What the standard for accessible design needs to be

We as designers have the opportunity to invoke change. Our job is not the cure-all. Our hands are not 8 inches deep into the chest of a human being trying to save their lives. We’re designing the tools those doctors use, though.

Cat Noone

Cat Noone

Dec 18, 2018

As we approach the end of the year, the articles are beginning to surface about accomplishments made, challenges set for the new year and holiday must-haves to purchase. And I realize that I too have a lot takeaways from this year both professionally and personally.

A big topic this year, not only in our industry, but the design community specifically, is accessibility and inclusion. Finally! By launching Stark out even further, my team and I have found ourselves having these discussions often. And we did so knowing that while we’ve made a ton of progress in many areas, just by looking all around you, you’ll see we’ve got a way to go.

In the book Mismatch, Kat Holmes distills a controversial topic down so clearly in saying that "For better or worse, the people who design the touchpoints of society determine who can participate and who’s left out. Often unwittingly."

We as designers have the opportunity to invoke change. Our job is not the cure-all. Our hands are not 8 inches deep into the chest of a human being trying to save their lives. We’re designing the tools those doctors use, though. And when we decide to work on products that impact people, we also take on the burden of making their worlds our own—if only briefly. We determine what the experience is like for them and whether or not they will walk away happier; if they will feel accepted, be healthier, be able to hear more clearly, see color for the first time, and so much more.

With that said, I challenge each and every designer the following:

Educate yourself.

Join as many events about the topic as possible, follow hashtags and read literature on the topics of accessibility and inclusion, and chime into communities when you can (Stark has one on Spectrum). Googling is easy.

When we’re not exposed to groups of people outside of our own and are not familiar with particular topics, we tend to avoid these conversations. If they happen, we stay quiet out of fear of asking the wrong question. Take the step; ask someone that doesn’t look like you or isn’t as able-bodied as you to hop on a call, meet you for coffee or contribute to an email chain. Essentially, don’t be afraid to seek out additional advice from those different to you.

And read. The material out there is at your fingertips. Here are a few places to start:

Have anything I should add to the list? Tell me! <3

Question what you’re doing.

The problem is not that people are uneducated. The problem is that they are educated just enough to believe what they’ve been taught. And not educated enough to question what they’ve been taught.

If there is only one thing you, as a designer, ask yourself before passing your work onto the developers, let it be "Who have I excluded in my design?" You will never be able to design for everyone; realistically, not every product is made for everyone. But if you can understand that it is your responsibility to ask that question, to ensure those who can be included are, then you’ve done your job well. And should you elect to move forward without doing all you can to tackle accessibility, and in turn inclusion, regardless of how hyper-aware you are well, that’s just irresponsibility.

One in four Americans is disabled; according the latest data from the CDC. So it doesn’t really make sense to think of disabled people as a niche group. It makes a lot more sense to design as if anyone could be disabled. – Khoi Vinh


Be it for hiring, conference speakers or user research, I’m genuinely confused when there is a lack of diversity on well-established teams, panels or a product’s ability to provide great experiences for many. And the consistent message set out by those people is: “We didn’t know where to look.”

And to that, I call bullshit. The voices are there, but they are simply not heard or considered. Listen to people that have much more insight and experience than your own.

Make Connections

As part of our job, sitting down with others — be it to educate ourselves in our field or for user research — to grab a bite or for a cup of coffee is the norm. But how far does your actual circle extend in regards to diversity? Does your entire circle look like you? Making connections outside of work that ensure you’re truly diversifying your frame of mind and everyday thinking will not only change the way you perform your job, but the way you carry yourself through life.

For many folks in a digital age, especially introverts, connecting with others is a tough and often anxiety-driven task. Doing so digitally and branching out from there sometimes softens any overwhelming feelings.

Set yourself the task to:

Create deep connections with at least 3 people (I know fellow introverts, this is a lot) that don’t look like, come from the same background, or choose to love the same way as you. And by connect I mean, spend time and have not-all-work-related-conversations with. Talk about your life and stuff.

Travel (if and when possible). Cultural norms and biases play a big role in what we design People often ask me where I grab inspiration from; half expecting a list of websites or books. But I’ve found my greatest form of wonder, inspiration, creativity and ability to understand has come from submerging myself in cultures outside of my own. All done through travel. When traveling abroad, a stay at a 4-star hotel and visiting certain areas for a couple of hours is not the same as experiencing life there from income levels I to IV. However, it’s certainly a quick and effective exercise in empathy and feet wet in culture immersion.

Take responsibility (where and if you can).

If you have the opportunity to educate, do so. Those of you who can afford to make your voices heard, raise them. The data is there—be it through user research or lawsuits settled. The cost of questioning whether or not design has an impact on the business is far too high. But the price to fix what has already been done is far more grave. Understand that it is very hard to change DNA. And if treating all people like humans isn’t enough of a business case: lawsuits are expensive. And public.

Good luck and if you need the help, I will happily try, and/or at least point you toward other folks that can do a far better job. I’m excited to be learning and taking this journey with you. Let’s try to leave the world a bit better than we found it next year and every year going forward.

— Cat

Any questions or info to share? Don’t hesitate to reach out via email or Twitter. Want to talk shop with folks discussing all things accessible, ethical and inclusive design? Join our Slack community. For the latest on accessibility, inclusivity, and some Stark news in your inbox every week: Subscribe to our newsletter.