AIGA DC Designing the most accessible AIGA conference ever

I transformed DC Design Week from an inaccessible brand into an accessible beyond compliant experience through our people and culture, not remediation.


DC Design Week is a celebration of the DC, Maryland, and Virginia region’s creative community. Each year, a committee of volunteers collaborates with local designers, businesses, and organizations to host a variety of events showcasing the work, creativity, and relationships thriving in this area.

I first joined the DC Design Week team in 2020, and was impressed by their commitment to diversity– but like many other AIGA programs, their efforts towards accessibility needed some love. Notably:

  • No accessibility statement existed for the conference
  • No methods existed to request for accommodations
  • Branding and visual design were prioritized over accessibility
  • There were 100+ accessibility issues including color contrast, headings, motion, focus, alt text, and more

I also joined too late. Accessibility was already siloed and framed around remediation as our brand and website were already in the works.

The year I joined our branding used sharp animations, which unintentionally excluded people with motion sensitivities. I knew that if I wanted to make an impactful change, I would need to start more upstream before branding and development could take place.

Shifting accessibility left through culture, not remediation

As an annual conference that is run by over 40 volunteers and usually hosts 20+ events, DC Design Week needed upstream cultural change within the community, not last minute remediations to inaccessible ticketing and events.

You cannot put the blueberries into the muffin after it is cooked. This shows that you have to think about accessibility from the beginning, not after a website is already built. Another story is about ice cream cones. If you ignore your ice cream cone it gets very messy. In the same way, you cannot ignore accessibility until the end of the project.

Lainey Feingold's observations on food analogies for digital inclusion

In the next 2 years, I focused on embedding myself as early and as often as possible with volunteers as a partner (not an expert) to bake the blueberries (accessibility) into our muffin (process).

A slide from our alt text workshop coaching volunteers not to write super long alt text for a bananya
In the beginning, I focused on education at scale. I designed talks and handouts for executive leadership, volunteers, and speakers from inclusive presentation tutorials to alt text workshops.
A live kickoff call where I'm letting volunteers know of office hours and other accessibility updates.
I gave accessibility updates on volunteer calls, hosted office hours, and set up slack spaces for async feedback.
A checklist on google sheets documenting recommendations for slides along with plain language explanations.
To make accessibility sticky and replicable as a process for everyone, I created checklists and worked with leadership to embed them within our timelines. I was intentional about framing accessibility beyond compliance as the default, regularly pointing to AAA criteria and inclusive best practices beyond the digital experience.
A github list of accessibility issues prioritized by must, should, and consider.
I also worked closely with our web team to design a framework for accessibility QA ahead of time.

Honest and inclusive language

I made it a priority to make our public content on accessibility as honest, transparent, and inclusive as possible.

When drafting our accessibility statement, I wrote a comment arguing for transparency.
I worked with AIGA board members to publish a new global accessibility statement. This included work to inform AIGA national of accessibility issues beyond our scope and transparent language acknowledging exclusion, how we plan to do better, and what methods exist to request accommodations.
A local accessibility statement noting ADA compliance, gender neutral bathrooms, and how to request accommodations.
I also drafted a template for local accessibility information for each event, which let our content writers note if locations were ADA accessible and had gender-neutral bathrooms.
A presenter commenting on a slide detailing how to request for accommodations and learn more about accessibility at DCDW.
Default slide templates for presenters across all 20+ events included accessibility information.
Three staff of color on the 2022 website have alt text describing their race.
Given AIGA DC’s focus on diversity, I worked with the team to include race in our alt text. My colleague Tolu wisely makes the case for race noting, “writers of alt text hold power in shaping the experience and perception of screen-reader users.”

Accessibility-first design

By 2022, I was able to build up a strong relationship with our design and web teams to focus on accessibility beyond compliance (and not remediation).

A case study by our brand partner noting how accessibility was placed at the forefront.
From kickoff, I worked with our brand partner Brllnt to ensure decisions prioritized accessibility beyond compliance from our typography to our colors. I was excited to see they wrote about accessibility too in their blog post.
I wrote a comment on a figma board showing atomic designs of buttons and action links praising the team.
From the atomic level, we designed for material honesty including how we handled buttons vs. underlined action links.

See the Pen DCDW Focus Styles by Josh (@joshkimux) on CodePen.

I worked closely with our developer Marcus to target AAA contrast goals for our visible focus styles. We experimented using double box shadows for an early iteration of the website, but chose to simplify our approach by working closely with our lead designer to map out and set constraints on color combinations.
Unlike past years, we planned for reduced motion from day 1 in 2022. All animated content on the website respects reduced motion preferences.
The events page features a h2 labelling the filters section and another h2 labelling the events list with a count included within it. Specific filters and the event titles were h3s nested within those sections for easy navigation.
We annotated and tested extensively to ensure our headings would be logically ordered and easy to navigate, like our events page which gives quick access to filters and results.

Closing thoughts

Working with AIGA DC has been a gift over these last couple of years. While we’ve made huge leaps in accessibility as a ragtag team of volunteers, I feel we’re only just getting started:

  • Issues remain to be resolved, or may not have been caught yet
  • AIGA national remains to be inaccessible, with little transparency on how they plan to better include disabled creatives (if at all)
  • We need to include more disabled people within our teams and collaborate closer with local disabled creative groups

Although this is my last year with the DC Design Week team, I’m confident that with good people and an accessibility-first culture, we’ll continue to reach new heights.

Our team of BIPOC designers enjoying Korean corn dogs in a grocery foodcourt.
Our web and design team finally got together to enjoy some mochinut goodness.