Gift bags and web accessibility

This week’s “things that just look like things that are handy but are actually accessibility devices too” is “gift bags”.

I love wrapping presents. Dad taught me how, and Mom and Nana gave me tips as well, and I’ve been wrapping presents since I was, like, seven. I love giving gifts. I love finding things. I love goofy wrapping paper.

I am not so fond of the severe back and hip pain that results from leaning over a card table for a few hours wrapping gifts.

I did about an hour of research online to find out whether “gift bags as accessibility tool” was intended or accidental, and to be honest, I couldn’t find it. (If I hit the library I’d probably have a better shot, but it’s vacation week and I’m not leaving the couch.). I can tell you the Hall brothers invented today’s wrapping paper. Hallmark introduced gift bags in 1987 and they indicate that gift bags have been the most popular wrapping method since, but they don’t say whether they invented gift bags, or whether there was a particular reason or story behind the bags.

The fabric gift bags I use are:

  • adorable (and seasonable if that’s your thing)
  • reusable (lowering the cost from “buy a ton of wrapping paper and tags” to “buy a 100 pack of paper gift tags and just tie fresh ones on every year”, and probably better for the environment)
  • much faster than cutting and measuring and all of that
  • pain-free (assuming that bending over a table to wrap things, or standing, or stretching your arms out for significant periods of time are pain-causing)
  • able to be used by anyone who could wrap before, and also by a bunch of people who can’t wrap presents because it’s just not physically, mentally, or  geographically feasible. (Not all of us have room to wrap presents, especially in, say, dorms.)
  • Way faster than wrapping
  • An easier skill level to master than the act of wrapping gifts. (Not all of us have the skills to wrap something other than a rectangle, and for that matter, not all of us are very good at wrapping rectangles. Not all of us were taught how to wrap at age 7 by my dad, apparently.)

What’s this got to do with the web?

Well, there are some folks on the web (who I’m not going to link to because they don’t need the attention) who believe that “accessibility” and “aesthetics” are polar opposites, and that it’s our job as designers to compromise between the two. They encourage us to drop our accessibility standards when aesthetics are on the line.

And that’s bullshit, which of course you already know.

When we make something accessible, we do make something different from a less-accessible option. No one’s going to argue that wrapping paper and gift bags look the same. For that matter, there are some people who may value a wrapped gift more than a gift in a gift bag, and I’m not saying they’re wrong. It takes more work, more skill, and more time to wrap in paper than it does to drop something into a bag.

Some people may value gift bags more than wrapping paper. Gift bags have less environmental impact, are less likely to tear during transportation, and accommodate almost every shape or size of gift.

When we’re measuring the success of a particular process or project, what’s appropriate really goes back to the goal. The intent of wrapping gifts, regardless of the method, is to obscure this object from view using something more aesthetically appealing than a cardboard box or plastic shopping bag.

Both wrapping paper and gift bags hit the goal.

Gift bags do so in a way that’s accessible to more people more of the time than wrapping paper does.

Accessibility and aesthetics aren’t polar opposites. They’re both tools that enhance usability.

I’ve written before about the core heuristics I generally use for design. Two of those heuristics are very frequently at odds: learnability and efficiency. Someone who knows nothing about your system may need you to take it slow so they can learn it. Someone who knows everything about your system may need you to get out of the way with instructions and explanations so they can get their work done. That doesn’t mean the two heuristics are polar opposites; it does mean that both of them (and the rest of the set) need to be accounted for in the design.

The same is true with accessibility and aesthetics. Making something accessible and aesthetic isn’t a compromise, and shifting a product closer to accessible doesn’t mean it’s further from aesthetic, unless you’re a lazy designer or your definition of aesthetic is so narrow-minded that the eye of a needle resembles a chasm in comparison.

Gift bags come in dozens of styles from decorated paper bags that look like magazine covers to mylar-style shiny bits to modern fabrics to burlap country styles.

They also come in different levels of accessibility from “pull one ribbon to close” to “pull both of these ribbons at once” t0 “oh this doesn’t close at all” to “these instructions are intense”. But that accessibility doesn’t map back to aesthetics.

They’re yet another example of accessible solutions to problems being so mainstream that people don’t see them as accessibility devices.

Author: Anne Gibson

Anne Gibson is a Senior Staff Product Designer and General Troublemaker working on design systems from outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She's an editor and writer at The Interconnected. She is also published at A List Apart and The Pastry Box, and publishes short fiction when she's not persuading the terriers to stop wrecking things. (The terriers are winning.)