Design Domination Podcast Episode #76: Are Your Designs Solving or Causing Problems?

Graphic design is all about solving a particular problem, communicating and evoking a certain feeling. But those efforts fall short when you don’t consider how potentially 20% of your client’s audience cannot read or access the information because of design or file setup issues. That leaves a bad impression. Are your designs solving or causing problems?

Graphic design is all about solving a particular problem, communicating and evoking a certain feeling. But those efforts fall short when you don’t consider accessibility and how potentially 20% of your client’s audience cannot read or access the information because of design or file setup issues. That leaves a bad impression.

I didn’t know what accessibility even was until my accessibility mentor, Bevi Chagnon of PubCom, contacted me about her accessibility class. That was in 2016.

I became very passionate about this issue because it’s really crazy to think that for a long time, so many people have not been able to access documents (or websites) because accessibility is overlooked.

And that’s really sad because:

  • Design is about communication. So that’s a huge failure, a huge gap in the industry when we create content that so many people cannot access in full, in part or at all.
  • Accessibility is the right thing to do.
  • Anyone could suffer a temporary or permanent disability at any time. What would you say then?

Remember the days of visiting websites that said the site was best viewed in Internet Explorer or after installing Flash? Really? How annoying!

So, wait. I have to go install another browser or install Flash to be able to access this website? Next!

That is horrendous usability, and usability, my friend, is not just about websites!

This is our chance as designers to step up, educate clients about this and not only reach more people but help clients get better results from our work—whether that’s branding, a document, a website or an app.

After all, that’s what it’s all about! Communication and results. And if someone cannot get your information, how effective is that design?

Who Is Affected

Not everyone uses a mouse or clicks, swipes or taps to go to the next page in an electronic document or to go to a hyperlink, for example. Some might use the keyboard, some might use an assistive device or software, which we call assistive technology.

Sighted Keyboard Users

Some sighted users may use the keyboard to get around a document and to tab to interactive elements, such as hyperlinks and form fields. They may use the keyboard instead of a mouse because they have decreased fine-motor skills, which means they might find it hard to position the mouse on a precise point.

But some people prefer the keyboard because of speed. I use the keyboard, including keyboard shortcuts, to navigate a document or website quite a bit, and I don’t have any physical issue with using a mouse. I find the keyboard much faster than having to use the mouse in many cases.

Some people may use a trackball or even a sip-and-puff system, where they breathe into a device that sends signals to the computer.

People With Visual Disabilities

People with blindness and many with low vision or who are legally blind use a screen reader, which voices out the content to them—but that only works when the document is accessible.

These aren't small numbers. Low vision alone affects 2.2 billion people worldwide and may be the result of macular degeneration, cataract, diabetic retinopathy or glaucoma, to name a few.

Some users may have color blindness. They may have difficulty distinguishing between different colors such as blue and green or yellow and pink, or distinguishing brightness or shades of colors.

People With Cognitive, Learning and Neurological Disabilities

People with a cognitive, learning or neurological disability may use a screen reader to help with comprehension. Some of these disabilities include:

  • autism,
  • dyslexia,
  • Down syndrome,
  • multiple sclerosis,
  • traumatic brain injury and
  • epilepsy.

Issues They Encounter

Now let’s talk about what can happen when these individuals encounter an inaccessible document.

No Content

The first is they may find no content.

Could you imagine buying a book—printed, PDF or EPUB—and opened it, only to find it was blank inside?

That is what some users experience when designers use design software that doesn’t allow for a tagged PDF to be exported. A tagged PDF means that assistive technology can read it because there is a structure.

When you export to a PDF that doesn’t include tags, that content is not accessible—not readable, not voiceable—to someone using assistive technology such as a screen reader.

Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress allow you to create tagged PDFs, but, sadly, as of right now, Affinity Publisher does not. I do hope that will change, especially because many designers have switched to it.

So you have to start with software that will allow you to have this essential underlying structure.

Incorrect Reading Order

Now imagine you buy a book—again, print or electronic—and you go to read a page that has some body text then a table and a table footnote below the table.

Sighted readers see these elements in that order and therefore read it in that order. Meanwhile, someone using a screen reader hears things out of order. Maybe they hear the table footnote first, then the body text, then the table. It’s utter chaos.

Not only that, but the table rows read out of order, and they cannot tell what the information in the table cells refers to because the table is not set up properly.

Let’s say you’ve got three columns on a page, and you read them left to right. But in an inaccessible file, maybe column 2 gets read first, then column 1 then column 3.

Again, the content is not understandable.

The placement of elements on a page helps sighted readers understand the reading order. That is not how it works for everyone.

That is just the design, just the layout. That has nothing to do with the underlying structure of the document.

Incorrect Tab Order

Incorrect tab order can be an issue.

Let’s say you have a PDF with form fields for someone to fill out. Imagine how confusing it would be if you were to use the Tab key to tab to the various form fields and they tab in the wrong order, say, from the first one to the third one, then the 10th one.

Users of assistive technology will be even more confused.

Interrupted Reading Order

OK, so onto my next point, interrupted reading order.

You know how a printed book might have a running header or footer (meaning the book’s title and/or chapter name and the page number at the top and bottom of every page)?

Well, what if you were to read those as if they were part of the body text, like read them as you read page by page?

That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Of course it is. We wouldn’t do that. Those are there just to guide us or let us know where we are in the book.

But when designers don’t properly set up their layout files, this is what someone who uses a screen reader or other type of assistive technology may encounter when reading the PDF that was exported from the page layout software.

In other words, they might hear the name of the book or chapter and page number after a paragraph ends or—hey—even in the middle of a sentence.

Let’s say toward the bottom of a page, just above the centered page number, is the start of a new paragraph, “The quick brown fox.” At the top of the next page, the sentence continues, saying “jumped over the lazy dog.”

If the document hasn’t been set up properly, someone using a screen reader will hear “The quick brown fox 5 jumped over the lazy dog.”

The page number—5—interrupted the sentence.

Extraneous Content

Now let’s say you’re reading a publication—print or electronic—where the design includes some decorative borders between the main sections.

When you read from section to section, you don’t stop and say to yourself “a decorative divider appears here” and then continue onto the next section.

Of course not. You don’t read it at all. You don’t pay any attention to it. And why not? Because it’s decorative.

In fact, it doesn’t even matter if it’s there on the page or not because you can still understand the content on the page without it.

When you create electronic documents and don’t address these types of design elements properly, then they may get described by the assistive technology that someone may be using. In other words, they may interfere.

Difficulty Understanding the Document Structure and Finding Content

Here’s another scenario. You know how a lot of publications have a table of contents? It makes it easy to find what you’re looking for whether it’s a printed book and you just need to flip to that page, or it’s an electronic publication with a clickable, hyperlinked table of contents.

But when there is no table of contents—or there is one but it hasn’t been set up properly in an electronic document—someone using assistive technology may not be able to find what they’re looking for, or they may have a difficult time doing so.

Also, sighted readers are able to visually scan the headings in a document or a publication and skip to where they want to go quickly. Readers with low vision may have trouble with this if there isn't sufficient contrast between the text and the background.

People with blindness or those with low vision who use a screen reader may be unable to tell what’s a main heading, a chapter heading, a section heading or subheading and how they fit into the overall hierarchy of the document.

Are they now in a new chapter, a new section or the same one they were just in?

People with a cognitive, learning or neurological disability who use a screen reader will also benefit from the proper setup.

Unreadable Content

If the contrast between the foreground and the background of any informational content is not sufficient, then readers with low vision—heck, even some fully sighted users—may be unable to read it.

I mean, I just recently came across some PDFs that used white text on a yellow background and white on a light blue background.

I’ve also seen instances of a dark gray used on a burgundy too—totally illegible.

Incomprehensible Content

You might have a document that has a pie chart. Maybe the legend of a pie chart isn’t able to be understood to someone with color blindness. They can't distinguish the colors from one another.

Maybe you have a line graph. What each line represents may be hard or impossible to understand by readers with low vision or those with color blindness.

If the document has an infographic, maybe some of the icons in it are hard to discern from the background color.

Or maybe there is an infographic that has Alt-text added to it. But does it actually convey all the information that a sighted user would get from being able to read it?

Checking Accessibility

Don’t think the Acrobat Accessibility Checker will find all accessibility issues. It won’t. It can only detect about 30% of them, and it can give false positives and negatives. Plus, there are still manual checks and some modifications to be done in the PDF. If you ever have to fix something in InDesign, you have to re-export and redo all the work in the PDF all over again.

The Client's Side

Now let's look at this from the client side of things.

Some of the work that I do includes making InDesign files for other designers and creative firms accessible. What I get quite often from them are fully designed, client-approved InDesign files. We often have to change the design or modify the color palette to make them and the exported PDF accessible.

This means the client is revisiting the design process. That costs them time and money because accessibility isn’t something to be done at the end of the process. Accessibility starts with the design and layout.


I hope this has helped you understand more how your designs and files can be made user friendly and accessible to all.

For your clients, an accessible design and document structure will enable all users to access the content regardless of type of disability or no disability at all. That can lead to increased sales or donations, more people helped by the services they provide and a better reputation.

For you, accessibility can be a game-changer! It has been for me anyway—more visibility in a sea of designers, more memorability, more respect, more value and getting better results for clients. It's also more rewarding.

Learn More About InDesign and PDF Accessibility

Get a list of InDesign and PDF accessibility tools to help you make your documents accessible and to save you time.

Download the guide


  • Designers are often called upon to solve problems. But too often, the solutions they create are not well received by users.

    A survey of 300 people found that many people experienced design-related problems including stress, frustration, and anger. Designers have a responsibility to consider the potential consequences of their designs on the user experience before they start developing visual solutions for employers or clients.

    Designers should think of how their designs solve problems and the potential consequences before executing any project.

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