Accessible design does not limit creativity; It frees him

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For ethical, legal and commercial reasons, it is essential that digital products are accessible to the widest possible range of users. But doesn’t that hamper the creativity of designers? For The Drum’s Creativity in Focus Deep Dive, Matt Gibson of the Cyber-Duck agency argues that the practical constraints of accessibility can spur designers to be more creative than ever.

Image creativity. What image comes to mind? Perhaps an artist approaching a blank canvas: a metaphor for unbridled artistic licence. In the real world of design, however, this is extremely rare. Every type of designer, from architects to product designers to digital user interface (UI) designers, faces creative constraints related to budgets, tools, materials, stakeholder input, and other factors.

Sounds dull, right? Surely, if we have to operate within the prescribed parameters, we will be creatively constrained, unable to innovate or come up with original design solutions?

Evidence suggests otherwise.

Constraints drive creative thinking

Research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that when there are few or no strings attached to a creative project, teams become complacent, usually opting for the most obvious idea. On the other end of the spectrum, if there are excessive restrictions to the point that designers no longer feel in control, creativity will indeed be stifled.

Between these two extremes, moderate creative constraints push teams to think beyond the obvious and experiment with various ways to use available resources. Creative limitations provide shape, direction, and purpose, directing us to the best solutions. It may seem counterintuitive that constraints can actually help us think and design more creatively, but it’s true.

During World War II, designers Charles and Ray Eames were asked to create a lightweight but durable leg brace for the United States Navy. To achieve this, they devised a new technique for molding plywood into curved shapes, which was later widely used in furniture and product design and cemented the Eames’ place among the most influential designers of the 20th century. The constraints of the brief were essential to come up with a creative solution, which had an impact on the design world.

Accessibility is key in UI design

When it comes to UI design, we are rightly constrained by the need to make them accessible and inclusive. Global best practices such as WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) provide safeguards on many aspects of user interface design, from readable fonts and simple layouts to colors, media types and to design components such as forms and headers.

In 2022, users expect great experiences. For public sector websites, accessibility is a legal requirement, enforced by regulations issued in 2018. With one billion people worldwide living with some form of disability, it’s the right thing to do so ethics, as well as common business sense; a survey found that inaccessible websites cost businesses up to $6.9 billion a year. Accessible design creates better user experiences for everyone.

How to find the right balance?

The key is to strike the right balance between meeting accessibility requirements and being imaginative within these railings. This can be achieved with user testing (involving users with different accessibility needs throughout the design process), close collaboration between teams, and a bit of out-of-the-box thinking.

Mailchimp’s user interface shows that it’s possible for designers to create beautiful, distinctive solutions while adhering to accessibility guidelines. They add creativity with quirky artwork and a quirky serif typeface for larger titles. These creative elements are integrated into a simple and user-friendly layout, with accessible supporting fonts and high-contrast colors.

During Cyber-Duck’s work with Sport England, we were constrained by the need to help users navigate through a long alphabetical list. The solution was a sticky navigation bar of letters at the top of the page that allowed users to navigate to specific sections. The final design is visually appealing and on-brand, while staying within accessibility parameters.

Take the creative challenge

Accessibility should not be seen as a limitation; instead, it should be seen as a wonderful aspect of what it means to be a designer. Not only can we create visuals that look amazing, but we can help solve real-world problems and help users achieve their goals. Ultimately, it’s about helping people, and isn’t that what design and creativity is all about?

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