Accessible Icons

Technology has, without a doubt, improved the lives of millions around the globe. Both specialist devices, such as refreshable Braille displays and speech synthesisers, and general devices, like smartphones with voice recognition software, enable quick, efficient communication and aid the disabled with everyday tasks. Yet accessibility isn’t always an obvious concern when it comes to icon design. As we mentioned in previous post on real world icons, the ultimate objective for icons is to help all end users, including those with specialised needs.

There are almost two million people in the UK living with sight loss. In this post we’ll discuss how to combine good design with practical concerns in order to create accessible icons for the many visually impaired users of technology.

Up close, icons can have incredibly detailed design; however, when scaled down, an icon’s defining features are colour and shape. Using these two strong characteristics in combination can create beautiful icons which are also accessible for the visually impaired. A great example is simply the iPhone’s standard clock icon.

iPhone Clock Icon
Considerations for accessible icons

Although a user with blurred vision may not be able to make out the individual numbers around the edge of the clock, the simple circular shape against a contrasting black background is a powerful symbol which is easily identifiable. As you can see, intricacy doesn’t need to be sacrificed in order to create accessible icons – but it can’t be wholly relied on either. An icon can be detailed and still have a strong, identifiable overall shape.

The relating of digital design to real-life items is also a useful tool in creating accessible icons, as the shapes should already be familiar and therefore recognisable to the end user. Everyday items with clear shapes and clean-cut lines work best: the pre-set iPhone icons offer more good examples of this in the designs for the camera, phone and music applications. All of these are based on familiar everyday shapes; this means the user does not need to be provided with any further information in order to identify the use of the application.

In producing accessible icons for more specific applications, app creators can refer to the brand’s overall design and use its boldest characteristics to scale the essence of the brand down to a single icon.

Accessible Icons
Use the ‘squint test’, is the icon still distinct and recognisable?

The Soundcloud app’s icon may not seem an obvious choice as an example of accessible design: the cloud shape is barely recognisable when blurred. And other than the colour scheme, the icon has no defining characteristics. However, to a regular user of the service, that colour scheme may be enough – the contrasting bright orange and white are instantly recognisable as Soundcloud’s brand colours. The icon clearly draws on Soundcloud’s unique brand design, and to good effect, making it accessible for visually impaired users.

Technology is advancing rapidly, and new solutions for disabled users are constantly being suggested. With icon design at the forefront of any good app, it is imperative that we keep visually impaired users in mind when creating both beautiful and accessible icons.

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