much more important, while at the same time more difficult and constraining, as they are used to simply producing a design without creative limitations. On the bright side, these are challenges, and if a graphic designer is anything, they are creative, and good at overcoming challenges, and finding solutions. To add to this point, once a graphic designer figures out how to effectively design a website that is in compliance, they are not only allowing their client’s business to run within the law, but also help them market their product, service, or company to a wider audience.
Although it may be hard and there are certainly many obstacles for creating an ADA compliant website, the WCAG2 rules have been established and they need to be followed. Beyond the constricting bounds of the ADA law, a graphic designer and developer must overcome obstacles that they are not used to in the design world. Let us remember that as the world changes, technology has a greater presence and responsibility to provide for all individuals (including disabled individuals) so let us lead the way.