Accessibility Is Essential To A Sustainable Design Approach. Here’s Why

Images: Google Creatability Experiments

With brands looking to better communicate their sustainability strategies, considering the accessibility of this information is essential in creating transparency. Eco-Age’s multimedia designer Sophie Parsons shares a few design basics to get started with.

Last month sportswear brand Nike launched its first hands-free shoe, an ‘easy on, easy off’ design that allows users to click into the trainer without needing to bend down to secure laces or straps. With the hope of making footwear more widely accessible, the GO FlyEase was designed with multiple users in mind: people with limited range of motion, a parent with their hands full or those who are simply in a rush. The innovation comes after Matthew Walzer, a teenager with Cerebal Palsy, wrote to Nike in 2012 asking for a shoe that could better serve his dream of going to college and independently putting on his shoes.

Designing with diversity, inclusion and equality in mind is fundamental for implementing a sustainable business model. As evidenced in Goal Ten of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, ‘reduced inequalities and ensuring no one is left behind is integral’ to the achievement of the SDGs by 2030. For product, graphic and fashion designers alike, designing for accessibility means understanding, and prioritising, usability over all else. As emphasised in a report by the UN, ‘accessible and usable environments are non-excludable – accessibility benefits all.’ The report iterates the importance of ‘universal design’, a concept described as being an ‘orientation to design’ best employed through equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptive information, tolerance for error, low physical effort and ease, regardless of size and space.

Accessibility is an essential aspect of product design – but communicating with accessibility in mind is perhaps less of an immediate priority for brands. Communicating a company’s sustainability work through its digital platforms is an integral step towards increasing transparency and consequently, consumer trust. And while the crux of it is what is being said, designers must better consider how it is being said and consequently understood in order to reach a truly global audience. Here are three key aspects of digital design to keep in mind to make your company’s communications as accessible as its products.

Image: Nike GOFlyease
Image: Gucci Equilibrium

Legibility and Usability

The concept and subsequent success of readability is defined by Edgar Dale and Jeanne Chall as being: ‘the extent to which [readers] understand it, read it at an optimal speed, and find it interesting.’ How then, can designers work within branding guidelines to best communicate in a way that is both visual and accessible? Fortunately, as the Axess Lab so perfectly puts it, fonts don’t matter; rather it is how they have been implemented and installed that can determine a product’s inclusivity.

With typography, size is the perfect place to start. Axess Lab’s advice is to ‘pick a font size you think is nice, then make it at least two pixels bigger.’ Breathing space, be it through line height or the page’s structure, are crucial to creating a reader-friendly design. Headings, sub-headings and short paragraphs; infographics, illustrations and imagery; shorter line lengths and wider line heights are all subtle design elements through which a block of text can be better communicated.

When designing for web, widgets and plugins can help to allow for a degree of agency and personability. Atmos, a climate and culture magazine, offers users the ability to control the size of the text on its online platform, opening up the sustainability conversation to a much wider and more diverse audience. Captioning is another means through which inclusivity can be achieved, with Instagram having rolled out the use of AI-automated subtitles to IGTV just recently. Installed with engagement in mind, captioning videos has been proven to increase engagement rates by up to 15%, proving the UN’s findings that accessibility really does benefit all.

Consider Colour

Achieving accessibility through colour comes down to one simple concept – contrast. Developed by W3C, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines state that contrast ratios begin at 1:1, with no obvious difference between colours, and reach 21:1, the highest difference possible. Unlike that of type manipulation, creating an inclusive colour pallet must be considered during a brand’s very first design phases. Online tools such as Who Can Use and Google’s Colour Contrast Checker can help to provide designers with the means to explore how inclusive your desired colour pallet really is. The site not only suggests the overarching contrast ratio, but also simulates the reality of the design for a range of sight impairments.

Image: Colour Contrast Checker
Images: Google Creatability Experiments

As evidenced with Gucci Equilibrium’s rebrand, opting for bright and subsequently accessible colours doesn’t have to mean forgoing contemporary design. The luxury fashion brand’s high contrast neon blues and greens against stark black lines is designed with inclusivity in mind. Exploring the site, colour contrast is a prevalent feature that graphically indicates navigation and selection through a high contrast inversion of colours.

Creative Solutions

As so well evidenced with Gucci’s online sustainability platform, usability doesn’t come at the cost of contemporary aesthetics. Rather, creative tools and thinking can be instilled to inject a degree of innovation into the design practice. Creatability is a Google platform with exactly this in mind, offering an insight into how motion, sound and visualisation can offer a more wholistic experience of music and creativity. Instruments are played through eye tracking rather than hand movements, drawings can be created through hearing pitch rather than viewed, sound is visualised rather than heard.

The search term “adaptive clothing” saw an increase of 80% over 2019, and the likes of Nike’s GO FlyEase and Adidas by Stella McCartney’s post-mastectomy sports bra are hopefully progressing the much-needed conversation of inclusivity within sustainable fashion. In early 2020, Tommy Hilfiger became the first mainstream fashion brand to launch an adaptive clothing line, with Zendaya’s GCFA-recognised collaboration featuring ten adaptive styles. As accredited by Vogue Business, the predicted $400 billion market for adaptive clothing needs to remain fashion-forward, as well as functional – and so too do brand’s online communications. For true progress in design accessibility, the industry needs to see more brands investing in effective and adaptable technologies to empower all customers at every step of their journey. Web design is just the start.