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Check Your Deck: Effective Color Outshines Poor Design

A string of lit Christmas lights. The title reads "Check Your Deck: Effective Color Outshines Poor Design

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, Fa la la la la la la la!


Tis the season, check your folly, Fa la la la la la la la!


Don’t forget the color testing, Fa la la la la la la la!


Access for all’s worth investing, Fa la la la la la la la!

I’m thinking about accessibility this holiday season. If you use a slide deck or other visual materials, you should too. The festive colors and twinkling lights lift many people’s mood at this time of shorter days and longer nights in the northern hemisphere. They’re also an important reminder to look at your deck with a fresh perspective, one that focuses on color and light.

If you’ve experienced Death by PowerPoint – or worse, inflicted it upon your audience – you know that your visual materials have to work with your speech or presentation, not against it. You might already be familiar with the “less is more” philosophy for effective decks. Have you considered how accessibility concerns might be limiting the power of your visuals?

Now is the time for an instructional design update your material for 2024.

Accessibility and Holiday Decorating

In a post originally on Tumblr in November 2021 but widely circulated on social media since then, zetablarian raised awareness about the ableism of a common holiday decorating technique. They then followed up with a positive suggestion to replace the harmful practice.

Zetablarian’s post said,

Something to add to the long list of things I wish able bodied people wouldn’t do:

Please don’t wrap decorations on the railings of stairways.

It’s a common practice for the winter holidays, and a museum I visited today had fake autumn leaves wrapped around the metal railings running down their very steep steps.

Here’s the thing: I can’t safely go down steps without relying heavily on the handrail. This is ESPECIALLY true when the weather is cold and icy. If there’s clutter between my hand and the rail, I’m way more likely to slip and fall.

Please save your festive decor for the architecture that isn’t vital to the mobility of others. (all caps in the original post)

While I’m not a garland on the handrail decorator – I find the look too fussy to deal with – I’d never considered these festive spirals from an accessibility perspective. Once I started noticing the intersection of ableism and decor, I realized how common it is. Heavily-scented candles or potpourri can overwhelm scent allergies. Strings of holiday lights blinking in chaotic syncopation can contribute to an array of harmful visual and neurological effects in humans. Now, I’m making a point of speaking up about such choices so that more people can enjoy the season.

Your deck is like holiday decorations. You might continue with what you usually do because no one has ever brought a problem to your attention. Once you’re aware of a problem, though, you can’t ignore it again.

Colors have Character

You know poor visual design when you see it, even if you’re not an artist yourself. Bright color combinations are harsh on the eyes. Minimal contrast between text and background colors makes reading difficult. Too many colors can impede focusing on what’s important.

Colors also evoke both positive and negative emotions, which is why there’s an entire psychology sub-field of color theory dedicated to understanding the “emotional and psychological connotations between colors and emotions.” Red is intense passion, whether love or anger, while blue is peace and tranquility. Green is nature, money, and/or jealousy. The character of colors is widely familiar from literature and film, fashion, politics, and commercial products.

Marketing and branding pay a great deal of attention to color theory. The number of colors you use and their positions on the color wheel create a wide range of schematic options, from monochromatic and complementary to variations on three and four color combinations. Colors can be primary, secondary, or tertiary, warm or cool, saturated or grayscale. Pepsi’s choice to distinguish between the shades of blue in its logo vs its background isn’t random. Pantone’s annual color choice significantly influences trends each year. In 2024, we’ll be seeing Peach Fuzz everywhere.

Check Your Deck

Color, ableism, and accessibility come together in a speaker’s deck.

The colors you choose can aid or hinder your full audience’s understanding of your material. Color blindness, low vision, and photosensitivity all impede a person’s ability to process visual information, and they’re made worse by poor deck design. Instead of paying attention to what you’re saying, these audience members struggle to take in your slides or give up on understanding them at all. The result is disengagement. If some audience members are disengaged, chances are that others will be as well. Strong visual design enhances everyone’s experience.

Effective public speaking and presenting is about putting the audience first. This applies to your deck as much as it does to what you say. User interface/user experience (UI/UX) design considers how the audience interacts with your materials. This is not merely putting style over substance. To the contrary, UI/UX recognizes the fundamental connection between style and substance. Each depends on the other to convey your message.

Use tools like Color Safe to help you design a color palette in keeping with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Although the WCAG is “a wide range of recommendations for making Web content more accessible,” many of the principles apply to other types of visual material like slide decks. If your deck will be posted to a company or conference website, you have twice as much incentive to review your content for visual accessibility.

The most recent update, WCAG 2.2, dated October 5, 2023, specifically addresses users with low vision as one of the three target groups for improved accessibility. With the World Health Organization estimating in August 2023 that at least 2.2 billion people globally have near or distance vision impairment, prioritizing visual accessibility in your decks is a worthwhile investment.

WCAG applies to more than just visual aspects of web design, so if you’re doing a company-wide branding and marketing overhaul, check out their other recommendations regarding audio, captions, inputs, navigation, and more.

How About You?

Are you on the lookout for ableist practices already? Besides wrapping the handrail in garland, what additional examples impede users’ mobility or accessibility?

Is improving your deck on your January 2024 to do list? What’s the most eye-searing example of poor design you’ve had to witness? Or past choices you regret now?

Which color scheme do you prefer when composing a palette? I like to use the analogous and split-complementary approaches for visual materials, though it took shopping with my teenage daughter to finally break me away from monochromatic black in my wardrobe.

Have you used the WCAG principles for your website? Can you share a before and after example of your site’s improved usability?

Tell us about it in the comments.

Check Out Our Podcast

Our podcast, Ongoing Mastery: Presenting & Speaking, covers everything connected to continually improving your craft of being a public speaker, from interviews and mini-coaching sessions with guests to conversations between Kirsten and Kellie. Come join us.

Cheers, Kellie