Whenever one of my friends and I hang out on our college campus or on a video call, we always end up talking about interesting architecture or building designs that we’ve learned about online or in different classes. While I may not be able to see a lot of the small details in the pictures of unique buildings, my friend will describe them to me with lots of detail so that I am able to imagine what they look like in my head. Here are my tips for how to write image descriptions for buildings and architecture for people with visual impairments, inspired by a post request I received.
WHAT IS ALT TEXT? WHAT IS AN IMAGE DESCRIPTION?
Alt text tells people what is in an image, such as text, colors, or basic essential details. If an image fails to load, alt text will display in its place. Search engines also index alt text information and consider it a factor when determining search engine ratings.
An image description gives more details than alt text and allows someone to learn more about what is in an image that goes beyond alt text. Alt text gives the user the most important information while image descriptions provide further detail. For example, alt text tells someone that there is an image of a red brick house, while an image description gets into more detail and shares that the house is two stories, the front door is white, and there are large white columns in front of the house.
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SHOULD I USE BOTH ALT TEXT AND IMAGE DESCRIPTIONS?
When posting images of buildings or other types of architecture online, I recommend including both alt text and image descriptions as it can be difficult to include thorough descriptions of a particular building or design with a limited amount of characters. Alt text is read out loud when hovering over the image, while image descriptions are typically written in a different area so that the user can choose whether they want to read the extended description or not. It is strongly recommended that alt text be 125 characters or less to ensure compatibility for popular screen readers. Image descriptions can be longer, but I recommend only using a few sentences when creating a description.
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What to include when writing alt text about buildings and architecture
Helpful information to include when writing alt text for buildings and architecture includes:
- The type of structure that is being shown, such as a house, church, capital building, monument, etc
- For landmarks, mentioning the name of the structure is helpful, such as the Space Needle or a building at a specific university
- The general size of the structure- is it a small house or large skyscraper?
- The color and material of the structure, which is especially helpful for historical structures
- Any distinctive features, such as if the house is on wheels or if the stairs to a structure are woven around a ramp
- Any text or relevant signs in the image
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What to include when writing image descriptions about buildings and architecture
Helpful information to include when writing image descriptions for buildings and architecture includes:
- All information that is included in alt text
- More specific details about the size of the structure, such as the height or amount of stories
- If available, the city/country the structure is located in, i.e the Gateway Arch is in St Louis, Missouri
- The scenery/time of day, if it alters the appearance of the structure, i.e a building that is lit up at night or a crowd in front of a door
- The name or description of the architectural style, if available/relevant- for example, the buildings in the capital city of Astana, Kazakhstan are very futuristic and surreal looking, while the White House in Washington, DC is in a neoclassical federal style
- Any other interesting features such as a slanted roof or stained glass windows
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What to exclude when writing alt text and image descriptions about buildings and architecture
Information to exclude when writing alt text and image descriptions for buidlings and architecture includes:
- Specific measurements for every part of the building, unless they are otherwise shown in the image
- Over-describing what colors look like- I know what red looks like, but I would be interested to know if the front door was bright red or burgundy
- Mundane details such as the exact number of stairs or windows, unless this information is significant- I’m excited to learn about a spiral staircase with a thousand steps, but less excited to learn about a thirteen-step staircase inside a house
- Irrelevant background information such as if the sky is blue
- Random facts that are not related to the image, such as the population of the city the building is located in
- Commentary about the building/architecture style- write alt text and image descriptions objectively whenever possible
Where to put an image description
Trying to figure out where to put an image description for the visually impaired? Some websites have a dedicated image description section that is next to the alt text field, so screen reader users can easily find the description. However, since many people who benefit from image descriptions do not use screen readers, it’s better to include the image description in the caption of the image so that it is easier to locate. This is recommended by many journalists and media outlets, including NPR and National Geographic.
On social media, I recommend adding the description to the caption of the post if space allows, though adding it in the comment section is also a common practice. If the image description is in the comment section, make note of this within the caption. I also recommend writing the phrase “Image Description:” or “ID:” in front of the description so that users know what it is.
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Because other users have taken the time to add alt text and image descriptions for buildings and architecture, I have been able to learn about a lot of stunning structures from not only my country, but from all around the world. While I may not be able to see a lot of these details with my eyes, it’s fun to imagine what these places look like at different times of the year or at night. I hope that this guide for writing alt text and image descriptions for buildings and architecture is helpful for others!