An accessible PDF is shown on a screen. To the left is a tag tree and to the right is a megaphone indicating the PDF being read aloud

Design accessibility standards: design beyond aesthetics

Friday 27 May 2022

Accessible PDFs have tags identifying the document’s logical structure and the types of content it contains. It is these tags that make the document compatible with assistive technology such as screen readers.

My recent series of articles has, I hope, demonstrated that design is more than simply making things look pretty.

After looking at only two examples (psychological theories of design and design for communication), it’s evident that design can and should support clear communication. But we can take this one step further: a designer’s contribution to clear communication doesn’t end with visual design – because visual communication is not effective for everyone.

Anyone who is unable – or who chooses not – to read the information you publish is, in effect, excluded from your audience. They might have visual or motor impairments, difficulties reading or simply prefer listening to information read aloud.

Fortunately, there are ways to make information more accessible for everyone. And working toward universal accessibility standards helps ensure improvements are consistent. WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) is the standard for websites. While PDFs use PDF/UA (PDF/Universal Accessibility), which is a subset of the WCAG requirements suited to the capabilities of PDF files.

What is an accessible PDF?

Accessible PDFs help more end-users access the information they contain. This might translate into improved life independence, a wider knowledge base or simply make reading your materials more convenient.

Accessible PDFs can look very similar to any other clearly-designed document. To achieve clarity in visual design, designers will already have considered a range of aspects – ensuring that colours are sufficiently distinctive and distinguishable, for example. And making sure that important information is not conveyed using colour alone.

But accessible PDFs also have some additional information included in the coding of the file. At a basic level, each element has a tag. These tags identify the document’s logical structure and the types of content it contains – headings, paragraphs, lists, images, tables, decorative elements etc. And it is these tags that make the document compatible with assistive technology such as screen readers.

Who needs to produce accessible PDFs?

Most public-sector bodies have been required, by regulation, to make their content accessible since 2018. But there are many advantages for private-sector organizations not covered by the legislation to follow suit.

Making your PDFs accessible will:

  • Open up your marketing and communications to the broadest possible audience
  • Support your Corporate Social Responsibility agenda
  • Be a positive differentiator in crowded markets – compliance outside the public sector is still the exception rather than the rule
  • Demonstrate your commitment to inclusivity
  • Make information more mobile-friendly because text can reflow to fit a small screen.

How do you make a PDF accessible?

Because some aspects of PDF/UA affect how a document is structured and written, it is essential to have accessibility in mind at the start of the publication process.

For internal documents, word-processing software providers are gradually improving the capabilities of their applications to produce accessible PDFs. But for any publication that requires designing, you will need to find a designer who has the knowledge, skills and interest in a project of this nature.

Regardless of how you produce your document, there are still some remediation tasks which you or your designer must do manually. And while it is possible to use a programmatic checker to assess a PDF’s technical compliance, some aspects – such as reading order – still need to be checked by a human.

Even when a PDF is certified as compliant, it is only as accessible as your end-users find it. So testing the document with everyday users of assistive technology and gathering their feedback is always the most useful measure of success.

Feeling daunted?

If you’re used to producing content for printed publications, then the added information required for an accessible PDF can feel daunting.

My PDF guide, Preparing content for accessible PDF design, introduces seven key aspects of content for accessible PDFs and includes a helpful checklist of information your designer will need.

To get your free copy, simply join my email list!

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Hello! I’m Sarah, an independent typographic designer, helping businesses to communicate their unique selling points through printed marketing and communications.

I’ve been sharing my knowledge about design, typography, marketing, branding and printing since 2014. I hope you enjoy reading my blog.

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Sarah Cowan