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Alt text and inclusive communication: Is a picture really worth a thousand words?

Published on 27 September 2022
Updated on 04 April 2024

Alt text – a text description of an image that can be read by a screen reader – gives visually impaired users auditory input to describe visual media, whether it be a logo, an infographic, or an emotional plea transmitted by a photograph or a drawing. If a web page designer put it there, isn’t it important? If the image is important, shouldn’t all visitors be aware of it? It’s all about communication, isn’t it?

Images communicate on many levels, and a text description will not be the same, nor replicate, the evocative emotion transmitted by visual art. Yet, traditional viewers often miss many of the nuances meant for their eyes too. Should these remain hidden like Easter eggs in a video game? Are only the cognoscenti meant to understand these subtleties? I honestly don’t know.

I do know that we talk about inclusion and accessibility all the time. It’s a priority for the United Nations, for the sustainable development goals (SDGs), for national governments, for communities, and for NGOs. It’s a high priority for Diplo and for the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the Internet Society (ISOC), and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Web accessibility is the law in many places, as a matter of fact, and our funders and followers look at these details too. 

If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, why don’t all writers and editors require that images in their work have alt text? Doesn’t this adage imply that verbal cues, especially alternative text, or alt text, for images on websites should be championed by editors, authors, and graphic artists of all kinds, as a way to enhance their work? 

An example of effective alt text: Can you imagine the photo?

  1. Diplo Director Jovan Kurbalija.
  2. Diplo Director Jovan Kurbalija speaks on a panel at the IGF.
  3. Diplo Director Jovan Kurbalija laughs as he points to a fly on his bald head while speaking on a panel at the IGF.

Highlighting the creator’s intention

You’re a visual artist, not a writer, you say? Let another person write the alt text for you; you can review and revise it, and then embed it in your work. Otherwise, maybe I’ll write it for you, and the reader will get to know the visual piece according to Ginger, but that might not be what you, the artist or creator, meant if you don’t check my work. I often write alt text for online images. I enjoy it. It helps me understand and appreciate levels of communication I don’t usually see, but it makes me wonder what I’ve missed, especially with some amazing illustrations. 

We don’t always do well with alt text when we have tight deadlines. If alt text were embedded in our visual work as accessibility by design, the creator would have control of the narrative, and it could be available for multiple uses – a blog post, an article, or a web page whenever they need it.

Alt text and search engine optimisation (SEO)

Cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris surrounded by clouds

Cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris (ImageSEO, 2021)

  1. Perfect alt text for SEO: Cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris surrounded by clouds
  2. Decent alt text for SEO: Notre-Dame de Paris
  3. Bad alt text for SEO: Cathedral

Alt text for images: Examples & 2021 best SEO practices

Alt text is low-hanging fruit in the inclusion landscape. Are we just ticking the boxes when we publish, or are we really doing our best? Are you a content creator or collaborator? I’m willing to bet that one of your admirers (like me in Diplo) is willing and happy to help. Don’t believe me? Drop me a line in the comments to tell me about your experience.

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