By Hal Hinderliter, Northern Illinois University

The desire to communicate through graphic elements is as old as humanity, but the last century has been a time of sweeping change for mass communication methods. Processes for the high-volume reproduction of commercial and artistic content have been repeatedly transformed on multiple occasions and in multiple ways (Romano & Romano, 1998). Descriptions of these transformations have tended to focus on great men and their achievements (Epstein, 2008: Steinberg, 2017) but these changes have also been portrayed as incrementally driven by multiple external influences (Wallace & Kalleberg, 1982). Such changes have extended beyond print production to include related non-print tasks. The capabilities of printing companies, design studios, and other allied firms have modernized and expanded to include non-print services such as website design and email campaign development in addition to the conversion of printed documents to the Portable Document Format (PDF), web forms, or interactive media (Bennett et al., 2006).

Accessibility as a Service

This list of capabilities is poised to change again, as awareness increases regarding the need for all graphic communication to be made accessible to audiences with physical or cognitive limitations (DAISY Consortium, n.d.-a). Advocates for the disabled are speaking out about the inaccessibility of printed documents, with recommendations for improvements (Vera Institute of Justice, 2017; Sket, 2018; Royal National Institute of Blind People, n.d.). Increasingly, these demands are finding traction due to legal actions that force compliance (Weissman, 2020). As a result of this potential for litigation, print buyers are more likely than ever to request accessibility services—if the print service provider can show competency in the necessary tools and processes.

Accessibility services include the skillful remediation of Microsoft Word documents and other file formats to meet accessibility standards, editing PDFs in Adobe Acrobat to add structure and tags, configuring metadata storage of alternative textual descriptions (alt text), instituting workflows that automatically incorporate such metadata, and more. However, knowing how to design, produce, and maintain accessible documents is not the only way in which accessibility can become a valued service for graphic communicators. Color contrast, legibility, tactile information (e.g., Braille printing and refreshable terminals), and interactive data displays are among the new competencies emerging from society’s increased emphasis on inclusivity.

Visual Depictions and Printed Books

Acknowledging the need for these services requires us to consider the exclusive nature of our purely visual depictions. By critically examining document formats as social conventions within socially constructed genres, we can recognize that all media are not equally valued. Our collective notions of authorship are tightly bound to the traditional conception of printed works as physical objects of rarity and prestige. Readers love that books and magazines enable authors to tell their stories, and those texts empower the authors we respect as privileged voices. Such trust and authority are not, however, derived solely from the words employed but from the chosen communication channel as well. Kress (2005) explains that print’s valorization is connected to “the long domination in the West of writing as the culturally most valued form of representation: and more, the long association of the mode of writing with the equally dominant, valued and powerful medium, namely the book” (pg. 5). Kress says that printed books have always been elitist artifacts; while the replacement of scribes with handset metal type may have allowed the mass production of books, it did little to alter an existing power structure in which the gatekeeping role of publishers created and supported the prestige claimed by authors.

Print design, as embodied by academic books and journals, serves as a reminder of this elite status even after encapsulation as PDF. “Convention is the result of social power over time, expressed in the form of laws and rules” (p. 16), noted Kress. “Representation and communication are motivated by the social; its effects are outcomes of the economic and the political” (p. 6).

Transforming Communication Channels

This axiology influenced the transformation of communication channels from print to digital distribution. In the mid-1980s, the emergence of desktop publishing software and hardware spawned a new era of computer-mediated communication (Hinderliter, 2000). A decade later came the development of the World Wide Web, the impact of which was initially limited. Over time, however, the production and circulation of books, journals, and other long-form texts has been radically affected by the growth of computer-mediated communication. In academia and in large swathes of the private sector, the transfer of digital files as a substitute for the circulation of printed books and journals has become the norm (Casselden & Pears, 2020; Davidson, 2005).

Some categories of commercial print were already “going digital” in the early years of the 21st century, while other applications have proven resistant to change (Romano, 2010). The breakthrough success in mass distribution of digital documents was the Internal Revenue Service’s 1996 adoption of the PDF format (at the time, a proprietary product of Adobe Corporation) for the online distribution of data collection forms, e.g., U.S. Individual Income Tax Return Form 1040. Broad acceptance of this replacement heralded a sea change for the collection of consumer data, an application that has seen a steady migration away from print-based collection methods into online forms (Lawlor, 1998). Today, outside of packaging applications where print is being used to decorate a consumer good’s container, categories that have not yet converted to paperless workflows are those where print’s materiality is valorized. This status becomes apparent when “hard copies” printed on corporate letterhead are brought to high-level business meetings even though the same document was already distributed to the attendees electronically. Similarly, many professors continue to distribute their syllabi in printed form during the initial class meeting despite that same document’s availability from the school’s learning management system.

From Print to Digital

Traditional approaches to graphic communication can leave accessibility as an afterthought, but digital file formats and electronic distribution can provide a path to universal access. At the onset of this transformation, attempts to unseat print as the dominant method of document distribution met substantial resistance (see Wu, 2005). A factor in this dynamic was print’s materiality. Viewed within the context of their materiality, printed documents are “real”; they possess a physical space and are substantive in nature. Rhetorician Richard Lanham summarized the importance of materiality decades ago, noting, “It is only when we compare print to its pixeled analogue that we realize how talismanic the physical book and journal have become. Will we feel as good about a text that exists only in electronic form, or as cheap printouts?” (Lanham, 1993, p. 20).

Whether the documents being communicated are manifestations of thought-provoking research or simply the new semester’s syllabus, the gravitas of materiality is still highly valued. “Materiality goes beyond the logic of modes,” Kress (2005, p. 14) told us; “Materiality affects the core of representation” (p. 15). As generations enculturated with print slowly became accustomed to reading from computer monitors, however, the perceived value of materiality began to fade. This change was aided by the arrival of the PDF format, whose perfect fidelity to printed documents made it print’s logical successor (Hinderliter, in press). Unfortunately, the question of whether those PDFs might be accessible to audiences that use assistive technologies had not yet come to the fore.

The Path to an Accessible Format

Longer texts saved in the PDF format are sometimes referred to as electronic books (“ebooks”), but PDFs are not the only file format used for this purpose. The first ebooks emerged a half- century ago as text-only ASCII files (Manley & Holley, 2012) but are now available in a variety of different file formats. Most notably, three competing options are fighting for market dominance: PDF files, KF8 files (for Amazon’s Kindle devices), and the open-source EPUB format. The popularity of handheld Kindle devices has created a devoted fan base for their KF8 ebooks, but the ubiquitous PDF file remains the most common way to distribute self-contained digital documents. In contrast to these options, a growing movement is urging schools to eschew proprietary Kindles and for libraries abandon their PDF repositories in favor of the EPUB format (DAISY Consortium, n.d.-b). As proponents of universal design principles, these activists favor documents that are universally accessible to both sighted audiences and those who use assistive technologies, including but not limited to screen readers and refreshable braille displays for the visually impaired.

The EPUB format can be traced back to the Digital Audio-based Information System (DAISY), developed under the direction of the Swedish Library of Talking Books and Braille. Today, EPUB is an open-source standard that is managed by the International Digital Publishing Forum, recently incorporated into the W3C. In contrast to the proprietary history of KF8 ebooks, modifications to the EPUB format have always been guided by public debate.

The EPUB file format preserves documents as self-contained packages that manage navigation and presentation separately from the document’s reflowable content, allowing users to alter font sizes, typefaces, and color schemes to suit their individual preferences. The specification supports synchronized audio narration, embedded video, MathML equations, HTML5 animations, and Javascript-based interactivity as well as metadata, hyperlinks, embedded fonts, text (saved as XHTML files), and illustrations in both Scalable Vector Graphic (SVG) and pixel-based formats. Ebooks saved in the EPUB format are compatible with Apple’s iPads and iPhones as well as Sony’s Reader, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and an expansive selection of software applications for desktop, laptop, and tablet computers. Increasingly, that list includes accessibility focused screen reader software such as AZARDI Desktop and Voice Dream as well as mass market applications such as Apple’s Books app and Adobe’s Digital Editions. Through these tools, a single file format—EPUB—can be readily accessed and fully enjoyed by both sighted and visually impaired audiences.

Meeting the Need

Challenging our prevailing geometrically bound document design conventions, the emergence of the EPUB format is a modern phenomenon that responds to a latent social need for universal access. Broad public acceptance may have led authors, graphic designers, and publishers to operationalize the production of digital documents as PDFs, but providing full access for all audiences is an exigency worthy of attention. To that end, new pedagogies have been theorized that emphasize accessibility in instruction (Walters, 2010). Among them, Rose et al.’s (2006) Universal Design for Learning advances that “there is no one way of presenting information or transferring knowledge that is optimal for all students. Multiple means of representation are key” (p. 137). In UDL, each form of assistive technology (AT) qualifies as another form of representation. This means that EPUB documents alone can provide multiple means of representation: in addition to being viewed on screen, they can be read aloud by realistic computer-generated human voices or connected to hardware AT devices such as refreshable braille displays. Some applications can highlight each word of text as it is being read aloud; this is another powerful form of representation for students with dyslexia or other issues with print comprehension (Petrie et al., 2005). Modern smartphones are powerful platforms for app- based ebook reading systems designed to accommodate a variety of user needs, including low-vision users who still wish to engage with visual and textual representations. In addition to a computer-synthesized voiceover of the text, EPUB apps allow readers to alter the book's typeface as well as the size of the text, then reflow the words and images according to the reading system's display orientation.

Accessibility is a mandatory component of every EPUB. In contrast, only a small percentage of PDF files are likely to have undergone the optional steps required to achieve accessibility for assistive technology users. This core accessibility makes EPUBs a superior format for government communications, including academia. Both of these opportunities—EPUB production and PDF remediation—should be addressed by graphic communicators to show that they can maintain responsibility for the customer’s message across multiple communication channels.

Many skills are shared in common between PDF remediation and EPUB production. Understanding the document composition process allows authors’ practices to be addressed prior to remediating accessibility issues during document production and post-production stages (Hinderliter, 2019). For graphic arts educators, expanding students’ portfolios to include accessible document production represents an addition to (not a replacement for) the rich variety of production skills they currently offer.

Expanding Capabilities

To augment the production of printed documents, the ability to also distribute these items as PDFs—digital documents that purposely mimic the appearance of printed documents—has proven to be an essential skill for graphic communicators. That skill set should now be augmented to include the reproduction of word processing files and page layout documents as EPUB documents. Times are changing on issues of accessibility, and new opportunities are being created. As society begins to address longstanding inequities regarding issues of gender, race, and disability, the time has arrived for graphic communicators to embrace the new skills needed to improve publishing’s inclusivity.


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Dr. Hal Hinderliter is an instructor in the department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment at Northern Illinois University. After more than twenty years of courseware development and consulting for the printing and publishing industries, Hal Hinderliter returned to academia to earn his Ph.D. in Instructional Technology with a focus on accessibility and online learning. Hal has taught classes focused on digital literacy and software skills, spoken at academic conferences on topics including multimedia learning, accessibility, and ebooks, and has conducted research into technology adoption, online presentation styles, and distance education. He has participated in the development of multiple online classes at NIU, and his lesson plans on EPUB creation were selected for inclusion in the Digital Library Federation’s DLFteach Toolkit. Hal is an active researcher, with new titles currently in press.