April 18, 2019

Alt text and accessible publishing

Three guidelines for using (or not using) alt text to create fully accessible images

alt="?" - lead image for article about what constitutues strong alt text for publishers.

Alt text should describe the purpose of an image and why it matters; not just its appearance. What is the image there to convey?

Alt text and image descriptions are some of the most talked about and misunderstood pieces of accessible publishing today. While publishers are adapting to new the new accessibility landscape, most publications are released with alt text that is not up to code.

Truth be told, it can get tricky.

Whether a photo, graph, diagram, flowchart, or map, the alt text and who is able to provide it changes in complexity.

However, once you understand the basics, improving the accessibility of alt text is entirely manageable and a critical step towards producing fully accessible publications.

In this post, learn about the three most important concepts for constructing alt text that drives accessibility and value for all users.



1. Understand when not to include alt text (alt=””)

There are several instances where it is preferred to not include any alt text at all. The general rule is to ask yourself if the alt text will provide value to the end user. If not, leave it out.

Follow these guidelines for when to leave the alt text field completely blank:

  1. The image is merely decorative

  2. The caption sufficiently describes it

  3. Surrounding text sufficiently describes it



2. Avoid unhelpful (but common) uses of alt text

For the majority of images that do need sufficient alt text, there are a few, but very common, bad practices that tend to show up. With a little extra thought, publishers and their service providers can avoid these common mistakes:

Alt=“Image” or “”

Labeling the alt text as “image” is technically “legal” HTML, but it is not helpful to users. Screen readers interpret this as “image: image” which is redundant and does not explain what the image is meant to convey. If the image does not fall under one of the guidelines for no alt text, leaving it blank provides even less value to the user!


Using the file name or other generic identifier like the figure number or type of chart, again, does not enhance a user’s understanding of the image. It says what the image is by object name or as a high-level description of the image type, but does not explain the key goal of alt text: what is the image meant to convey?

Alt= “repeat of caption”

Copying the image caption in the alt text field is a common tactic that is very frustrating for a visually disabled user. In this case, the caption gets read to them twice!

Alt=”don’t forget the transcription”

If graphic contains text, the transcription should be included as alt text. Sometimes, title pages like part and chapter are incorporated as images. Screen readers will not recognize this as text without the transcription included.



3. Make sure the alt text you do provide is meaningful

Now that you understand some of the basic dos and don’ts of alt text, how do you ensure the alt text you do include is meaningful and helpful to users?

What is meaningful alt text?

First, it’s helpful to explain what we mean by “meaningful.”

Alt text should describe the purpose of an image and why it matters; not just its appearance. What is the image there to convey?

Alt text is read aloud to users and its main purpose is to help further his or her understanding of the publication.

Where does meaningful alt text come from?

The other important question to ask is where does meaningful alt text come from? The answer is: it depends.

For a scholarly or STM publication, the author is usually the best person to provide an initial image description. The author knows why the image is included or what it is there to show the reader, which is typically also another scholar or scientist.

For trade books, the author may not specify the images and would not be the appropriate choice. In this case, an editor may be the best person to provide the image description.

In education publishing, it may be the person overseeing the aspects of a larger course program may be the best alt text.

As you can see, it varies.

It is also helpful when someone who really understands the needs of a print-impaired person can weigh-in, but this is not always a reality. Publishing services providers can also provide original alt text in some cases, or copyediting at the very least.

At what stage should original alt text be acquired?

Regardless who provides the alt text, it is helpful to get it in the early stages of a publication’s production lifecycle. When alt text comes at the end of the process, it can be difficult to go back to authors or lead to more rounds of edits and coding that could have been avoided.



Accessible alt text is within reach

With accessibility an increasing priority for all publishers, taking the extra thought to include meaningful alt text is well worth the effort. Really, it can be integrated as a small evolution in your existing workflow.

To assess your image accessibility-readiness, a good place to start is by outlining these three questions:

  1. At what point in your workflow is the original alt text provided

  2. Who provides it?

  3. Who ensures it is appropriate and helpful?

From there, you can start developing the best path forward to attain meaningful at text for accessibility. Especially if you engage the help of your publishing services provider, producing publications with fully accessible images is not far away.

If you would like to learn more, please contact us or read more in this accessibility guide. Apex is committed to helping publishers adapt to new accessibility standards and would love to support you, too.

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