Interview with Amy Pedid

amy pedid outdoors wearing a brown and white cardigan


Whenever she’s not tending to her duties as an art director for The Integer Group, web designer and accessibility advocate Amy Pedid devotes her time to building The Sage Mages. Undertaken as a passion project, the website will serve as a centralized database of digital resources for web designers, persons with disabilities and anyone else who wants to make the internet a more accessible place. “The world will be better when everyone embraces universal design,” she said, “and when designers like myself realize the power we have to transform the lives of billions of people around the globe.” Originally from Texas, Amy now lives with her husband and daughter in Lowell, Arkansas.

Itto Outini: You’ve served as an art director for several companies, most recently The Integer Group. What does being an art director mean?

Amy Pedid: I help our clients, who are mostly retailers, improve their design and marketing so their customers can access their products more easily. I’ve done physical designs for in-store signage as well as web design, and I’ve helped clients achieve compliance with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines).

Lots of retailers don’t realize the importance of digital accessibility and universal design, so I usually pitch it to them like this: different customers use different tools and strategies to navigate physical and digital spaces, and if you don’t take that into account, you’ll lose customers. Sometimes, you might not even realize there’s a problem because the barriers to entry are so high that the potential customers who’re most affected can’t even get through the door, literally or figuratively, to let you know about the issues they’re experiencing. That’s where I come in. I work to identify those problems, preemptively whenever possible, and develop solutions that my clients can use to improve their customers’ experiences, and ultimately their own.

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Itto: How did you first become aware of web accessibility and universal design? Is there a license or certification you have to get to prove that you’re familiar with those concepts? Or is it a personal choice?

Amy: There’s no mandatory certification for designers. WCAG does have a free comprehensive program (https://www.w3.org/WAI/fundamentals/foundations-course/) that anyone can take on their own, and you get a certificate for completing that. You can also find teachers and mentors online. A lot of very cool, accomplished people are working in this space.

As a designer, you can end up learning a lot about the ADA whether you set out to do so or not because every client has design rules for signage, websites, marketing materials, etc. that you have to learn, and while some of those rules are mostly there to differentiate the brands, others are derived from the ADA.

When I first got into marketing and web design, encountering all those different rules and guidelines got me thinking. I started wondering why they exist in the first place, whether they’re actually benefiting anyone.

I started learning more about the ADA, and eventually it occurred to me that I have a few conditions that qualify as disabilities. For example, I have high myopia. I need really strong prescription lenses, and I’ll very likely develop cataracts as I get older and maybe even lose my vision. I also had an experience with a short-term disability when I was pregnant. As soon as I realized that technology and design choices can improve these situations, I gained a deeper appreciation of universal design. I started seeking out knowledge, online and off, from people who’ve had direct experiences with both short- and long-term disabilities. I think that’s how it goes for a lot of designers: we have some kind of personal experience, either ourselves or with a family member or a friend, and because of that we start to notice how different rules affect different people, and how universal design principles can benefit everyone.

Itto: Can you share some more examples of accessibility features you might build in for your clients?

Amy: Signage design and wording should be as high-contrast as possible so that as many people as possible can understand it. Rapid animations can trigger seizures for people with epilepsy. Videos should have audio description captions so that people who are deaf or hard of hearing or have sound sensitivity can access that content. Every button on a website should be labeled for screen reader users. Those are just some of the most common ones, but there’s so much more–I could go on and on!

Itto: Which would you say is easier, in terms of accessibility: digital or physical design?

Amy: Probably digital. Most design software comes with accessibility options already built in, so it’s just a matter of learning how, when and why to apply them. With digital materials, it doesn’t take long to produce different options and let your client choose the one they like. With physical design, it’s a longer, more complicated process.

On the other hand, web accessibility is a much newer concept than physical accessibility. Most people are already used to things like, for example, keeping large signage and displays out of the aisles so people with wheelchairs can get through, but with digital accessibility, it might take a lot longer to explain to retailers what needs to be done and why.

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Itto: Is that something you encounter often? Retailers not appreciating the importance of accessibility?

Amy: It varies a lot from one to the next. They all have different rules when it comes to signage and website design, and some are already doing a great job with accessibility. Dollar General, for instance: their customers skew a little older, so their guidelines are all about large type and high contrast, and they usually make their aisles wide enough for wheelchair users and keep their signage out of the way. Walmart changed their brand guidelines a few years ago to improve accessibility, too. That said, lots of retailers still don’t get it and need someone to hold their hand.

Itto: How can retailers learn about universal design? Are there programs that target retailers and educate them about accessibility? Or do they just have to seek that knowledge on their own?

Amy: It’s pretty much all driven by individual research from employees. Larger companies like Apple and Microsoft can maintain accessibility departments, but others need to outsource to third party vendors. Most retailers will research what’s called “best in class”–that is, the best examples of what other retailers have done. Walmart changing their guidelines has pushed a lot of other retailers in the same direction. At the end of the day, though, it’s up to the individual retailers to implement accessible practices. There’s no ADA compliance police going around!

Itto: What motivates retailers to do that? Are they trying to attract more diverse customers? Head off lawsuits? Protect their reputations?

Amy: All of the above, to different degrees, depending on the company and the situation. There’s been a lot of interesting stuff going on lately with lawsuits and digital accessibility, and I think that’s motivating more retailers to ensure that their websites are WCAG-compliant, even if it’s not strictly required by law.

The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation, but it was passed in 1990, before the internet counted as a place of public accommodation, so nothing in the law explicitly applies to web design. Recently, lots of legal decisions have been coming down, clarifying how web design fits into the ADA. For the most part, the law’s getting interpreted to mean that if you have a physical retail location, then you have to make your website accessible, too. The Department of Justice even came out recently and confirmed that the ADA applies to websites.

That said, even if the ADA’s applied to websites, it only explains rules to make federal sites accessible in Section 508. So for everyone else, the WCAG is the go-to for knowledge. So far, only federal agencies and their contractors are explicitly required to follow the WCAG, though it’s widely considered the gold standard for anyone committed to web accessibility.

The problem is, all of that’s based on a loose interpretation of the ADA, which technically only applies to public-sector entities. That’s why I think it’s really important to focus on the business case for accessibility as well. If your store and website aren’t accessible, it’s going to hurt your reputation, period. You’re going to lose customers. No matter how the law’s interpreted, that should be sufficient motivation.

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Itto: Why wouldn’t clients want to comply with the WCAG?

Amy: There are some real challenges, but honestly, the biggest one is clients–or designers, sometimes–not realizing how important it is, or how easy, or both. If you go and read the WCAG, it can be kind of intimidating, but once you understand it, it’s really not that hard to follow all the rules. Like I said, most design software comes with all the necessary tools built in.

Another problem I run into sometimes is when clients have websites that are already built, and then they want to go back and make them accessible. It’s not hard to make a website WCAG-compliant when you’re building it from the ground up, but it gets a lot harder when you’re modifying something that’s already there.

When you design a site, there’s an organizational strategy involved. There’s a specific pathway that you want users to follow, and hierarchies that make certain parts of the website more important than others. Every decision you make about accessibility and user safety has to be embedded somewhere in that hierarchy. When you start adding features to a website that’s already built, you have to rethink the whole structure. There are a few things you can do without rebuilding it from scratch, like adding alt tags on images or labeling buttons for screen reader users, but there’s a lot that can’t be taken care of as an afterthought.

That said, even if you do have to rebuild everything from the ground up, it’s 100 percent worth it. You’ll be making things easier for yourself and anyone who visits your site in the long term.

amy web access

Itto: Has the pandemic affected your work as a web designer?

Amy: Yes, definitely. Fewer people are going to the brick-and-mortar stores these days. There is a lot more online shopping, pickup and delivery, which means I’m doing a lot more with UX and UI—

Itto: What those are?

Amy: UX means “user experience” and UI stands for user “interface design.” UI only applies to digital products, and it’s more about the visual aesthetic that makes the product easy or enjoyable to find and purchase. UX is more holistic. It applies to both digital and physical products and covers every aspect of user experience. Both are extremely important.

Lots of retailers have been reducing in-store signage and investing more online. I feel like that pivot is generally a good thing because it’s opening up more opportunities to make retail accessible, but you still have to be careful because what works in physical spaces won’t necessarily work online. You don’t want to cram all the signage you’d find in a physical store into a single web page, for instance; you’ll overload the shopper to the point where they get frustrated or distracted and can’t find what they want. The design has to be simple, accessible and clear.

Honestly, because of the pandemic, I feel like this is an amazing time to be working in web design. It’s all about solving problems in creative ways, and we have a lot of problems, but we also have a ton of tools and resources out there for anyone who looks for them. I hope more designers take this opportunity to educate themselves about the WCAG and the ADA.

Itto: Are you doing anything to promote universal design and WCAG-literacy within the design community?

Amy: I started a Facebook group in 2019 called Accessibility Advocates, where anyone can learn and share accessibility knowledge. We’ve grown to almost 500 members. I’ve met a lot of really passionate, creative people. It’s one of the main reasons I’m building a site to consolidate accessible resources.

I also help locally. For a couple of years, in the fall of 2018 and 2019, I participated in Givecamp NWA, an event in Arkansas where NGOs from all around the state are paired with local volunteer designers and web developers that improve their sites for free. In 2019, I was assigned to a nonprofit called United We Dance NWA (https://unitedwedancenwa.org/), and I did a demonstration on how to make their WordPress websites accessible, and how to involve more people with disabilities in their organizations.

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I’m currently working on a website for advocates, web designers, persons with disabilities–basically anyone who’s interested in digital accessibility. It’s going to be a central hub where people from all around the world can find a comprehensive database of resources related to digital and physical accessibility. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to make things accessible: each solution has to be tailored to its context and balance lots of different, competing constraints and needs. There are tons of amazing resources out there, but right now, they’re all scattered around. It would take years and years to sift through everything, and when you’re trying to solve a problem in real time, you don’t have years. The more we can pool our resources and crowdsource solutions to complex problems, the better the solutions are going to be.

by Itto Outini

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