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How Online Accessibility Can Influence Brand Design

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When great designers design an excellent brand, very often the mandate includes a long and strong shelf life. If you need your brand to perform for at least a decade, you’ll want to build accessibility into its core attributes. This way you gain all the benefits while also avoiding regulatory pitfalls.

When it comes to communication design, there is nothing harder to fix than a broken identity. Typos on the Web can be corrected easily. Errors in a printed brochure, at worst, may call for a wasteful and inconvenient reprint. However if your brand design has ignored accessibility principles, you’ll have a much broader, ongoing burden to deal with.

Let’s take a look at three key issues where brand meets accessibility, using the new identifier of Canada’s National Arts Centre in Ottawa as an example. (No, I’m not going to wonder out loud why they’ve replaced such an awesome piece of great Canadian design with a shark fin … I haven’t seen the strategic brief … we’re just talking accessibility here.)

Image of a new identifier (logo, wordmark and tagline) for National Arts Centre

New identifier for National Arts Centre (logo, wordmark and tagline) introduced February 25, 2014, as the Centre approaches its 45th anniversary.

1. Consider colour contrast ratios:

International standards declare a minimum colour contrast ratio of foreground and background colours. If your design team hasn’t satisfied that ratio, not only is going to be difficult to claim your online presence is accessible: everything from annual reports to outdoor signage is going to be challenging for the huge portion of your audience with visual impairments or colour deficits.

Over 10% of men have some level of colour deficit. And we’re all colourblind when we’re looking at a photocopy or fax.

Image of a new logo for National Arts Centre

The new logo for Canada’s National Arts Centre

So make sure that every variant in your brand book (including the variations where colours are reversed or expressed in greytones), as well as your standard slogan treatments, comply with the WCAG 2.0 Color Contrast 1.4.3 guideline of a colour contrast ratio of at least 4.5 to 1 (3 to 1 for 18 point or larger … 14 point if bold). It could be even better business to strive for the Level AAA WCAG 2.0 Color Contrast 1.4.6. (Technically, the contrast rules only apply to machine text, so in many cases you’d not be strictly violating WCAG 2.0, however the spirit of these guidelines are to ensure that everyone can perceive your brand…it’s simply good marketing to make sure your brand presentation complies.)

My favourite tool for checking colour contrast (it’s free and works on Windows and Mac) isPaciello Group’s  Colour Contrast Analyser.

On a related note, differentiating product names based on colour could be a mistake: for example, designating levels of a service as “Red”, “Blue”, and “Gold” may be an ongoing burden in having to provide accessible equivalents (and avoid confusion and loss of intrigue for many audience members).

Anyhow, the National Arts Centre’s new typography passes this test with flying colours (sorry!). One for one…

2. Think through your acronyms carefully:

If you’re considering naming your organization or product with an acronym, or you anticipate that you’ll be referring to it as an acronym, think carefully how it will be pronounced by screen readers.

Not long ago, screen readers were only a concern for that portion of your audience who can’t read (either due to a lack of eyesight or a lack of skill). However in a world where everyone’s mobile devices are now offering the ability to read out loud, it’s important that machines that don’t know your name will pronounce it as you intend.

If you’re IBM, then you’re well known enough to be in the exception dictionaries of Google Now and Siri and JAWS as “I.B.M.” rather than “ibbmmm”.

Chances are your company or product aren’t that famous. Which means that you’ll be at the mercy of a screen reader algorithm to decide how to pronounce your name. Think “St. Lawrence College” being wrongly announced as “Street Lawrence College” for example.

Screenshot of a use of NAC abbreviation on the National Arts Centre website

Unfortunately, the National Arts Centre regularly refers to themselves as “NAC”, which they like to hear as “N.A.C.” but will unfortunately be announced by most screen readers as “knack” … unless extra coding is added to every instance, and even that won’t completely avoid the problem. Now, after 45 years, I’m not suggesting they should rename the organization for that single reason, however best to avoid the issue from the get-go to avoid both embarrassment and lost searches and sales. Research your proposed name and spelling of it carefully by having these prominent screen readers announce them to see if you’re pleased with the result … including testing in every language that matters to you.

If you have little choice but to go forward with a name that doesn’t announce well, mitigation is possible. For example, we can careful code Web sites and PDF files to include alternate pronunciations for assistive technologies. Of course it will be easier and more reliable to choose names that avoid this issue entirely.

3. Don’t rely on uppercase

If your clever naming relies on capitalization to ensure that people read it right, you may also have a branding liability. Someone listening to your name (whether due to using a screen reader or a radio report) won’t have the nuance of uppercase and lowercase to know what your intention was.

Image of a new identifier (logo, wordmark and tagline) for National Arts Centre in black and white colour

The National Arts Centre wisely avoided this problem, by not playing such games with their branding… when spelled out in full, whether seen or heard, the name is clear. Not so with the acronym (see above!).

So, although creative capital letters within a word may add intrigue to your brand, don’t rely solely on the creative use of capitals or the nuance of a particular typeface for an essential part of your brand name. If the brand promise or core message is lost on those who aren’t looking at your name, it’s likely an opportunity cost not worth taking.

Brand on, designers. And let’s be careful to not leave any audience behind. Don’t just do branding, do good!


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Reviewed March 26, 2014

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