Designing for Colorblind Users

Designers are, typically, pretty much the opposite of colorblind. In fact, a good designer may be able to easily differentiate hundreds of thousands of distinct shades and colors. This skill is not shared by the general population. Some individuals perceive differences in color not at all (though these are a distinct minority), or only with great difficulty. With a virtuoso sense of color, it can be tough for a designer to create visual experiences that favor the colorblind. For this reason, top finance blogs and other high-traffic web regions are often difficult to read for the colorblind. One of the best ways to compensate for this significant user base is to better understand their experience.

Colorblind people represent about 8% and 0.5% of the male and female populations, respectively. While there are a handful of individuals who are born with truly monochromatic vision, most people described as “colorblind” could be better compared to people called “tone deaf”. It’s not that tone deaf people can’t hear tones, or perceive a high pitched tone from a low one. It’s the close contrasts the give difficulty, and it’s closely related colors which are the most troubling for a colorblind person.

But it’s not just any colors. Colorblind people tend to easily perceive different colors, as long as one is much lighter or darker than the other. It’s when two different colors (even as different as red and blue) are the same shade that colorblind people will run into trouble. You’ll be able to see this phenomena in any simple image editing software. Set two different colors, like yellow and green or red and brown, to the same brightness setting. These will be good examples of colors that would confuse the colorblind.

So how does the conscientious designer compensate? There are many ways. One is to be generally aware of providing brightness contrast to designs, particularly to those parts which are meant to be interactive. Designers should be conscious of things like hover shading. A suddenly darkened window of text may render it unreadable to the colorblind, especially if the new coloration is a similar darkness to the text.

But light and darkness isn’t the only way to give the colorblind a hand. It’s also sufficient to use objects and shapes to give distinct appearances to key features. One helpful example that people sometimes use is the design of simple playing cards. Even though a severely colorblind person might have trouble seeing the difference between dark red and black, the distinct shapes of the hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds are enough that anyone playing can understand what’s going on.

Most professional web design firms, like Web Design Belfast, are already equipped to handle issues like these, and accommodating the colorblind has become second nature. But independent designers need to add this to their considerations when they are designing things that the general public is going to use. Creators of art often use closely contrasting colors to play with the eye, like so-called psychedelic art in the 60’s. But for creators of functional design, it’s important to make sure that the visual and interactive aspects of a piece of work are visible to all.

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