Accessible and Engaging: The Future of ADA Signs
Many types of signs — such as those identifying permanent rooms or spaces, exits and entrances, elevators and restrooms — must adhere to guidelines laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). There are many guidelines to consider, but it generally boils down to including tactile characters (such as Braille or raised letters), helping ensure visual characters are sufficiently easy to read (contrasting color of characters with backgrounds, non-glare finish, no italics or script), and standardizing sign height and placement for easy reading by wheelchair users, visually impaired individuals and others.
However, as anyone who’s read Shakespeare’s sonnets can attest, sometimes restrictions of form can inspire incredible creativity. Making signage for everyone doesn’t mean making signage boring: it means exploring new and innovative ways to make signage exciting.
Part of that starts with understanding the boundaries of what’s possible. For that, you should consult the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, which addressed many concerns with ADA-compliant signage while also opening up new design options that still meet audiences’ accessibility needs.
Contrast was always good design practice, so take advantage.
To be ADA-compliant, visual characters must contrast with the background, either with light characters on a dark background or dark characters on a light background. This makes signage easier to read for people with visual impairments — because that kind of contrast inherently catches the eye. The visual character contrast requirement is both helpful for the visually impaired community and just good design sense. Alternate between bright/dark contrast and dark/bright to make certain key information stand out, or leverage different typeface weights to add further contrast.
In every design element, remember your audience.
“Know your audience” is perhaps the oldest and most fundamental proverb for communicators, and that’s no different here. According to ADA signage experts, individuals who read by touch prefer rounded or beveled, very thin character strokes. Those are not visually appealing shapes — but they don’t have to be! Too often, printers think raised letters for tactile reading have to be the same ones presented for visual reading, which means choosing between what’s visually appealing and what’s clear to the touch. Tactile readers are often unconcerned with visual presentation, and vice versa – which means there’s no reason to try to appeal to both with the same design element. By printing bold, high-contrast visual characters that are easy to read from across the room, you can catch the attention of (and, crucially, effectively communicate to) sighted audiences. Meanwhile, tactile characters, often visually unappealing, can be “hidden” to the eye within another design element while still easy to find and understand for those who read by touch. Consider other ways these dual audiences can be catered to, such as employing fifth-color neons on dark substrates to make signage pop for sighted people, while raised characters provide helpful tips for streamlined sightless navigation of elevator buttons and nontraditional floorplans.
In the end, signage is about communication, and accessible design is about making sure that communication is as effective and inclusive as it can and should be. By considering and applying ADA guidelines, you can produce effective, engaging signage that everyone can enjoy and benefit from. If you’re ready to start pushing boundaries, don’t be afraid to work with third-party experts who can help take your signage to the next level — while still serving all those who come across it.