Accessible design doesn’t restrict creativity; it unleashes it
For ethical, legal and business reasons, it’s essential that digital products are accessible to the widest possible range of users. But doesn’t this hold designers back creatively? For The Drum's Creativity in Focus Deep Dive, Matt Gibson of agency Cyber-Duck argues that the practical constraints of accessibility can spur designers on to be more creative than ever.
Cyber-Duck on the role that accessibility plays in creativity and how marketers can get better at embedding it in design. / Viktor Forgacs via Unsplash
Picture creativity. What image springs to mind? Perhaps an artist approaching a blank canvas: a metaphor for unrestrained artistic license. In the real world of design, however, that’s vanishingly rare. Every type of designer, from architects to product designers to digital user interface (UI) designers, must deal with creative constraints from budgets, tools, materials, stakeholder input, and other factors.
Sounds dull, right? Surely if we must operate within prescribed parameters, we’ll be creatively restricted, unable to innovate or come up with original design solutions?
Constraints spark creative thinking
Research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that when there are little to no conditions on a creative project, teams become complacent, usually going with the most obvious idea. On the other end of the spectrum, if there are excessive restrictions to the point that designers no longer feel in control, creativity will indeed be stifled.
Between these two extremes, moderate creative constraints challenge teams to think beyond the obvious and experiment with diverse ways of using available resources. Creative limitations provide shape, focus, and purpose, signposting us toward the best solutions. It might seem counterintuitive that constraints can actually help us think and design more creatively, but it’s true.
During World War 2, designers Charles and Ray Eames were asked to create a lightweight, yet durable leg splint for the US Navy. To achieve this, they devised a new technique for molding plywood into curved shapes, which went on to be widely used in furniture and product design and cemented the Eameses’ place among the 20th century’s most influential creatives. The constraints of the brief were key to coming up with a creative solution, which made an impact on the world of design.
Accessibility is essential in UI design
When it comes to UI design, we’re rightly constrained by the need to make them accessible and inclusive. Global best practices like WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) provide guardrails about many aspects of UI design, from readable typefaces and straightforward layouts to colors, media types and design components like forms and headers.
In 2022, users expect excellent experiences. For public sector websites, accessibility is a legal requirement, enforced by regulations published in 2018. With a billion people worldwide having some form of disability, it’s the right thing to do ethically, as well as making good business sense; a survey found that inaccessible websites cost businesses as much as $6.9bn yearly. Accessible design creates better user experiences for everyone.
How do we strike the right balance?
The key is to find the sweet spot between meeting accessibility requirements and being imaginative within these guardrails. This can be achieved with user testing (involving users with different accessibility needs throughout the design process), close collaboration between teams, and a bit of out-of-the-box thinking.
Mailchimp’s UI shows it’s possible for designers to create beautiful, distinctive solutions while remaining well within the guidelines of accessibility. They add creativity with original illustrations and a quirky serif typeface for larger headings. These creative elements are incorporated in a simple, user-friendly layout, with accessible supporting fonts and high-contrast colors.
During Cyber-Duck’s work with Sport England, we were constrained by the need to help users navigate a lengthy alphabetical list. The solution was a sticky navigation bar of letters at the top of the page that enabled users to jump to specific sections. The final design is visually appealing and brand-appropriate, while staying within the parameters of accessibility.
Embrace the creative challenge
Accessibility doesn’t have to be seen as a limitation; instead, it should be embraced as a wonderful aspect of what it means to be a designer. Not only do we get to create visuals that look amazing, but we can help solve real-world problems and help users to reach their goals. In the end, it’s about helping people, and isn’t that what design and creativity are all about?
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Established in 2005, Cyber-Duck is a leading digital agency that works with exciting startups and global brands such as Cancer Research Technology, The European Commission and Arsenal FC. As a full service digital agency, Cyber-Duck offers creative, technical and marketing services all under one roof. The company blends an ISO-accredited user-centred design process with lean and agile management principles, drawing on investment in creative R&D.Find out more