Digital Project

Accessible by Default


The visual identity for issue 24, Risk Pool, addresses the question of accessibility in digital typography. I designed the typeface, Arial All, to be more accessible than its source, Arial, whose relatively homogeneous letterforms are difficult to distinguish for those with reading disabilities. (The construction of Arial All is evident in a layer of interactivity that allows the text to appear in both its adjusted and original form.) The typeface and other visual interventions are oriented not only toward users with reading disabilities but also those with color-vision deficiency, who benefit from the use of grayscale images and color palettes with high contrast ratios. Expanding on the emphasis on legibility in both classical and modernist European and North American graphic-design practices, the identity for this issue reconsiders the threshold of accessibility for an extended population of readers and viewers.

Arial was created in 1982 by Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders while they were working at Monotype, the iconic typesetting and typeface design company, for use with an IBM laser printer. Primarily known as an alternative to the modernist Helvetica, Arial was based on Monotype Grotesque, an early sans-serif typeface released in 1926. In 1992, Arial was introduced to a large number of computer users when adopted as the system font for Microsoft Windows 3.1. Arial is still used with Microsoft operating systems and is a system font in Apple’s Mac OS. Since the early 1990s, Arial has reached more than a billion users, becoming an integral aspect of all kinds of digital environments.

Recently, many large technology companies have released bespoke sans-serif typefaces—Google’s Roboto; Apple’s San Francisco; Microsoft’s Segoe—which are now used in their operating systems and style guides.1 These typefaces have taken over the role that had been filled by Arial and, in Apple’s case, Helvetica. But Arial is still ubiquitous. (Google uses Arial rather than Roboto as the default for Google Docs.) Lacking the iconic status of Helvetica or the niche associations of older Grotesque typefaces, Arial has remained prevalent by being widely available and free.


In the history of type design, there is an essential formal strategy of making the letterforms feel cohesive and rational, making each glyph feel like part of a whole. The consistency of Grotesque and Neo-Grotesque sans-serif typefaces was enhanced by making the distinctions between letters subtler, with some letterforms mirroring each other. But this practice can challenge those with reading disabilities, for whom letterforms with greater variety in size and shape are easier to identify. Arial All features a layer composed of serifs and alterations meant to help readers distinguish one letter from another.


Arial All focuses on a series of confusable letters: “a,” “e,” “s,” “n,” “u,” “i,” and “l” (as well as the number one). The full or partial enclosures around the counters, or negative spaces, in many of the letters have been opened, and serifs have been added to multiple glyphs in order to make them more easily distinguishable. The arcs of the “o” were flattened in order to distinguish the letter from “e” and “c,” and to add space between the “o” and other characters.


The color palettes used for the issue identity were designed to be accessible for readers with color-vision deficiency. Each palette uses colors with a high contrast between light and dark values, which enables viewers who have difficulty identifying hues to distinguish the colors. This decision was based on the criteria included in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), which cover accessibility strategies that range from recommendations for presenting content to the use of descriptions for audio content. In accordance with the guidelines, text never appears on top of an image. Thumbnail imagery is often included only in grayscale, a tactic meant to call attention to the typography and challenge the pervasiveness of color imagery, which is illegible to many readers, online.


The modernist ideals of universality and functionality in graphic design are connected to accessibility in definition but not necessarily in use. Though established close to a century ago, modernist typographic conventions are still apparent in how design is generally practiced, especially on the web. Geared toward a specific rather than universal public, the identity of this issue attempts to prioritize users whose needs fall outside the bounds of established conventions. In contemporary design, there is still a tension between form and function, between the intentions of the designer and the assumed needs of users. Designing with a specific audience in mind involves reconsidering this tension and adjusting the conventions accordingly.

1 On many operating systems, Facebook and Instagram default to these bespoke typefaces; most other social networks use them with mobile apps.