Accessible sites don't have to be ugly

Paul Boag

Headscape have just launched a new web site for HACT. Hact is a development agency that acts as a catalyst for change in the housing sector. But what is significant about the HACT web site is that it is WAI Priority three compliant. In English that means it meets the highest standards in accessibility.

Still visually appealing

The big compliant designers always make about accessible web sites is that it compromises the sites look and feel. I have to say I think that is just an excuse for the fact that designers are put off by the intimidating list of requirements relating to accessibility. An accessible site does not need to be ugly. In fact all of the web sites I produce are compliant to at least the basic level of accessibility (Priority one). Take for example South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I hope you would agree that looks just as good as any other web site. I did not have to compromise at all on the design for this site in order to meet the minimum accessibility requirements.

Some challenges

I would however be lying if I was to say that building sites which meet the highest level of accessibility had no impact on design. At this level there are certain issues the designer needs to be aware of and take into consideration:


When you try and make your site very accessible one of the requirements is that the site scales to fit the browser window. This can prove a problem for many designers because it means you cannot guarantee exactly how the site will look on different machines. In particular it can create a problem for users running at high resolutions because they have very long lengths that can become hard to read.

Font sizes

Sites that go beyond the basic level of accessibility also need to make the fonts on their web site re-sizable. That will allow users to manually change the font size using their browser. This can cause problems for a designer because the design needs to be flexible in order to accommodate text of varying size.


Accessible sites cannot rely on Javascript too heavily. That is not to say it cannot be used, but the site needs to work without it. Many designers use Javascript for all kinds of functionality from popup windows to rollover buttons. However there is almost always work around’s for these problems if the designer is willing to persevere.

The visually impaired

One of the groups you need to be aware of when building highly accessible web sites is the visually impaired. It is therefore important that if you use images to convey information that this information is also available in another way. Equally using colour to convey information such as the current section of the site can cause problems.

The problems can be overcome

So yes there are some problems in building a site that is highly accessible but nothing that cannot be overcome with a bit of planning at the design stage. I would hope you agree that from looking at the HACT web site it is obvious that a web site can be both accessible and attractive visually.