As the Western population ages and the number of visually impaired people (two million in the UK) increases, inclusive design is a necessity. Good print design can combine commercial intents with the needs of the visually impaired, but to turn it into common practice is still an uphill struggle. Following the implementation of Section 21 of the Disability Discrimination Act in October 1999, there is now a legal duty to meet the information needs of blind and partially-sighted customers. Yet there are still very few examples of graphic design work that meet the RNIB guidelines (see On-line resources box opposite).
‘There is no denying that producing accessible print is visually constraining,’ says Lucie Roberts, one half of Sans & Baum and author, with Mike Evamy, of Rotovision’s book on inclusive design In Sight. ‘I think this essentially comes down to how you define design. Is it a commercial transaction that results in something of use?’ Roberts believes that what is needed is a change of approach. ‘Aesthetically, graphic designers love small type and lots of space, but design isn’t just about how it looks, and many of those judgements are driven by fashion, which is constantly changing,’ she says. For In Sight, Roberts created two books divided into pictures and cross-referenced text, bound side by side. ‘The rationale for this grew from the realisation that integration of text and image can restrict the size of both and disrupt the legibility of the text. The typography in the book is simple, but still uses subtle devices coupled with clear and minimal navigation,’ says Roberts.
Many still judge inclusive design a ‘worthy’ issue, targeted at small disabled groups and one that is removed from mundane life. But considering most people over 40 have some sort of sight problems, designers must reconsider the demographics and disposable income of the target audience and start catering for it seriously. ‘Although we would hope that these decisions are made partly on ethical grounds I am also glad that this shift in power may benefit some minority groups too,’ says Roberts, who categorises herself as part of the ‘baby boom’ generation, and ideally someone at whom inclusive design should be directed.
Many of the design fields are crying out for a more inclusive approach: typography, signage and wayfinding, text-based devices and information design. Pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline has been working with Richard Mawle, a 2002 graduate of the RCA’s innovative Industrial Design Engineering programme and now a researcher at the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre, on how to improve the correct consumption of medicines. It is estimated that half of all consumers of prescription medicines don’t take them as prescribed by their doctor, with non-compliance a global problem costing around £60bn each year. The inability to take drugs as prescribed is, many believe, due to a design that does not communicate effectively to its patients, especially elderly ones.
Annoyed at how text is usually packed into small fonts on to a restricted information leaflet, Mawle devised the idea of using iconography to explain how to use the medicine. Symbols like a rising sun, a sun up in the sky, a moon, a fork and knife, and a glass of water help to explain at what time of day the medicine should be taken, as well as how. The benefits of such iconography are clear: they are international – thus don’t require translation – and don’t take up a lot of space. Content-wise, Mawle had to rethink the hierarchy of information provided. ‘If you read the first part of a leaflet, all it says is about the composition and the pharmaceutical company,’ he says. To resolve the problem he inserted an additional flap on the box which gives two extra sides of space for the text.
The Helen Hamlyn centre’s focus has constantly been on inclusivity – witness the hugely popular Read Regular font for dyslexics created by researcher Natascha French last year (DW 21 August 2003). The centre has also worked for four years with the Design Business Association on The DBA Design Challenge Inclusive Design Award, which aims to advance ideas and best practice in socially inclusive design. Most of the winners here are product design or website projects created by DBA members, with a view to developing the projects into commercial enterprises. Few print pieces make the grade.
Although many design groups preach an ‘inclusive design’ approach to clients, it seems that the commercial world is still lagging behind. ‘From a business perspective there are a number of barriers and misconceptions to get over,’ says DBA chief executive Deborah Dawton. ‘If more businesses include a much broader range of users at the very start of the process, this can act as a creative trigger in the design process that follows. This is partly about inspiring a behavioural shift – the DBA Awards scheme is one route – but it is broader than that. It is about the confidence of the design groups to articulate what inclusive design can embrace and what it can deliver for a client and its users. If this shift takes place, it will broaden the market opportunities for commercial businesses, create new revenue streams, enhance corporate reputation and help keep businesses one step ahead of their competition.’
Boag Associates has been considering issues of inclusivity and access for some time, first with a book for disabled users for the Family Fund, and subsequently with information design for clients such as Royal Mail and Powergen. With all its clients, Boag always includes in the project proposal the compliance to the DDA and argues the need to spend time on it, since it will deliver value in a final analysis. Boag, however, does not believe a blanket approach to inclusive design is necessary. ‘Rather than a company sending out, regardless of its audience, all its bills in 16-point type, which is a waste of paper, it is far more useful to have [overall] a good legible type. That is something that should have a blanket application.’ In their book, Roberts and Evamy add guidelines like using non-large format pages, uncoated stock, maximum contrast, even spacing and regular-sized captions.
Ultimately, it’s about changing perceptions. If designers embrace inclusive design and stop considering it an obstacle to visual experimentation, and if clients understand the commercial validity of such a view, then the battle for a diffuse application of inclusive design can be won.
The Royal National Institute of the Blind www.rnib.org.uk
The UK’s Guide Dogs for the Blind Association www.gdba.org.uk
The international disability and human rights network www.daa.org.uk
The Design Business Association www.dba.org.uk
The Helen Hamlyn Research Centre at the Royal College of Art www.hhrc.rca.ac.uk