Ben Acornley, Creative Director of Applied Wayfinding

“Inclusive design and accessibility are at the heart of everything we do… It needs to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible: that’s our starting point.”

With a background in editorial design, Ben Acornley is Partner and Creative Director at Applied, one of the world’s largest information design firms whose specialities include wayfinding and legible cities, systems and environments, and interactive communications. The company’s work spans many disciplines including mapping, planning, editorial and digital design, branding and product design and its projects include Legible London for Transport for London (TfL) and other major wayfinding systems for such iconic places as New York, Shanghai, Seoul, Toronto, Doha, Dublin, Glasgow and Vancouver, always with the focus on the end user and usability.

Q.- How do you position your company in relation to inclusive design and accessibility?

A.- They’re at the heart of everything we do. We’re a design company but aim for well-executed, beautiful work based around user testing to help development and ensure performance, and refining information to exactly the right level. Online, in print, as a physical display, our transport information aims to engage users so involves lots of visual work: mapping contains detailed information, and accessibility is important.
Sometimes we’re tasked with accessible versions of projects, e.g. accessible maps or audio information. Our rule is always: as accessible as possible for as many people as possible, so we feature large-print or high-contrast versions. In Leeds we produced simplified maps for users with learning disabilities; elsewhere wheelchair access is important. In the public domain things must work for as many people as possible and be as inclusive as possible.

Q.- What was the catalyst in bringing about an inclusive focus in your centre?

A.-  We come from different backgrounds: transport planning, editorial design work, newspapers, magazines, information design. Ultimately we deliver information, refining it for users. Our studio is unique with diverse disciplines.
Bristol Legible City, the first on-street pedestrian mapping and sign system project, led our creative director Tim to a particular area of work. I was using a similar approach. Our main projects such as Legible London for TfL have largely defined us. We’re more of a wayfinding company than an information design company. But we’ve always leant towards the more functional side of graphic design. Public institutions require accessibility. It’s not just design for design’s sake: it’s all about function.

Q.- Is inclusive design a new field to explore in advertising and marketing?

A.- Absolutely. Nowadays everyone has maps on their phones. Technology keeps moving, enabling centralised data to be delivered in different ways to different people: visually, through screens, static displays or audio information. There’s a massive opportunity.

Q.- Do you think inclusion and accessibility awareness are given enough importance by public and private institutions? 

A.- With public clients: yes. Their accessibility officers ensure requirements are met. Commercial clients: accessibility is not always on their radar. Public clients must cater for a whole cross-section of the community. Airlines prefer a commercial approach, but the Civil Aviation Authority dictates how their information must be delivered. The public-private gap is changing. Inclusion and accessibility are increasingly attractive and in demand.

Q.- Is legislation effective? Should more be done?

A.- We strive to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act. It offers guidance on delivering information. But it can be dogmatic, e.g. print guidelines. You can’t produce everything in 14-point text. You need a common denominator. It’s a balancing act: designing something that’s perfect for everyone is impossible. Time and money constraints always exist. I’m not sure laws should be any stricter: general guidance or policy is better than specific graphic standards.
Many firms want to meet standards but lack budgets for testing. Accessibility is always part of our highly methodical approach. Even when clients aren’t seeking accessibility, we hit them first with the logic, and nobody ever dislikes it. We try to use our experience in every project, but sometimes commercial reality dictates otherwise.

Q.- Can you give any examples of good practice or models to follow? 

A.- The National Health Service offers good models. We’ve learned from many projects. One accessibility officer showed us how mapping’s not just about colour contrast but about catering for varied impairments such as tunnel vision. All our work is tested for colour-blindness. In Leeds, focusing on people with learning disabilities meant maps required more visual clues: storyboarding, a simplified map to help people understand complex visual displays. Or wheelchair users: Leeds is hilly, so particular user groups needed maps showing the best accessible routes to certain buildings.

Q.- What’s the user’s role in developing inclusive products or services?

A.- It’s about engaging people in things they wouldn’t normally do; providing different entry points, the right information at the right time so people are not overwhelmed. Many projects are moving towards delivering information in digital format. That’s the future: centralised data. But digital information is not always the answer, physical aids can be important too; TfL hands out printed maps and displays large maps outside its stations, etc.
Context is important. Fixed street displays are useful and valuable in places like London. People always use Legible London. Phone or map in hand, they can see what’s ahead and trust the information provided. Enabling people to build mental maps is really valuable. It relaxes people, so they browse, spend time and return. Encountering barriers to information means they won’t return.

Q.- How would you quantify the results achieved using this focus in relation to the effort or the investment made?

A.- There’s a real strategic benefit that’s very difficult to monetise or put a value on. It’s very difficult for clients, organisations and cities to appreciate.
Europe has more of a tradition than North America, but that’s changing. Providing information explaining places so people can explore them, is now being seen as valuable. Because once they’re comfortable in an environment, people spend, so most major cities now provide this information because they perceive real value in allowing visitors to get a sense of what’s on offer.

Imatge: “philadelphia explained” by Paula Scher, installation photo by Sam Fritch courtesy of pentagram.

If you found this interview interesting we would like you to share it with your social networking.