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Re: Illustrating Guidelines

From: Paul Bohman <paulb@cpd2.usu.edu>
Date: Thu, 10 May 2001 10:59:30 -0600
Message-ID: <007d01c0d972$94cfa830$20117b81@paul>
To: "Bailey, Bruce" <Bruce.Bailey@ed.gov>, "'Anne Pemberton'" <apembert@erols.com>
Cc: <w3c-wai-gl@w3.org>
RE: Illustrating GuidelinesAnne:

I have been "listening in" on this topic for some time, and I applaud your
efforts. I can tell that you have caused people to think from a fresh
perspective, even though you may not have convinced everyone yet of your
point of view. I want to talk about the substance of illustrations in this
email (not specifically yours, but in general).

As I understand it, the principle that you are trying to show is:
"Illustrations should be provided for all text" or perhaps "... for all
concepts".

If this is a misstatement of your point, please say so.

I want to, just for a minute, take the concept to a certain sort of extreme,
for the sake of bringing up some issues. I know that you're not saying to
literally get rid of the text and put graphics in their place, but for
someone who is incapable of understanding text, the end result of an
illustrated page should, in theory, be that the page is understandable
without the text. In fact, for someone who cannot understand text, this is
the _only_ option. The illustrated page (even if it contains text) is a
collections of graphical elements of communication.

For this to work, an illustration would have to accompany *every concept*.
For a complex and/or long document, this is a tall order (but that's getting
into issues of practicality and cost, which I'd like to avoid for the
moment). Maybe a Web page would look like a comic strip. Many of us have
seen comic strips that convey actions and tell stories, sometimes without
any words (other than *Bam!* *Bif! and *Socko!* <smile>). I do believe that
stories can be told this way. I've seen it. If the document does not tell a
story, though, I think the concepts can be more difficult to illustrate.

For example, if I wanted to provide an illustrated version of the above
paragraphs, to make them understandable without the text, I would be at a
loss. I think I could illustrate some of what I've said, but every sentence
conveys a different concept. Some sentences would require multiple
illustrations, and I'm still not sure that the concept would be communicated
effectively. Aside from the artistic skill and hours involved, I honestly
don't think that illustrations are effective under some circumstances.

Keep in mind that I am an artist. I have painted, drawn, sculpted, printed
and illustrated things all of my life. I'll be the first one to say that
illustrations can be useful sometimes. Some paintings communicate massive
amounts of information in ways that text cannot.

I'll give one quick example. Picasso's "Guernica" (available at
http://picasso.urbannet.ru/images/img_53.htm). This painting graphically
illustrates the massacre of civilians in the Spanish village of Guernica. It
is a political statement, a moral statement, and an artistic accomplishment
for its style, size (it's very large), and emotional impact. However, not
all that the painting communicates is available from the painting alone. If
someone had not told me the historical context, I could have still
recognized the agony in the faces of the people and animals, but I would not
have known why. Also, there is an image that resembles the "all-seeing eye
of God". This is an icon, but it is not universally understood as such. U.S.
citizens may have seen this icon on the back of their dollar bills, and may
thus be somewhat familiar with it, but I bet that if you randomly asked U.S.
citizens to explain what the eye on the top of the pyramid represents, more
than half of them couldn't do it.

Does Picasso's Guernica communicate more effectively than text? For
emotional visual impact: definitely. But probably not without some
background knowledge. Perhaps some of this background knowledge can also be
illustrated. Can all of it? Only to a certain degree of specificity. I
postulate that, under some circumstances, text/language is the only way to
communicate certain concepts. Perhaps the same can be said of graphics.
Certain things can only be communicated visually. It goes both ways.

I am in favor of illustrating the WCAG. I think it can be done, and you've
shown that illustrations are possible. I am in favor of listing
illustrations of concepts as a Web accessibility principle somehow. I think
that illustrations are often a part of effective message communication,
regardless of disability status.

**The biggest drawback to illustrations as the sole means of communication
is that they are left to personal interpretation to a greater degree than
text is. If you look up Picasso's "Guernica" in the library or on the
Internet, you will find countless interpretations by leading art experts,
complete with disagreements in interpretation.

When I create a work of art, I am sometimes astounded at the interpretations
that other people come up with. The work of art takes on a life of its own.
My original intentions may be totally invisible to someone else, and, in
fact, I've been surprised to listen to someone else point out a part of my
artwork that I never realized was there before, but which were true
observations even though they had to be pointed out to me.

The number of truly universal icons are few. Faces are quite universal.
Studies have shown that even newborns of vastly different cultural heritage
could still recognize faces as being happy, sad, mad or scared. Beyond this
and other simple icons, the amount of possible interpretation increases
dramatically.

*IN CONCLUSION*: I do not hesitate to recommend that illustrations accompany
text-based concepts (or even replace them under some circumstances) when
appropriate. I believe that illustrations are excellent when used well. I
also believe that they are not universally appropriate, nor universally
understood. Because of this, I don't think that we should recommend the
unversal application of illustrations to all content. The fact that this
princple is now missing from the guidelines should probably be revisited. I
think it could be appropriate to include the concept of illustrations
somehow, but not as a sweeping "mandate".

Paul Bohman
Technology Coordinator
WebAIM: Web Accessibility in Mind (www.webaim.org)
Center for Persons with Disabilities (www.cpd.usu.edu)
Utah State University (www.usu.edu)
Received on Thursday, 10 May 2001 12:57:56 GMT

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