Image Replacement Considered Evil
Monday 8 November, 2004 ( 5:46PM GMT)
The answer that was of particular interest to me (in a general web design kinda way) was to the question "what do you think about the various image replacement methods?".
Out of all of the web designers I know, read about and see the work of, I can safely say that my point of view is closer to Johns than most - graphical text is used far too much in web design. But although I do agree with the general gist, I feel the need to pick up a few points. Maybe just to play devil's advocate...
To kick off, I would disagree that image replacement breaks the concept of separating content and presentation. Of course, in visual terms, it doesn't matter if the image is replacing any functional text or not and the image will effectively be conveying the information to those that can see it, but if it can be said to be offering an alternative presentation to any given content then it can safely be defined as presentation. Just because it's made up from a load of pixels rather than a scalable font, what's the difference? - these are both ways of visually presenting content.
John goes on to point out the practical drawbacks of image replacement...
His first point is that IR techniques are not accessible. I wouldn't say that they are not accessible (full stop), but they have severe accessibility problems.
It is a very good (although quite obvious, but so often neglected) point that John makes when he says that accessibility isn't all about accommodating those who are blind and use screen readers - there are other disabilities to consider, such as impaired vision - those who suffer from which will quite possibly have a harder time reading graphical text, which can not be scaled up.
Like biology and "vertebrate bias", web accessibility seems to suffer from screen-reader bias.
Although not ideal, accessibility-wise, if we are forced to use image replacement (and we often are, which I'll come to in a moment), we can make sure that it is as accessible as possible by making sure that text is as large as possible in the first place and that there is alternative content that can be read by screen readers, for example.
His next point is that image-replaced text is ugly, which is very much one mans opinion and something that most designers would most certainly disagree with.
Linked to the accessibility point, he does however say that "due to the different default screen resolutions, and to user control by font zooming, while with CSS and text you can maintain font proportionality using say ems, IR based designs won't scale." which is something that all too often seems to be overlooked in web design. It isn't unusual to find a design based on pixel sizes that breaks down when the text size is changed.
He also says "IR techniques make reusing, updating, restyling content much more difficult" because graphics need to be changed rather than quick text edits. Unfortunately, this is kind of tough luck and it's not something that would stop a designer applying a certain style to any other aspect of a page design.
Image replacement is not going anywhere anytime soon. With so few safe fonts at a designer's disposal (and the fact that they're not anti-aliased by default on older operating systems), graphic designers and clients demand images to be used for text to the extent that IR has become a necessary technique in modern web design.
Sometimes it isn't even a case of one web maker trying to convince one client that functional text is the better option (which is difficult enough) - many organisations have a number of people in control of the design and a number of people in control of the code. And let's not even mention the project managers and the inevitable design by committee. Oops. Too late.
All we can do is our best. When we use image replacement we can apply it in the best possible way to wring out as much accessibility and flexibility out of what is left over.