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A Designer’s Life with Color Vision Deficiency
I’ll answer that question throughout this post, but given my passion for design and now my profession, it’s something that’s always been on my mind. I’m not sure if having a “normal” vision as a kid would have made me a better artist. Would it help me perform better in my current job? Would I have chosen a more design-oriented profession over a more development-oriented one? These are just a few of the ideas that come to mind.
In terms of my employment and color vision, colorblindness hasn’t had as much of an impact as you might assume. During design meetings, I can immediately point out places where our color palette needs to be reconsidered. I’m able to illustrate why we need to assess how—and if—we’re just expressing information using color while examining layouts. I enjoy that I can contribute a unique viewpoint and a voice for those who are like me; I can provide insights that others may not have.
Because such flaws are operationally imperceptible in the time, it’s easier to brush over them when you can see a broader variety of colors. If a design team lacks a member who perceives color differently, it’s critical that they find a means to test with real people who do. There’s no replacement for the genuine article.
Between workarounds that anyone can use when color-sensitive situations arise and understanding how to distinguish myth from actual, smart usability practices for vision differences (as well as which design tools to use), I’d like to clear up a few misconceptions about designing with color and designing for color accessibility.
Color vision deficit, or CVD, is a better description of the sort of impairment I have.
When people learn I’m color blind, they assume I can’t see colors at all, that my entire field of vision is monochrome, and that I’m genuinely color blind. Because most patients with CVD can see a wide range of colors, the phrase is inaccurate and confusing. (Some patients suffer from a form of CVD known as “monochromacy,” which causes total color blindness.) About one out of every 30,000 people is afflicted, and they perceive the world in grayscale.)
The most widely recognized kind of color blindness is red-green color blindness, but CVD is considerably more intriguing and has a wider range of definitions.
This is a question I’ve been asked more times than I can remember. My response is usually the same: I can’t say anything since it’s nearly impossible for me to do so. Colors become more difficult to identify for me the less vibrant they are. The sky is blue, a stop sign is red, the grass is green, and Big Bird is yellow, as I can confirm with full confidence. I can notice those colors because they’re bold, whether by design or by nature. However, as soon as I start putting specific colors next to one other, it becomes more challenging for me. There are no colors that I am unable to perceive; rather, certain hues get muddy and begin to merge together. That is simply my version of CVD; it is not the same for everyone.
Humans don’t have the finest color vision when it comes to light sensors. To be honest, they’re not up to pace with the majority of species. As a species, we are sadly color blind.
Furthermore, normal, “accurate” color vision differs from one person to the next; just tiny anatomical changes decide whether your eyes are normal, “color blind,” or have additional (!) color vision abilities. Let’s have a look at everything.
Without going into too much detail, I can tell you that our retinas are in charge of our color vision. Rods and cones are the two primary kinds of cells in retinas. Cones are highly specialized for detail and picking up a certain range of light wavelengths, whereas rods are largely responsible for interpreting brightness/intensity levels. A person with normal color vision has three types of cones, one for short, medium, and long wavelengths of light, respectively.
Each cone’s bandwidth is curved like a bell curve and is unique to that cone inside your eye; nevertheless, there are overlaps between cones. Cones don’t truly correlate to specific hues, but because long wavelengths trend toward red, medium wavelengths go toward green, and short wavelengths trend toward blue, you’ll hear them referred to as red, green, and blue cones for the sake of convenience (Fig. 1).
Color vision problems can arise when one or more of these cones are absent or have low sensitivity (such as a restricted range), or when color perception in the brain is affected by a variety of other factors. This implies that some hues in the spectrum effectively “fade out,” but because the light is still present, the brain interprets it as a color based on peripheral data picked up by other cones and the brightness intensity of the light.
We may argue that “accurate” color vision is partly subjective since it is based on how our eyes and brain interpret light, and since our eyes have varied genetic sensitivities to light. Even those with “accurate” color vision don’t always view things the same way.
Tetrachromats have increased color distinction owing to increased sensitivity between red and green, and some people have a fourth cone cell in their retinas. The additional cone was once considered typical for most animals, but current research suggests that 12% of the world’s women still have this fourth form of a cone.
Some colors and wavelengths are invisible because human eyes lack the necessary sensors, while others are obscured by anatomical makeup. The lens and cornea physically filter very short wavelengths, which is why, although having the sensor potential, humans can’t perceive UV light directly. That isn’t an issue for persons who have aphakia (loss of a lens in one or both eyes, whether congenital or due to surgical removal); they may naturally discern color changes in near-ultraviolet light.
I believe that each individual with a CVD faces unique problems. There is also a slew of circumstances, social and professional roadblocks, and kinds of discrimination and abuse that we’re expected to quietly accept.
Vision impairments and color vision variations are frequently dismissed as odd, amusing occurrences on some enigmatic map between normal and “blind” vision. Condescending words and contemptuous behavior are commonplace among people with CVDs. It’s an unnoticed and misunderstood battle that doesn’t have to be. It increases my drive to educate people on this issue because I want to make a difference.
I’ve received plenty of passive-aggressive remarks regarding my work choice. Also, I’d want to talk about my love of art and design. After all, how can I be a designer if I can’t see colors?
On two levels, a query like that is patronizing. One, it’s as if no one should be permitted to be an artist unless they have a good sense of color. Two, it demonstrates total insularity or a misunderstanding of color vision impairments.
Although I now work mostly as a front-end developer, I used to design web layouts in Photoshop early in my career. I didn’t write any code. I didn’t even know how to code in HTML. I never had a problem with colors because I usually started with a client’s corporate branding requirements and was able to use color palette generators to assist me to flesh out the appearance of my designs. I was never chastised for my color selections, so I thought I was doing a decent job.
It wasn’t until I was speaking with my supervisor, a man I admired as a professional, that I let down my guard and revealed that I was colorblind. He then went on to question my whole decision to choose a job that I enjoy. To say the least, it was a difficult and discouraging experience for a young professional to sit through and digest.
Over the years, it feels as if I’ve had to explain my professional choices and skill set on a regular basis—as if CVD precludes me from doing a decent job. In general, it isn’t something that comes up very frequently in my day-to-day work.
Most of my coworkers are only aware that I have a CVD if I mention it. I get a thrill out of seeing how long it takes for a circumstance to arise where I can bring it up. With new software and online technologies that I can utilize when necessary, it’s been a small concern over the years.
Take a minute to consider how color is used to communicate information in the environment around you. One example that comes to me is traffic lights. The employment of color to guide drivers on how to proceed is common. There is no further information provided if a driver is colorblind. Traffic lights employ red and green, two of the most frequently associated colors with color blindness. Fortunately, most traffic signals are designed in the same way. The top is red, the middle is yellow, and the bottom is green. Even if I couldn’t see the color, if I could figure out which light was on, I’d be able to get the information I needed.
Regrettably, not all designs are made equal, and there may be no secondary or additional indicators to rely on. When anything is exclusively transmitted by color, there is a gap in which information might be missed by a wide audience.
Exchanging experiences with others who were colorblind as a child seem all too familiar. When it comes to people finding out for the first time, most of us have had similar experiences. As if it were a combination of a question and answer session and a dog and pony show.
“What color is this?” people ask us all the time. “What color does this seem like?” (points to a nearby object). Then we watch as the person who posed the question’s mind is blown since we can’t see the proper color. Meanwhile, getting the hue right might be difficult at times. The asker’s expression is first and foremost befuddled. They don’t understand how we can be colorblind yet perceive color at the same time, leading to additional queries and “tests.” It converts a potentially quick encounter into a prolonged and technical discussion, sometimes at an inconvenient time or location.
Because most individuals I come into touch with have no idea what color blindness is, I’ve learned that these interactions will never go away. I may either become irritated by being bombarded with questions, or I may use the chance to teach.
When I was a teenager, I was the first person to be turned down for a job because of my CVD. It was a part-time job after school, and I was informed flat out that it was due to my color blindness. A position in the frame shop at a big-box crafts store where I’d been working for almost a year had come available. After being told I’d gotten the job, my manager discovered I’m colorblind and told me I wasn’t eligible to work in the frames department because of it. There was no more debate. I had to observe while one of my employees took up the role.
That may have seemed like a tiny blip on my adolescent radar at the time, but I had no idea it was the first of many. I ultimately convinced myself not to inform new employers or coworkers about my color vision deficit due to the discrimination and frustration I experienced at numerous jobs over the years. I wasn’t going to lie about it if questioned, but I wasn’t going to give it to you unless you asked for it.
After several years of working in the online sector, I decided to try something different. At this point, I’ve demonstrated to myself that my color vision deficit has no detrimental influence on my profession and that discussing it through the lens of accessibility makes it more natural for me to share with coworkers so that we can put it to good use on projects.
Because there are so many tools and resources available, becoming a skilled front-end developer and designer with a CVD is simpler than ever. Color picker tools, websites that provide predetermined color combinations, picture editing software, and the fact that all colors may be represented by a hexadecimal number have all helped me in my professional life.
In front-end jobs, for example, I may customize my code editor to meet my demands. I have the option of using bright or dark mode, as well as a selection of color schemes. I frequently utilize high-contrast themes that were specifically created for developers with color vision issues.
I use the following tools and resources on a regular basis:
Trello – Trello features a useful item labeling function that accounts for CVDs. Users may mark cards with stripes, zigzags, polka dots, squiggly lines, and other forms in addition to color.
Visual Studio Coding (VSCode) is my favorite code editor. Pre-built themes allow me to personalize the interface, and I may further alter those themes if necessary. Vue Theme is the one I’m presently using, and it seems to work pretty well for me. I select themes based on what appears to be the best color contrast for my color vision impairment. Dark backgrounds with brighter, higher-contrast font colors that show out against the backdrop color are my preferred style. Sarah Drasner’s Night Owl theme is another of my favorites.
Dev Tools – I spend a lot of time in the developer tools of my browsers, whether it’s Chrome, Firefox, or Safari. The number of capabilities in dev tools that I can utilize to acquire the color information I need is growing all the time. The ability to cycle among multiple color formats by pressing Shift + clicking on a color value is something I find useful (3 digits and 6 digit hexadecimal, RGB, HSL, and color name).
Pickers of Colors — To help me swiftly collect colors from online pages, I installed a color picker Chrome browser plugin called Eye Dropper. It allows me to sample colors from any online page and save them in various formats. This gives me more confidence that the color I specified in my CSS is being rendered correctly. I wish I could trust the code in dev tools, but my eyes occasionally deceive me—the color shown on the screen isn’t the same as the color value in dev tools. I can just get the eyedropper and double-check if I suspect that’s the problem.
WebAIM Contrast Checker – To ensure that the colors I’m choosing are compliant with the standards, I utilize the WebAIM Contrast Checker.
Color vision insufficiency affects one out of every 12 males and one out of every 200 women, according to statistics. Across 300 million individuals are colorblind around the world. That’s a large amount to consider, especially if all of those people are experiencing usability difficulties. They may be unable to complete transactions, get important information, or have the same experience as users with stronger color vision due to color alone. That latter fact alone is reason enough to be concerned about the issues raised here.
Color blindness isn’t expressly mentioned in the ADA; it simply refers to visual impairments. However, color is included in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). While adhering to the WCAG is a good starting step toward making your site accessible to everyone, regardless of disability, bear in mind that there may be other elements at play that make your site “compliant” yet still cause problems for users.
One of the most common difficulties for those of us with CVD is a site’s color contrast; however, having problems seeing certain colors does not always indicate we’ll have problems with the site.
The content on a website may be more difficult to view or understand if the color contrast ratio (text color on top of backdrop color) is not correct. In 2019 and 2020, WebAIM, a non-profit group, released reports highlighting accessibility problems in the top one million home pages. 86.3 percent of home pages evaluated in February 2020 lacked inadequate contrast.
So, what exactly does that imply? It implies that not everyone receives the same amount of information from such sites. On a daily basis, 863,000 of the web’s most important and high-traffic sites offer an uneven user experience to billions of people across the world.
When it comes to color blindness and accessibility, color contrast isn’t the only difficulty. Data visualization is one area in which color is frequently used to convey information. It’s also an excellent illustration of what the WCAG says about success criteria:
Color isn’t the only visual way to convey information, indicate an action, elicit a response, or differentiate a visual piece.
– Guidelines for Accessible Web Content 2.1 – Criteria for Success 1.4.1 Color Selection
Fortunately, adding color to charts, graphs, and other visual aids isn’t difficult. There’s no need to get rid of all colors. Simply avoid color combinations that are troublesome for colorblind people by using color palettes that are colorblind-friendly. Make sure that all of the data in your charts are properly labeled so that your readers may access the information in a variety of ways. Our World in Data, a scholarly online journal that focuses on big global problems including poverty, sickness, climate change, conflict, and inequality, provides excellent examples of colorblind-friendly data visualizations of various sorts.
I attempt to offer input from the perspective of someone with CVD whenever feasible, but I don’t offer color suggestions; I leave the color selection to individuals who aren’t color blind. Instead, I explain why I find some aspects difficult to comprehend. I notify them of which details are lost on someone like myself. My goal is that my comments may alert other designers to the need for more inclusive charts, tables, graphs, and maps.
As for those of us who do have a CVD and work in the online business, we are just as talented and educated about our fields as anybody else, and there are a plethora of ways we can contribute to the visual elements of projects, particularly when it comes to color. We may examine designs and report on if any information is being lost as a result of poor color contrast. If the selected color palette is troublesome, we may alert designers. Our colleagues UX designers may use us as test subjects for their usability studies.
There’s one more thing I’d like to mention here. A widespread misunderstanding is that a designer with a CVD is incapable of doing their work successfully. This is a common assumption made by hiring managers and coworkers. People with CVDs, on the other hand, have devised clever methods to work around their restrictions. I stated before about the various tools I utilize to assist me in my work. Many online industry experts, like myself, employ features in the tools at our disposal to get the work done correctly and so effortlessly that no one would think we are color blind.
That takes me to a larger point: the necessity of recruiting disabled individuals. I won’t go into the numerous reasons why businesses should do so. Rather, I’ll focus on some of the advantages from a design standpoint.
First and first, how can you state definitively that your product will function for individuals who do not have a disability if you do not have one?
You can’t, is the response. Without thorough testing, no. Yes, there are businesses that can assist designers and developers with usability testing. But how wonderful would it be if you had team members that could offer you with that critical input at any time during the project? Consider all of the information you’ve learned about your field. Consider all of the knowledge you can impart to others. Consider the wealth of information and expertise that colleagues with disabilities may provide to you. You can make your goods genuinely inclusive by working together. Attempting to accomplish anything on your own will always result in and reinforce limits.
Color can help to convey a message, but it should not be the message itself. Color blindness is something that UX and UI designers may either consider or disregard. You can ensure that information is communicated to everyone, not just those who perceive color “normally.” That is a huge responsibility, with many people’s lives literally hanging in the balance.
There are particular action items I’d like you to take away from this for those of us in the online industry.
Plan your color palette carefully—not only for colorblind people but for everyone. Always remember that ANY information you offer in your product should be easy to recognize and comprehend by anybody who comes into contact with it. We might become too accustomed to what we’re doing and forget that information is transmitted in a variety of ways, so we must be aware of what color is conveying particularly.
Color Accessibility Workflows by Geri Coady is a great resource that I strongly recommend. She talks about color blindness, picking the right hue, compliance and testing, implementation, giving alternatives, and some helpful hints.
Do not make assumptions about which colors are difficult to detect; instead, conduct thorough study and testing. Please double-check the color contrast in your layout at the very least.
The reason I say that is because, while the ADA does not expressly include color blindness, it does include visual impairments. In the United States, asking someone if they have a handicap is unlawful (not to mention disrespectful and inappropriate) in the job. In my opinion, this also applies to color blindness, and though asking about it in non-work situations is not prohibited, it is certainly invasive.
However, if individuals volunteer to assist you with your tests and provide personal information, that’s a different story. It could also be a good idea to contact several businesses that specialize in user testing with disabled persons.
Level Access, for example, assists businesses in incorporating accessibility into their everyday operations. They provide customized training, audits, document repair, and other services to assist companies in achieving and maintaining Section 508 and WCAG compliance.
Don’t rely solely on colorblind simulators. This is a topic on which I could write an essay. Those simulators aren’t precise enough to offer you a complete picture of color vision problems.
To obtain a different viewpoint, talk to someone who has a color vision problem and listen with an open mind. This is something I can’t suggest highly enough. There’s no better way to grasp what it’s like to live with a CVD than to hear from someone who has experienced it firsthand.
Color blindness isn’t anything to joke about. Living with it is challenging enough, let alone being an artist or attempting to make sense of stuff you can’t see.
There is a wealth of material available, and I encourage people to learn as much as they can on the subject. Follow people that have CVD or groups that deal with it in various ways if you’re on Twitter. Doing some easy research and incorporating it into your workflow may provide you with a wealth of information.
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