...web design...

nothing provided beyond the visual

This is quite often the reality on web sites that are focusing on the purely visual side of design. Nothing is provided for those who can't (for whatever reason) make full use of the visuals.

Sometimes information isn't provided because the designer – maybe after having put the issue through a serious thought-process – didn't think any provision would be of any real use to anyone because he or she couldn't provide a perfect solution beyond the visual.

Solving ones aim for “perfection” by avoiding issues, is a trap one should rather not fall into. I can't think of a single case where it isn't better to provide something to complement visual content – even the smallest of clues, than to give up and not provide anything. There's no perfect rule for what that “something” should be though, as that depends entirely on the case.

Of course: there are plenty of pages/sites out here where nothing beyond the purely visual ever crossed the designer's mind. What exists beyond the visual on such pages/sites is most often accidental, and certainly not the result of planning. Sometimes there's enough to guide a visitor through, and sometimes there's really nothing there.

Finding a big chunk of nothingness behind the visual on a site, is a clear sign of failure no matter what. Its author can at best claim to have created a site in support of the wrong interpretation of Nirvana.
It is completely unnecessary to launch any pages/sites in such an incomplete state, regardless of how one interprets anything.

arguing doesn't solve anything…

Arguments for or against the necessity and usefulness of providing sufficient alternative information and guidance for the blind, are simply missing the target. To correct the aim, let's start by taking out the words “alternative” and “the blind”, and we are left with a much more accurate term: “The necessity and usefulness of providing sufficient information and guidance.” By applying this term to everything that is web related, we're pretty much on target for what the creation of web pages/sites is, or should be, all about.

(One may of course still argue for or against the necessity and usefulness of providing anything, but personally I find such exercises a bit too aimless.)

Indeed blind people will gain improved access if sufficient information and guidance is provided – which in itself is important. However, all others may gain even more from being served well thought-out, prepared and informative pages/sites that don't rely on one human sense only.

Most visitors do rely solely on their eyes for gathering information on the internet, but one doesn't have to be blind to use, or even prefer to rely more or less entirely on, other senses than ones eyes while skimming the web in search of whatever.

Changes in surfing-patterns are slowly making it more than likely that most visitors who don't see a site's visual splender and graphical content, are people with their eyesight more or less intact who simply choose to go for textual information only in order to save time or bandwidth or whatever. Thus, designers and authors should provide information on all levels even if it doesn't fit into their own surfing-patterns – that is: if they want to avoid their own creations being completely overlooked by a number of end-users.

illustrate the document…

The idea of providing information on all levels, may be confusing at first. However, if one thinks about the issue for a moment it should be obvious that simple, non-replaced, text has the best characteristics for penetration. Text can be read, listened to and accessed in a multitude of ways.

The easiest way is therefore to first provide complete information on the basic level – create an (X)HTML text-document. Such a text-document should contain everything one thinks is important – including placeholders for graphic illustrations. However, the document should be formed as if no illustrations were available.

The next step is to enhance the document by adding graphic illustrations in the right – prepared – places. By now any text in alt-attributes and otherwise should already be in place in the text-document, so it's the graphic illustrations that end up as “visual alternatives”.

What we should have now is a document that says whatever is to be said, regardless of level. Visitors who can't read the text on screens for whatever reason, can still access all information by having it transformed into another means of delivery – something that is near impossible for anything but written text at the moment.

Text can also be automatically translated into another language. Such automatic translations are not anywhere near perfect yet, but such an option doesn't really exist for anything but written text.

document the illustration…

Sometimes an illustration is the main subject/object. To some this changes the playing-field, but I have yet to see any proofs of that. Text still has the best characteristics for penetration, so if we got something to say it better be written down.

Some claim that “works of art can't really be translated into text”. I agree, but translations are completely unnecessary when dealing with works of art. If someone is interested in particular works of art, then references are necessary.

example of references for work of art:

Whether references somewhat like the above are written in one or another form of a list, a table, or are spread out in a more free form, depends on what the author thinks suits his/her form of presentation.

A somewhat complete list of references definitely doesn't belong in an image's alt-attribute, where a much shorter, maybe internal, reference makes most sense. For the image above I've used the artist's name, while a title and/or a number may work fine for connecting the image to the expanded references and information in other cases.

got more to share? – share it:

If the author wants to reveal some of his/her own impressions or emotional reactions to a work of art, there's nothing stopping the author from writing it all down and present it in the page. What can be thought and said can be written, and lots of people share their impressions of works of art, all the time.

If, on the other hand, the author wants to reveal the deeper meaning in or behind a work of art, then he/she better be careful. Unless the artist have stated what its all about, or the artist and the author happens to be one and the same, then the author's authority may end up being quite limited. Good, factual, references are essential in any case, so make the most out of those.

lost through presentation:

No need or use complaining about all the good, or bad, sides of a work of art that get lost through a presentation on a simple web page. Visitors know that already if they have any experience with works of art in the real world. If not, then they may learn it later by following the references.

No need or use complaining about the shortcomings of the written words when it comes to describing mainly visual works of art either. Written words are what we got, and one doesn't fix their shortcomings by leaving them out, but by using them to our advantage in the best way possible.

providing useful information on several levels…

We have the ordinary visual decoration, the more or less essential illustration, and what may be the only important object on a web page. In most cases these are humble images.

It can be a bit difficult to provide sufficient information about an image for those who can't see it properly or not at all. Well, before ditching the whole issue as a “mission: impossible”, we should at least look at what (maybe insufficient but probably useful information) we can provide.

First we have to sort our visuals.

is the visual object important?
  • if it's an important part of content on one level, it should be served as an equally important part of content on all levels.
  • if it isn't an important part of content on any level, hide it on all levels possible.
ways to provide important information:
  • the alt-attribute exists for images, and can be used to provide short written pieces of information about an image, or to hide its existence on non-visual levels.
  • regular text – in paragraphs or whatever – may complement any image or object in such a way that it works even if the image or object can't be appreciated visually.
  • links to more written information about an image can in some cases be the best – or maybe even the only – way to provide what may be considered sufficient information about any object (or subject).

Note that the alt-attribute isn't a place-holder for “alternative text for the blind”. The blind don't need alternatives, they need access to the information.
The role of the alt-attribute is to hold “alternative text for the image”, to be available in case the image itself doesn't make it through for whatever reason.

the usefulness of provided information:

The “usefulness” of any and all information on a web page is decided by each visitor. No single person can claim that some information is “very useful” or “totally useless” for others, with any degree of authority.
Indeed: the importance or usefulness of anything on a web page, depends entirely on the individual visitor's interests at the time of visit.

Even the best composed test-panel consisting of several thousand end-users, can only give hints about what works and what doesn't for the average end-user. Such hints are useful, but using them as rules doesn't necessarily assure that one ends up with something that works for any particular end-user.

it is easy to disinform…

One can clutter up information on any subject or object at any and all levels, making it next to useless. The easiest is if course to do so beyond and/or behind the visual, which is why it happens so often. Serious web designers should do their best not to disinform.

too little or too much:
  • Too little information may lead to misunderstandings.
  • Too much information with no balance relative to importance, may lead to important parts getting lost because they don't stand out.
weigh informational value carefully:
  • Do not provide descriptions or any kind of information for purely visual and otherwise unimportant stuff on a page. Purely visual stuff is just noise on a non-visual level. Provide an empty alt-attribute for images in such cases, and nothing at all for other purely visual objects.
  • Strip out all unnecessary words when text is entered into an image's alt-attribute. For instance: there's no need to tell anyone that “this is an image of...” something, as they already know that much. Instead: think about what you would write if the image wasn't available, as that is the reality for those who can't see it.
  • Do not repeat existing and easily accessed information. If something is written in the text surrounding an image, then it should not be repeated – not even in rewritten form – in the image's alt-attribute.
  • Do not interrupt the natural flow of content. This isn't only related to badly written text in alt-attributes, but also to content organized out of order in order to achieve visual effects. If it doesn't make sense when read in sequense down the source code – no CSS and no images, then it doesn't make sense.
the importance of trying:

There are so many ways to create weak and disinforming documents, that the list above can be extended into the absurd. If something can be done wrongly on the web, then you'll find examples of it – on the web. The best one can do is to try to avoid becoming the creator of another bad example.

The fact that someone may be able to point out imperfections in any solution, definitely shouldn't stop anyone from doing the best they can with what they got and keep on trying to improve their solution. The web, and indeed the entire world, is full of imperfections – which may be the reason we're still here and working on it.

let the visitor choose…

As long as information is provided, each visitor can choose what to use and what to ignore. When information is missing, the visitor is obviously left in the dark.

I hereby recommend the friendly act of providing information and guidance on all levels. Doing so may lighten visitors' experience in more than one way.

sincerely  georg; sign

Hageland 14.sep.2007
last rev: 18.sep.2007


simple, non-replaced, text has the best characteristics for penetration. — Georg

the importance or usefulness of anything on a web page, depends entirely on the individual visitor's interests at the time of visit. — Georg

The web, and indeed the entire world, is full of imperfections – which may be the reason we're still here and working on it. — Georg

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