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The next big thing: universal design

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People often ask what I think is the next big thing in design, and many expect I’ll talk about a colour scheme, a typeface, or a material. Ten years ago when I first started speaking at design conferences I was saying that the next big thing would be the environment, and the transition that design would take to embrace our culpability in a growing environmental and consumerist crisis. Though entertained, many thought I was crazy, and so I would spend over 20 minutes convincing people that there was a link between graphic design, consumerism and the environmental crisis.

Today, of course, green is mainstream, and if not how we roll in every design studio then at least it’s a theme in every design school and most conferences. In fact, sustainability has reached the point where we’ve just established our global jury for Icograda’s global sustainability standard, but I’ll tell you more on that later.

This blog is about the next big thing and that will absolutely be universal design.

When we design for the extremes, everyone benefits. And being the first generation of designers who have the option to publish everything digitally, this also represents the most profound opportunity in history for enabling content for persons with disabilities. I think more people have been liberated in the last 30 years through information technology than all the wars and revolutions in human history.

For me, making online documents accessible represents the most pragmatic example of how design can do good in our times.

I’m often asked why web accessibility matters so much, and why people should care; why people should bother making sure their web presences and documents are accessible. In Ontario today the simple answer is, legislation tells us we have to. Ontario (and thus Canada) leads the world in being the first jurisdiction that has passed regulations saying that not just government but the private sector and NGO sectors must update their Web presence to publish to minimum international standards of Web accessibility.

Shameless plug: I’ve put together a one-day crash course that takes you through why Web accessibility matters, what the major issues are, and how to make your clients’ web presences and documents accessible.

We focus on WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA standards because that’s the standard that the Canadian Government has chosen for its new standard, that’s the standard that provinces like Ontario’s AODA call for, and it’s the standard the governments around the world are choosing as well. When you learn this, you’ll learn the standard that everyone in the world is heading towards.

The most important point I want to share is that accessibility matters to everyone. When we know how to make content accessible for the extremes, and we do it well, we make content more usable for everyone.

A more usable site is going to make it more likely that your entire audience is going to connect with your messages. And that includes Google: Google is the most frequent visitor to your site, and Google has severe visual, auditory, and cognitive impairments. When you follow the accessibility standards, all search engines will understand and index your content and your site structure better.

If you can get your audience to support themselves by going to the site, you can drive down your support costs, as well as having more satisfied customers. Why wouldn’t you want that?

I really enjoy teaching this stuff: it’s fascinating and educational for both people in management, as well as IT professionals. I find people come out of this course excited, motivated, and entertained. Most important they’re educated, and the information sticks.

If you’re a designer, an IT professional, a programmer, a designer, a webmaster, anyone with a stake in the bottom line of your organization, please join me at one of our upcoming events on my seven-city tour in Ontario.

We can design in a way that leaves no one behind. Including designers who risk missing one of the best opportunities of a lifetime to create a better world while delivering highly profitable work.

So join me: we have comprehensive schedule of upcoming courses, including our November 19 Web accessibility seminar at Design City 2012 in Toronto (your registration includes free admission to all three days of Design City and Print World). There’s a discount for RGD, GDC, EAC, PPPC, and IABC members for all these events, and they are elegible for continuuing education credits for some association.

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Reviewed October 25, 2012


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