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  • Julia Woollams

Accessibility and aesthetics

Recently I was sitting in a restaurant, and when it came to reading the menu – even with glasses – I couldn’t make out any of the dish names. Admittedly the lighting was low, the type under 11pt and coloured grey, but it got me thinking that if I have trouble accessing something as basic as a menu when I’m in my early 40s and only have a 0.75 glasses prescription, then what must it be like for other people with accessibility needs?

Then there’s my face cream. It is cream for a ‘certain aged’ person, so why would it be packaged in a way that makes my day and night cream indistinguishable in evening light? Most nights before bed you’d find me peering at both pots under a bedside lamp to make out the writing. That was until I took the design into my own hands…

Of course as designers we should always consider how accessible our designs are for the intended audiences, but how often do we make an aesthetic choice that’s detrimental to accessibility?


When starting out, as part of a junior design team, my partner and I seriously pitched to our creative director that a whole arts brochure should be set in 9pt magenta type. I think he may have discarded the idea before presenting to the client.


These days I hope I am more aware of the audience, and several projects I have worked on in recent years have had a strong focus on accessible graphic design.


How often do we make an aesthetic choice that’s detrimental to accessibility?

Creating accessible graphic design can feel daunting as there are a wide variety of individual needs to consider. However, nowadays, especially with digital design, computers make it easier to design with accessibility in mind, with tools to test colour for different sight issues, and websites that use text hierarchies so screen readers can help a user navigate. Designing clear user journeys and being mindful of typographic styles and hierarchies are vital for certain neurodiversities, but also make communication clearer for everyone.


I was interested to find out from some of my clients and collaborators how important accessibility is for them when commissioning graphic design, as well as whether they think the aesthetics of a design could be compromised by accessible design choices and more importantly vice versa.

B Atherton

Co-founder and co-director of Turf Projects


Turf Projects is an artist-led space in Croydon.

B is responsible for much of Turf's visual identity.



Julia: How important is accessibility for you when creating graphic design to communicate Turf's projects?


B: We try to work with an access-first approach. Knowing even very basic principles of accessible design will help enormously, and these 'restrictions' can push you to find creative ways to meet the challenge of that balance you might not have discovered otherwise. And it's obvious, but as with anything you're trying to make purposeful for a certain demographic of human; discuss these things with people with access needs and find out what they think.


Finding the balance between functionality and aesthetic is a real challenge, especially when you're trying to capture the vibe of something as frequently intangible as an exhibition concept can be.

Julia: Do you sometimes find that graphic designers compromise accessibility for aesthetics?


B: Within the artist-led spaces, people are often working towards tight budgets and therefore necessarily a lot of exhibition posters are created by artists themselves. Unfortunately a good visual artist does not necessarily a good designer make (though don't get me started on the impostor syndrome of not being a 'formally trained' designer...)!


I find visual artists often approach posters considering them pieces of art or from an experimental angle, rather than functional objects. Finding the balance between functionality and aesthetic is a real challenge, especially when you're trying to capture the vibe of something as frequently intangible as an exhibition concept can be (and especially if you're working to a timeframe where you don't even really know what the exhibition is going to look like yet!)


Jill Hogan

Founder of Hogan Marketing Communications


Jill is a senior marketing communications consultant with two decades of experience spanning the arts, design, education and business sectors. Jill has led strategic branding projects, marketing communications programmes, multi-channel campaigns and large-scale events for the likes of Arts Council England, Ravensbourne University London, Mozilla Foundation, and Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust. Jill runs her own consultancy Hogan Marketing Communications and works with a wide range of charity, public sector, SME clients as well as collaborating with a range of creative design and branding agencies.



Julia: How important is accessibility for you when briefing a graphic designer on a project?


Jill: It’s incredibly important. But the what and the how very much depends on the client and the nature of the project. I work with a range of public sector and charity clients for whom there are – quite rightly – established visual and verbal accessibility guidelines that have to be followed. I think more and more organisations and businesses are prioritising accessibility in their brand communications, and that is a very good thing.


It might seem an obvious point, but the simple fact is that you should always communicate in ways your audience can easily digest. I mean, why wouldn’t you? It’s counterproductive otherwise. When I write copy, I try to make it clear, concise and easy to understand. I want any design to follow suit, facilitating the communication not getting in the way of it. So accessibility is a key part of my brief to any graphic designer.


The simple fact is that you should always communicate in ways your audience can easily digest.

Julia: Do you sometimes find that graphic designers compromise accessibility for aesthetics?


Jill: I do, especially in print design as it can often be driven by page counts and budgets and the need to keep both down. It’s also easy for type to look good in 9pt on a content-heavy spread rather than 12pt!


I always discuss accessibility requirements up front with any designer before starting work, and if there’s ever any conflict then I support by revisiting the expectations of the client and finding an appropriate compromise on pagination, word count or cost (but never on accessibility considerations). To be honest, I’ve worked with very few designers who don’t get it, and most are able to produce beautiful results within the strictest of accessibility guidelines.

Beth Watson and Pippa Sa

Co-directors of Bechdel Theatre


Bechdel Theatre is a grassroots community interest company that supports, connects and amplifies people of marginalised genders in and through theatre and performance. They create and facilitate physical and digital spaces to increase visibility, build solidarity and radically re-imagine the possibilities of UK theatre.



Julia: How important is accessibility for you when commissioning graphic design?

Beth and Pippa: As an organisation that exists to support, amplify and connect people who experience multiple forms of marginalisation, accessibility is essential to absolutely everything we do.

One of our roles in the sector where we work is to advocate for live theatre and performance that's open to everyone, not just the most privileged people in society. This includes celebrating progress towards better access for disabled artists and audiences.

As neurodivergent theatre-makers and theatre-lovers, we have lived experience of how vital it is to have our access needs met, and what a difference it makes when access is offered pro-actively, rather than having to be fought for. Because of this, we make it our mission to learn about other people's experiences and needs, so we can do our bit to champion the big changes and small adjustments that make the arts more accessible for more people.

It's therefore of utmost importance that we're always making an effort to think about, listen to, and accommodate other people's access requirements. We know everything is a learning-curve, and we won't always get everything right first-time, but we believe that if we're not at least considering access within our own work, then – to put it bluntly – we're not doing our job properly!

When we work with designers, we put accessibility as a key headline in our brief. We only want to work with designers who are either experienced in accessible design, or are keen to learn and practice how to incorporate accessibility guidelines.

This is not just about meeting our legal obligation, but about living up to our values as a grassroots community organisation.


There's a huge disparity out there, ranging from designers who've done a great job of putting access first, to those who clearly haven't thought about it at all.

Julia: Do you sometimes find that graphic designers compromise accessibility for aesthetics?

Beth and Pippa: Having recently had our website and visual identity completely redesigned, we've spent many hours over the past year looking closely at the designs being used by our peers, as well as much bigger organisations, and it has to be said there's a huge disparity out there, ranging from designers who've done a great job of putting access first, to those who clearly haven't thought about it at all.

Our experiences, observations, and learning so far:

1 –

  • It’s not always the most established and well-funded organisations who have the most accessible designs. It's up to every organisation to ensure that accessibility is a headline in your brief – whatever your budget!

  • Before hiring designers for our recent rebrand we asked around for recommendations from organisations of a similar size to ours who share our values.

  • We checked in with our peers who'd worked with designers recently, asking "What did they know about accessibility?". As well as looking for designers whose work fit the aesthetics of our company, we wanted to be confident when briefing designers that they would be equipped to achieve a certain level of accessibility possible within our budget.

2 –

  • Even the prettiest designs become ugly when they're inaccessible! In our own experience (we both have conditions which affect our processing) if we're finding it hard to read or interpret a logo (because of the contrast level, colour, size or style of font), or we're struggling to focus while reading a website (because the text is surrounded by scrolling galleries of pictures that we can't press pause on), then we're unlikely to find it an enjoyable experience - regardless of whether the font colours used are our favourites, or the photos are the most beautiful artworks imaginable.

3 –

  • Like aesthetics, access is a personal thing. Remember that nothing can be accessible to everyone, but we can make informed choices based on prioritising what we know about our audience's needs and preferences.

  • Aesthetically, one person might find monochromatic designs chic, whilst another person will find them boring. Figuring out how your audience is likely to feel is a collaboration between the designer and client.

  • Likewise, colour schemes that help a dyslexic person might make life harder for someone with colour-blindness. Figuring out which colours might work well for both groups of people, or how you might build in a range of options (for example adding filters) will help both designer and client make decisions to support more people with different types of needs.

Although aesthetics are vital to design, access must ultimately underpin every aesthetic choice.

When weighing up our own aesthetic preferences with our target audience's access needs, we tried to keep one key thought in mind: Whether your logo is seen as 'boring’ or ‘chic' is not really relevant if the person looking at your logo literally can't read the words it's representing because of the colours used. Therefore, although aesthetics are vital to design, access must ultimately underpin every aesthetic choice.

Thank you to B, Jill, Beth and Pippa for chatting with me.


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