Many designers who think they’re creating accessible InDesign files and PDFs really aren’t. Other designers, who are looking for help with document accessibility, don’t understand the process, which can cost their clients. Find out 9 InDesign accessibility mistakes designers make and how to correct them.
I decided to do an episode on this because I do a lot of InDesign file remediation. That means I am taking InDesign files from designers and creative agencies and fixing them to be accessible.
I’m covering only 9 mistakes here, but there are a lot of others.
I’m not trying to shame anyone for making these mistakes. I’m just trying to get designers to understand these important points because, unfortunately, most designers think they’re creating accessible files when they truly aren’t.
There are also a ton of misconceptions about document accessibility and all that’s involved in the process. I want to clear up some of that confusion.
Mistake #1: Thinking accessibility is the end of the line
A huge misconception that designers have about accessibility is that it’s the last part of the design and layout process—that accessibility is a button that gets pushed at the end of the process.
I often get, “Hi, Colleen. I need you to make this file accessible. Here’s the file with everything approved by the client.”
Is that a problem? Not for me, but it is for you and your client.
Can I still help? Yes, but this is not an efficient process.
First off, I often have to modify colors or redo the design to work with the existing color palette. This costs the end client not only more money but more time—and it doesn’t make you look good if you’re the one who created these files.
Second, I often have to redo—from scratch—many long, complex documents, which costs the end client several times what it would have had the designer designed with accessibility in mind from the beginning.
Sometimes clients will ask me why the designer didn’t know how to do this in the first place. I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus. But I have to explain how this process works too.
Integrating accessibility into the process is key. I tell designers to bring me in early on, at the design stage, to review the cover design before they send it to the client and have them approve it.
If they want to design some of the pages in the document, like how the table of contents will look or the first page of every section, then I tell them to go ahead and set that up. Then I’ll take their InDesign file and do all the layout based on those designs.
That's more efficient and cost effective than providing a fully done, approved file that I have to fix or redo.
Mistake #2: Not using InDesign properly
Many designers don’t use InDesign properly, which is a huge problem for accessibility because how you set up the file affects how the PDF will be read—or not—by a screen reader.
Much of the time, I get files from designers who’ve been using InDesign for 20 years. Some of them tell me they think their files are set up pretty well and they don’t expect that I will have to change much. When I look at their files, it’s a completely different story.
Just because you’ve been using InDesign for 10 or 20 years does not mean you’ve been using it correctly. Years of experience mean nothing in this case.
The other day, I consulted with a designer who’s been using InDesign for a year. She is self-taught. She learned InDesign from the Adobe InDesign book. Let me tell you, her InDesign skills are better than 99% of the designers out there. I was really impressed!
The other thing is, if you can get the InDesign skills down really well, then addressing accessibility is far easier. You’ll also save a ton of time in your workflow. I mean, even when we’re not creating accessible files—which is very rare—we still use the same workflow sans the accessibility-specific stuff.
Using the features of the software properly goes a long way.
One feature I see underutilized in InDesign is the master pages. A lot of designers also don’t use master page features properly.
I once got a 300-page file that had page numbers added manually. I can't even imagine how long that took. Why not put one text frame with an automatic page number on a master page?
Table of Contents
Using InDesign properly also means using the automated table of contents feature to build the table of contents.
Honestly, I can't understand why designers do this by hand. It leaves so much room for error in case the page count or a heading changes. You have to remember to manually change something in two places.
It's also very time consuming. If you ever have to redo the table of contents, you might as well have taken the time to build it right the first time, which isn’t a lot of time at all.
Paragraph styles are a huge issue. Most designers do their darnedest to avoid creating paragraph styles! They think they take too long to set up.
I know, I know. It slows you down. But no! Set your default styles, which you have to do with no documents open. Then they will always be there when you create a new document from that point on. I just did a session on this issue at CreativePro Week 2021.
With accessibility, you need to use paragraph styles for all of your text—and I mean all of your text.
Set all the styling you want on them and change the styling per document if needed. But at least the styles are already there.
My default paragraph styles include some for headings, lists, tables, table of contents and more.
There’s really no excuse not to use them. They also make generating a table of contents—the right way—much easier.
When it comes to tables, a common mistake I see is not converting the top row to a header row. Now, in a few cases, a table may not have a header row, like if you don't have column headers on the table. It sounds confusing because the header row contains table cells that are individual column headers.
I won't get deep in the weeds with this. The point is that most tables should have a header row and most designers don't convert it to one.
I’ve also seen tables set up manually. By that, I mean someone actually painstakingly took the time to draw rules—lines—to make a table instead of creating a table. That blows my mind.
Mistake #3: Thinking an accessible InDesign file results in an accessible PDF
Another misconception is thinking an accessible InDesign file results in an accessible PDF.
I just had a client ask me to add placeholder text in part of the InDesign file I was remediating, saying they’d change that text later on and then re-export the PDF. Even though they understood I’d be providing an accessible PDF to them, they were under the impression that they could just make edits later in InDesign, re-export and have an accessible PDF.
Not only that, but they’ve done this with several files I’ve remediated for them. That means the files they provided to the client—after I provided the initial accessible PDF—were not accessible.
With accessibility, you can get the bulk of the work done in InDesign. But there is still a lot more to be done in the PDF—sometimes not that much, sometimes dozens of hours of work, depending on the length of the document and how complex it may be.
You don't just export from InDesign and—poof!—your file is accessible.
That’s not how it works. There are a lot of things that cannot be addressed in InDesign, such as:
- using certain HTML tags, as not all of them are available in InDesign;
- scoping tables;
- making certain elements, such as lines used in tables, as artifacts, which means they get ignored by screen readers;
- un-nesting certain tags such as the Table tag inside a P tag.
Mistake #4: Using InDesign’s Structure pane for tagging
Here’s another mistake I see a lot. This is done by well-meaning designers who think they’re making their files accessible.
They’ve used the Structure pane in InDesign. This shows tags, which can also be added through the Tags panel, which you get to from the Utilities > Tags menu option.
You must know that these tags have nothing to do with accessibility. They are for XML.
Tagging for accessibility gets done on the export tags.
Mistake #5: Only considering the visual design
Mistake number 5 is only considering the visual design.
Some designers may think they’re making an InDesign file accessible because they’ve checked for color contrast issues and addressed them. But addressing color contrast when designing your document is only part of the work.
There is an underlying technical structure to the file, which starts with InDesign. The work you do in InDesign creates that structure as well as the reading order that will then appear in the PDF.
For a PDF to be accessible, it must have tags. Without tags, screen readers and other assistive devices or software cannot read the document.
Whatever software you’re using, make sure it allows you to create a “tagged PDF.” You can do this from InDesign and Quark XPress. Unfortunately, Affinity Publisher currently does not offer that option.
You can also create tagged PDFs from Word and PowerPoint.
Considering only the visual design and not the file setup means you’re designing only for sighted users, which is only one of many groups of people. That leaves out people with blindness, people with mobility issues who cannot use a mouse, for example.
Mistake #6: Having insufficient or too much Alt-text
Another mistake is having insufficient or inappropriate or too much Alt-text.
By “insufficient,” I mean that the Alt-text on an infographic, for example, might be “Infographic showing the number of people with different types of disabilities.”
OK, that might be fine, but it might not be. If the information in that infographic isn’t conveyed elsewhere, then users of screen readers will not get that information. Sighted users can get that information from seeing the infographic—that is, if that information meets contrast requirements.
All users must have equal access to information.
Sometimes there is too much Alt-text. It could be a long paragraph full of data that is hard for anyone to remember. Users of screen readers can’t pause the Alt-text being voiced, so they’d have to listen repeatedly to get the information.
Mistake #7: Improper reading order
Another mistake is improper reading order.
The reading order is important because the way sighted users read a page is not how a screen reader does. You have to do things to ensure that order is correct.
I see all the time where content is out of order, so a screen reader might read something at the bottom of the page before it reads the text at the top of the page. Or maybe columns get read in the wrong order.
But the other thing I see too is designers excluding important content from the reading order. That means that they’ve artifacted important content, which means a screen reader will ignore it. This could be a logo or a sidebar, for example.
The reading order must be checked in the PDF, but it should first be addressed in InDesign with the Layers or Articles panel.
Mistake #8: Relying on Acrobat’s accessibility checker
Oh so many designers think the coast is clear if their PDF passes the Acrobat accessibility checker.
If you’re relying on this to check the accessibility of your PDFs, this is going to be a shock to you. Let me tell you: there are so many errors this checker cannot detect. It can only potentially catch about 25% to 30% of errors. It can also give false positives.
I went into some of the limitations of Acrobat’s accessibility checker in episode 88.
You’ve got to do more thorough testing, which can be done with the free PAC3 checker.
It’s Windows only though. If you’re a Mac user, you’ll need to set up a virtual machine such as Virtual Box or Bootcamp. If that’s too technical or difficult, just buy and install Parallels.
You also need to test the PDF with a screen reader.
Mistake #9: Relying on Acrobat’s Read Aloud
Speaking of screen readers… Here’s another mistake a lot of designers make: checking their PDF documents with Acrobat’s Read Aloud feature.
But Read Aloud should not be used to test a PDF!
My buddy Dax Castro is always preaching this one in his PDF Accessibility Facebook group. There are many issues with Read Aloud. It:
- does not relate structural or relationship context;
- does not voice Alt-text for figures or hyperlinks;
- does not recognize hyperlinks or associated Alt-text;
- does not identify heading or label structure;
- does not identify table columns, rows or headings.
Use a screen reader such as NVDA or JAWS. NVDA is free. Both are Windows only.
I hope these 9 InDesign accessibility mistakes were helpful for you and made you aware of any you may be making, so that you can correct them in future documents.
InDesign file accessibility is not something to just try and hope you’ll figure out on your own. It requires guidance from an expert, so that you know what you’re doing is correct.
Learn More About InDesign and PDF Accessibility
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