The one thing every designer must consider
Job Buenazedacruz

The one thing every designer must consider

Job Buenazedacruz got her start on inclusive design with her Industrial Design thesis, the UNA Blind-friendly Toy Kitchen — a toy that can be enjoyed not just by sighted children but also by those who are blind. As one of the drivers of Canva’s accessibility projects, Job tells us how her personal and professional journey with inclusive design inspired her to incorporate the same principles at Canva.

I was in university when I came up with an idea to design a toy catering to the needs of children with disabilities, who often feel left out and disadvantaged when playing with other kids.

Intended for children with visual impairments, I created “UNA”, a toy kitchen set that gives the children the opportunity to express themselves through interactive components in its induction cooktop, sink and see-through fridge. By simply incorporating bump-on markers, RFID sensors and ambient sounds, the blind-friendly kitchen gives children — both blind and sighted — a fun space for role play.

Throughout my research in designing this toy, I saw the world through the experiences of people with disabilities. I heard their stories of being unable to interact with the limiting world we live in — which made a permanent impact on my perspective as a designer. I continued my research on the relationship between design and disabilities and interviewing people from the community over the years — this became a way to teach myself about accessibility and equipped me with the Principles of Inclusive Design and the Principles of Universal Design whenever I created anything, from graphics and products to experiences and events.

Accessibility has since become a passion of mine, and as a graphic designer at Canva there is a natural inclination for me to introduce inclusive design principles into my day to day work. So through this blog post I’d like to share my learnings with you in the hopes that every designer who reads this will be able to incorporate inclusive design principles in their work. I’ll go into:

  1. Our role as designers when it comes to inclusivity
  2. Canva’s approach to human-centered design within our templates
  3. How to get started with inclusive design
  4. Inclusive design in practice: using Canva as a case study

We all have a shared responsibility

Creators hold a unique power to shape the world with their work. This is especially true for designers — individuals professionally tasked to style how everyone else interacts with their craft. From designing buildings, websites, software and devices, to the way we experience our surroundings and the manner in which we take in information — a designer has an unsurpassable amount of impact on the way we live our lives.

Until recently, many of us were perfectly satisfied with how mainstream designs conformed to our needs. But progress and the growing cultural shift towards inclusivity has shown us that this isn’t entirely true. We are now starting to realize how we’ve created a world that largely conforms to the needs of the majority and excludes those whom we think is a very small minority. However, there are over one billion people with disabilities in the world. That means 1 out of 7 people live with some form of disability — hardly something I would call a “minority.”

There are over 1 billion people in the world with a disability

Anyone learning this will most likely also realize the importance of building our world in a way that provides equal opportunities for everyone. And it is our responsibility as good designers to create things that are equally functional for both PWDs and able-bodied people.

PWDs don’t find their impairment a huge hindrance to live a good life. It is the man-made world that they find to be disabling.

What is a disability?

Disability is the intersection between poorly designed products, impairment and the inability to participate

According to the World Health Organization, a disability is a combination of one’s impairment, a poorly designed environment (or product), and one’s inability to participate. Through my research and interviews over the years, it became clear to me that PWDs don’t find their disability a hindrance to live a good life. It is the man-made world they find to be disabling.

For example: If a wheelchair user is fully qualified for a position in several companies, but their office buildings are not wheelchair-friendly, the wheelchair user is prevented from having an equal opportunity to earn a living. The job applicant’s impairment is not the problem, it is the poorly designed environment and the non-inclusive mindset of society.

It breaks my heart to learn that in many colleges around the world, design students are not taught to consider the needs of people with disabilities. Since we assume that they are a small portion of the population, we also assume that they have their own sets of needs and they need special products or should just modify mainstream products themselves to match their needs. This is unnecessary, if students are made aware of how easy it is to democratize design to include PWDs as users of their products.

Simply put, exclusion is something that good design can prevent.

Upon learning so much from PWDs, traditional design principles didn’t seem enough to me anymore — it didn’t make sense to me to only design for people with typical bodies and abilities, because doing so would be to intentionally exclude millions of people.

It’s this realization that propelled me to think about how we need to incorporate inclusive design principles into Canva’s library of templates and media assets.

Canva’s approach to human-centered design

Human-centered design is a creative approach that starts and ends with people. It starts with comprehensive research into the people we’re designing for and ends with design solutions for real people and their different realities. According to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), inclusive design places people at the heart of the whole design process in order to create environments that are: inclusive, responsive, flexible, convenient, accommodating, welcoming, and realistic. I believe the same is true for any design.

The philosophy behind it stems from a deep empathy for our fellow humans, born from an understanding that everyone’s experience of life is different. All that human-centered and inclusive design really seeks to do is empower and enable people to participate equally. A big misconception about design is that it’s centered on making things pretty. But at its core, design is really about creating great experiences—and that should include people who experience disabilities like low vision, color vision deficiency (aka color blindness), and deafness, to name a few.

It’s easy to be inclusive

Many design teams do want to incorporate accessibility into their designs, but mistakenly think that it is difficult to do and difficult to learn — but it really isn’t. Inclusive design is simply good design. One just has to understand the basic principles of Inclusive Design (and Universal Design) and keep them in mind whenever designing anything. Basically, this means making sure that designs are usable by as many different people as possible, without the need for people to modify it to be usable.

Once you grasp the principles, it becomes easy to understand the accessibility guidelines for one’s design discipline, whether it’s urban planning, architecture, built environment, industrial design, UX design, or graphic design. Best of all, these guidelines are readily available and free.

What’s great is that most accessibility features are quite simple to implement, and often just involve letting go of some practices we’ve considered the norm. Any other technical details, like human factors and engineering concerns, can be addressed by interviewing users with disabilities or asking them to help test out your design — which most are more than happy to do.

How to get started with inclusive design

1) Identify needs

For multimedia designs, for example, users with the following needs have the most difficulty:

  • Blind
  • Low vision
  • Color blind
  • Deaf
  • Elderly

2) Understand your users’ needs

By understanding users’ needs, it becomes easy to incorporate inclusive features in multimedia designs, whether you are working with images, motion graphics, presentations, videos, or print. It is important to understand what types of things they have difficulty perceiving, and decide what feature you can incorporate to fill this gap.

Disability Difficulty in Perceiving Feature to Incorporate
Blind Visuals Audio, Tactile Shapes or Textures, Braille
Text within raster images Text (that can be read by a screen reader)
Photos Caption, Description, Alt Text (if on a webpage)
Videos Described Video
Low Vision Small text Large or Adjustable text size / Audio
Fonts with similar-looking characters Readable font / Ability to change fonts / Audio
Decorative Fonts Readable font / Ability to change fonts / Audio
Low Contrast Color Combinations High-contrast color palette
Colorblind Colors Patterns, MouseOver Labels, Shapes
Color combinations High-contrast color palette, MouseOver Labels
Color as Information Shapes, Pattern, MouseOver Labels
Charts/Infographics with a Legend Labels right next to or attached to the shape
Deaf Audio Visuals, Captions, Sign Language Interpretation (if streaming live video)
Elderly Visual and audio Hearing and sight often deteriorate with age, so the requirements for people with low vision and deafness should be taken into account

The basic idea is to make your design multisensory by providing at least two ways for information to be perceived and understood.

For example:

Someone who is blind can hear the audio track of a video, but will not be able to perceive scenes without dialogue. What you can do is provide an optional narration track (i.e. Described Video ) that they can perceive through their sense of hearing. On the other hand, someone who is deaf will be able to watch a video by using their sense of sight, but will not be able to understand it because their sense of hearing is not intact. To address this, you may add captions to videos. Ideally, closed captions are more inclusive because they are more suited for translating to different languages.

As you go along, you will find that you will start thinking of other possible inclusive features or solutions yourself. When you do, we’d love to hear about it in the comments section!

3) Strategize and implement

Some designs can be produced and released in a few hours, but some designs take months and involve different teams within a company. For example, you may be a graphic designer working on media assets for a large project, like your company’s website, which will take months to release and won’t be updated regularly.

Strategize as a team. Make sure everyone (e.g. Project Manager, Developer, Content Specialist, Information Architect, etc.) is on the same page and agrees as a team which features can be included immediately, which ones can be prioritized soon, and which ones can be scheduled later on.

4) Test, and ask for feedback

If you can, test your designs with members of the PWD community so you’ll know how you can further improve your designs.

People often ask me, “Why do you care so much about accessibility?” or “Why PWDs?” and the reason is pretty simple: I take great pride in my work and I just want to be good at what I do. As a designer, I don’t ever want to design anything that prevents someone from doing something they are otherwise capable of doing. It is important to understand that people with disabilities do not need help or charity. Everyone strives to be independent, and to be able to do everyday things independently. All types of designers and technical professionals can help create a world that empowers PWDs through good design.

This is one of the reasons I’m incredibly happy to be at Canva, where inclusion and diversity are deeply important because of our company values — one of which is to be a force for good.

One of Canva's values: Be a force for good

Inclusive design in practice: using Canva as a case study

Canva has over 10 million users around the world — this means that seemingly small changes in our templates could actually impact the lives of millions. For me, realizing this was a lightbulb moment — we could introduce small changes in our product that will help support the PWD community.

Here are a few of the initiatives we’ve been driving:

1) Inclusive copy

Created inclusive template copy to bring awareness to accessibility options

PWDs often feel excluded when their needs are disregarded at events and public spaces. So we identified critical doc types like posters, tickets, programs, seating charts, social media doc types, and the like and included Accessibility Information to the smart templates we publish. Here are some examples:

ticket design template with accessibility information

Brochure design template with accessibility information

The idea behind this design decision is to help our users see the importance of inclusion by seeing this best practice while using Canva — and realize that this is something they ought to be doing. I’m hopeful that this becomes part of everyone’s awareness and can take appropriate steps when planning events.

2) Color palettes for Color Vision Deficiency (CVD), a.k.a. color blindness

Palettes for color vision deficiency

Color Vision Deficiency (CVD) affects approximately 1 in 12 men (8%) and 1 in 200 women in the world. To put the percentages into perspective, there are close to 300 million people who live with CVD and struggle with poorly designed materials every day.

Our mission at Canva is to empower everyone to design anything, so we tried to think of how we could help our users living with color blindness feel confident about using Canva. In preparation for future features that will make that possible, we are currently doing the following:

  • Preparing new color palettes that are colorblind-friendly
  • Keywording them based on the type of CVD
  • Standardizing how to test the color palettes

3) Accessibility icons

Dynamic accessibility icons on Canva

Great care was taken to make sure that the images of the PWDs look active and empowered. Our Image Team has helped us create a more inclusive marketplace by adding a sample of accessibility-related illustrations and vectors, making it easy for anyone to access diverse images from our library of content.

What’s great about these three initiatives is that these are our own processes and so they did not require any additional resources. It was largely a matter of finding where best to incorporate the initiatives and when to start. Like most of our crazy big goals, it took a bit of brainstorming, extensive strategy writing, and updating process guidelines to get it done — and it wouldn’t have been possible without the team’s continued commitment to the initiatives we set out to do.

4) Making the office accessible

From the digital space, we have taken this same idea to our physical space. We are making Canva’s office spaces accessible to guests and potential team members with disabilities. Below is a slideshow with all of the completed improvements of our Manila office expansion and renovation.

Canva Manila - Accessible Office Features by Job Buenazedacruz

We’ve included a screen reader version of this slideshow on the page. Let us know if you have any problems with the accessibility of this blog post, at [email protected]

Final thoughts

We’re still in the early stages of making everything on Canva accessible and inclusive to all; this mission aligns closely with our vision of empowering everyone to be able to design — with or without a disability.

Impairments are a natural part of human diversity, just as we have diversity in race, gender, sexual orientation, and genetics. Some people with autism, for example, may have a unique and amazing type of intelligence; for instance, having strong declarative memory about certain subjects, or having incredible visual memory. These physical and intellectual variations add to the richness of human diversity and persons with disabilities should not be seen as a separate user base but part of a diverse population.

As mentioned, inclusive design is not a special type of design — it’s just good design. What’s awesome about inclusive design is that a designer can make a difference just by doing their job well. An added bonus is that when we design for a wide range of needs, we come up with the best, most usable design possible, so everybody benefits.

Want more inspiration? Here are three organizations that are doing some great work with inclusive design.:

  • ColorAdd: ColorAdd is an intuitive color coding system that uses simple shapes to make colors easy to identify even for users living with Color Vision Deficiency.

  • American Printing House for the Blind: Created APHont™, a font optimized for readers with Low Vision.

  • Be My Eyes: Created Be My Eyes, a free app that connects users who are blind or have low vision with sighted volunteers and company representatives for visual assistance through a live video call.

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