Interview with Andy Clarke (AKA Accessibility, the gloves come off)

Another interview with one of Web Accessibility’s luminaries - this time it’s the turn of Malarkey (or Andy to his friends). Enjoy!

It’s difficult to know where to start with this interview, because most people know you very well from And All That Malarkey. So, start by telling us something no-one knows about you, anything you like.

I’m glad that you think that a little of my personality comes through in my writing. It’s often a tricky balance to strike between writing about personal interests and writing on topics which might interest a wider audience. As for something that ‘no-one’ knows about me, probably nothing. Something ‘few’ people know is that I am a huge fan of heavyweight boxing. But I hope there won’t be too many bruises or black-eyes by the end of this interview, ‘cos the gloves are off.

Malarkey is a web accessibility maverick - discuss.

Maverick? Maybe. And I don’t really mind people thinking that. accessibility needs mavericks and would not be where it is today if it were not for the work of maverick individuals such as Joe Clark. Joe has made it clear to the academics responsible for setting accessibility guidelines when they are wrong. His non-conformity is not only highly appealing, it’s highly necessary. It gets the job done.

In my work I don’t see accessibility as an issue. all sites should now be designed to take the needs of all users into account. I try to take a pragmatic approach to web accessibility rather than an academic one. I have been very lucky over the years to have worked with so many great clients and very few were initially been interested in accessibility, preferring to prioritise branding, style or their bottom line. I have had to learn that accessibility is no more or no less important than these other issues. This has given me a very different perspective on accessibility to those who work in other sectors and I’m not afraid to speak my mind when I come across sites where visual design has been comprimised by a utopian view that accessibility comes before other needs.

Do you see yourself as a designer with a passion for standards, or a ’standardista’ who can also design, or some other combination of the above?

First and foremost, I’m a designer although I have never taken any formal education in graphic arts. At art school I studied painting, but soon became aware that I did not have the patience to paint. I spent most of my degree years in print-making and I have realised since that it was the ‘process’ of print-making which absorbed me.

Today, the process of web design and development is equally as fascinating and standards play a big part in this fascination. I believe that in order to the best at any art, you must first learn the foundations. Although I designed and made web sites for many years before I became interested in standards, it has only been since working with valid XHTML and CSS that my work has felt to a greater extent ‘complete’.

While I understand that for many, learning standards based development is difficult, particularly for creative people who have not been required to work with code before, I believe that the time has now passed for those working with old fashioned methods to be called web professionals. There are now so many web sites, blogs or publications devoted to helping people learn standards and accessible techniques that there are now no excuses not to work with semantic code or CSS. Those people still delivering nested table layout, spacer gifs or ignoring accessibility can no longer call themselves web professionals.

Recent experiences have shown to the world that if designers or developers deliver poor work in this regard, then they open themselves and their clients to at best public ridicule and at worst legal action. Times have changed.

Traditionally, those people who promote web accessibility aren’t the best adverts for it - dull websites abound. I’m always looking for examples of highly accessible sites that really look the business, but always seem to revert to a few old favourites.

It is true that the vast majority of web sites produced by many accessibility specialists are visually poor. I have heard too many times, “Well I’m not a designer”, but there can be no excuse for such poor work. Accessibility is an integral part of the creative process and not an end in itself and you should always involve a creative designer somewhere within any project.

I do not hold with the view that accessibility is somehow divorced from design. Organisations which focus on accessibility in a vaccuum are not only hampering the wider spread of accessibility but I would go so far as to say that they are preventing it. Too often to I see a focus on accessibility as an excuse for a lack of talent.

What are the stupidest things you hear or see people saying/claiming in the name of web accessibility.

That accessibility involves absolutes. You ‘must’ use skip navigation, you must ‘never’ use Flash. A person’s ability is relative, disability is relative and therefore accessibility is also relative. Too often do I see people focussing on WCAG guidelines as if they were written on tablets of stone.

What matters in any process are the decisions that are taken during it and the thoughts behind those decisions. If you can demonstrate your thinking behind any accessibility decision, you can justify it As a designer my job is to create innovative solutions to my clients’needs and often this means developing new approaches. Working strictly within the guidelines can lead only to stagnation.

How many web accessibility snake oil salesmen does it take to change a lightbulb?

There is no lightbulb. Ensuring that sites are accessible is now of primary importance. But many organisations are driven to rethink their sites by a false fear instilled within them. Like the Millenium Bug before it, accessibility has become a new opportunity for people to exploit fears of legal action and it is a practice which I abhore.

You have been given the power to fix three - and only three - ongoing accessibility problems with a wave of a magic wand. It can be anything: browser issues, assistive tech, websites that provide poor advice that you want to shutdown. What would you do?

I do not believe that it is solely the job of the designer or developer to educate clients, but that governments should spend a portion of their (not inconsiderable) resources (it is after-all our money) on properly researched and informative educational campaigns. Such campaigns should provide an overview of the issues faced by people with disabilities of all kinds, from the blind or visually impaired to people with dyslexia. However such a campaign should not simply focus on the negatives, but also the positives of providing accessible content and the simple solutions which may be easily implemented to achieve wider accessibility. We have seen such information campaigns before on all manner of topics from sexual health to drink driving, why not web accessibility?

It’s often the case today that many Request For Proposals we recieve include web accessibility requirements and this is a positive step forward. One issue however is that it is difficult for clients to fully understand technical issues and even more difficult for them to know whether a solution provided to them is in fact accessible. I believe that government should provide simple to understand guides to accessibility, free to all businesses, to help ensure that clients recieve the solutions that they think they are paying for.

We regularly provide training sessions to designers and developers and to local government staff on web accessibility. As a commercial company, these sessions are chargeable events. I believe that governments should facilitate the education of designers and developers by providing tax breaks on all training in accessibility. This maintains the freedom of choice for trainees to choose the source of training and will encourage them to become educated in this important field. I do not believe that such education should be provided by government agencies far removed from the ‘coal face’ of development, nor to I think that they should be directly subsidised. Tax breaks also reimburse designers or developers long-term for their spending on training and will encourage continuous learning.

When do you get your best ideas? I’m thinking along the lines of ‘Web Standards Trifle’ or ‘Specifity Wars’ here? And on a related note, can you think of something similar in the past that helped you really breakthrough and understand a concept that had you scratching your head before.

Oh I can think of many. I take my helmet off to wonderful people like Dave (Shea), Doug (Bowman) and Hard Man Dan (Cederholm) for showing me how to achieve many of the things I do on a daily basis with structured mark-up and CSS. Without Faux Columns, CSS Sprites or Sliding Doors, my life would be that must more difficult.

My design ideas often come from outside the web and often the ways that I try to understand complex issues such as specificity come from outside too. The idea for CSS Specificity Wars came after I had seen Molly and Aaron talk about specificity at a workshop in Cupertino and I needed a visual tool to stick on the wall to help me remember.

I’m very glad that people seem to find my visual approach helpful. I have a strong belief that creative people are visual thinkers and need visual tools to help them understand technical matters such as XHTML or CSS. One of my aims within our company has been to develop visual tools which can help to bridge the gap between the creative and the technical. It’s also subject of many of the workshops and training events which I do in partnership with Molly.

You’ve agreed to judge a forthcoming competition on Accessify for alternative styles. What marks a good design for a site like this as opposed to something like Zen Garden (although both rely on CSS)?

I’m very much looking forward to seeing all the entries for the competition and hope that the standards will be high. I would really like to see some daring designs which will show that a site which champions accessibility can also be visually stunning. I’m going to be looking for originality and in particular for good typography. I think that on a site which focusses on great content as Accessify does, creative typography is the key to a great design. If I can give one pointer to anyone considering making an entry it would be to ‘be ambitious and don’t conform to what you ‘think’ makes an accessible design’.

What’s forthcoming from the Stuff and Nonsense stable that you can tell us about?

We have a number of projects to be released in the next few weeks, many of which have been in development for a few months, but one site I can share exclusively with you is a new project for WWF UK. Called Safer Shopping, this site is a big departure from what you might expect from WWF. It was terrific fun to make and the staff at WWF are are real joy to work with.

There has also been a lot of speculation recently over the status of Karova Store, the accessible and standards based e-commerce solution which has been the power behind e-commerce stores for Disney Store, WWF UK, the British Heart Foundation and the Woodland Trust among others.

If you take a look at the Karova web site, you’ll see that very little has changed on the site since the solution was first released two years ago. But behind the scenes the developers have been working hard on the Karova framework and on Karova Store 2.

I can exclusively reveal that KS2.0 is in the final stages of beta testing and will be announced formally in only a few weeks. I can’t reveal too much at this stage, but I will say that KS2.0 makes e-commerce stores faster, more flexible and more accessible than anything we have seen before.

POP quiz (kinda): A pristine 1964 Lambretta TV200 or a nice stock Vespa GS160? And what excuse do you have for not owning your scooter, Clarkey?!

It has to be the TV200, nothing comes close. As for not owning a scooter, I just never got around to it although maybe Father Christmas will park one outside for me one of these days. It’s been a real pleasure thinking of answers to these questions Ian and I hope I haven’t upset too many people not to be invited back.


Andy has asked for comments on his site, and who am I to argue? After all, he tells us he’s a fan of heavyweight boxing (and despite Andy’s lithe appearance, you just never know …). You can add your comment on Andy’s site »

Filed under: Accessibility
Posted by Ian on Monday, November 14, 2005

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