Colour Blindness and Why You Should Care

Coming from a family where almost every man in my life (my Dad, three brothers, and my son) is red/green colour challenged, it’s been something that I consider in almost everything I do. I won’t regale you with stories of disastrous wardrobe choices, fondue fork confusions, farming challenges (Is it still green?), non-option careers (no pilots, electricians, police officers or firefighters in my family) or tales from school (Why did you colour your Mom’s hair green?) but believe me, I have a few stories to tell!

Naturally, colour interpretation has always been of personal interest to me. But I’ll make my case for why it should be of interest to you if it isn’t already.

It has been estimated that anywhere from 7 to 12% of caucasian males are colour blind. Women are rarely colour blind but they pass the gene on to their children.

Many of us are involved with the design and presentation of visuals … all kinds of documentation, website and blog designs, power point presentations, display posters, visual evidence for trials, etc. When you consider the number of colour challenged people out there, odds are that some of the people looking at the visuals we design are colour blind. What does it mean to us if they can’t see our information clearly? What if some people aren’t using your website because they have trouble seeing the links? How does it impact the course of a trial if the judge or some members of the jury can’t properly differentiate the lines on a chart describing how an accident in question took place?

There is a good article on colour blindness, with links and photographic examples, at Wikipedia. I typically bold my links so it’s easier for a colour blind person to see them.

There are guidelines available on the web for how to design all kinds of things with the colour challenged people in mind. This goes for brochures, charts, maps, websites, to name a few. Imagine a teacher using pink chalk on a green chalk board. Imagine how hard it must be for a colourblind person to distinguish the various colours on a map. Christmas must just be a sea of brownish tones. Picking strawberries can be a bit challenging. How hard would it be for a colourblind person to see a green/red/brown design on a website? An orange line on green grass marking the boundaries of a sports field? For the farmers in my family it’s a challenge to know when a crop is ripe and ready to harvest. They go by texture, taste, scent, timing and consultation.

Here is a good resource for designing for people across the spectrum. This, too, is a good article about colour design for colour challenged people. If you search for information about colour blindness on the web, you’ll find a wealth of information and examples to suit your needs. Here is a great example of how websites must be careful about colour design.

It was wonderful for me to finally be able to really see what all my colour blind family members see and you can do that, too, by using Vischeck.. The first time I ran a picture through Vischeck I cried, it was such a shock. But I quickly got over it. My son doesn’t appear to have suffered any for being colour blind and, in fact, it’s probably made him more gregarious. As a young boy he always had to speak up and say, “Hey! Is this green or red?”, to which we (and his classmates) often ended up saying, “Neither, it’s brown. “

Comments

  1. I must add, that though I’ve never tested Slaw, I think it has been designed with colour challenged people in mind. Blue links contrast well enough with the black text (whereas red links wouldn’t, for example) and the background doesn’t cause any problems. Thanks for the thoughtful design, Simon!

    Are there an colour blind readers who can comment?

  2. I was interested to read (in the Globe, I think) that it’s now believed that some women possess a third set of visual receptors that allow them to be super colour spotters, distinguishing among various subtle shades of ecru (aka beige, ivory, dun, sand, etc.).

  3. My mother lives in a house painted (to me) in all white and beige, but she swears there is a lot of colour. Maybe she is one of those?

    Heather, thanks so much for this thoughtful post. I have a close relative who is colour blind, but I would never have translated his challenges to the web when designing a site. I will now have to look at what I create with new eyes!

  4. Thanks for the article, Heather. I only became aware a couple of years ago – at age 35! – that I, too, was “colour-blind”. I put the term in quotes because, like many so-called colour-blind people, I can distinguish red and green just fine. However, my reds and greens, it appears, are just a little bit different from most people’s reds and greens. In fact, so far as I can tell, the only thing that normal vision people can do that I can’t is pass the Ishihara polka-dot tests. “Colour-blindness” is not a single condition, but a whole variety (the Wikipedia article gives an excellent overview).

    We all see the world in different ways, no ? A useful thing to remember, in my opinion.

  5. As I understand it there are great variations in the way individuals see colours. It makes me wonder how what I see varies from what the person next to me sees. Simon, what you describe must apply to my mother-in-law! The woman is a wonder. I’m always blown away by how she can pick up something in a store and say “it’s the exact shade of ___ as that ____ you have.” And she’s always right! I would be almost always wrong.

    Especially after using Vischeck, I make sure I have yellow flowers in my garden for my Dad, brothers and son. All those reds and pinks and greens look like varying shades of browns and golds to them. Sadly uninteresting. I make sure there are bright spots of yellow now.

    Still, what a colour challenged person sees seems normal to him or her. I was a little upset when I knew that my son saw my complexion (normally rosy and pinkish) as only “beigish”. How do they detect someone with a fever? They must be especially skilled at picking up tonal shades and/or other cues. In fact, I recall being told that colour blind people were useful in the war for picking out the enemies’ camoflauge from the air. And you should see my family do a jigsaw puzzle. Even though you’ll often see them trying to stick a grass piece into the middle of a rose, they are just as good at puzzling as the rest of us. Shape is their guide and they’re very good at it!