Colourless Adventures In The Colourful World

People perceive the world around them differently. When you see the word red, you think about one colour, but everybody else may think of a slightly different variation of it. Even though for most people this word means ‘almost’ the same, there are few gals and guys for whom green means nothing. I am one of them.

In the United States, about 7 percent of the male population — or about 10.5 million men — either cannot distinguish red from green, or see red and green differently from how others do

I don’t know how other people see green. When I was younger, I tried to ask other people to try to describe what they see in words, or somehow show me the approximate visual picture of the real world, describe how they perceive grass and trees when it’s summer. I gave up pretty quickly.

There is no point in trying to understand something that you haven’t been able to grasp from the very beginning of your life. You might have an idea of the colour you can’t see, but you will actually never see it. Nevertheless, there are ways to find a solution to this not-really-a-problem.

Living like everybody does

Being colour-blind was one of the reasons I chose to pursue a major in physics at my local university. Although I never finished the university and dropped out of it after four years of studying there, I studied well enough to understand the physical nature of colours. I thought it must be a good idea to know what colours are from the scientific perspective.

Now that I have enough knowledge in optics related to how the nature works behind the scenes, the first association that comes into my mind when I see the world around me is photons and their wavelengths. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, colours became just an abstraction in my mind. I only see them as a mechanism through which my brain perceives and reacts to the physical world around it.

No doubt, what I see with my own eyes may be not as exciting as what people without colour-blindness see, but I will never have the opportunity to experience anything else apart from my own vision of the things around me. Cats and dogs perceive colours not like humans do, so maybe I am a catman.

Sometimes I forget that my world is slightly not the same as the world of the other people, so I start arguing about the colour of this dress, these pants and those cars. People are always surprised about the fact that I see some thing differently. At first they think that I am just a silly guy who can’t tell what the name of the colour I am looking at is. After that, when I told them about my colour-blindness, they almost always ask me, “What do you see this colour then? What is it like for you?”. Unfortunately, they will never know.

Soundtrack of my life

User interfaces are a different story

Being colour-blind is mostly fine, except when it comes to working with colours in user interfaces. I have to rely on various tools to understand colours, and, sometimes, I even need help of my colleagues and friends to get (understand) the colour well enough to use it. This happens all the time with green colours, because it’s the most difficult colour for me to perceive, so, while using it, I must be very careful.

So helpful: red, green, and blue components of the selected colour

Every modern editor (I prefer to use Sketch.app) includes a colour picker, which is the most useful thing for me to understand the colour I would like to choose for the next item on the art-board. The components-based representation of a certain colour helps me a lot with seeing what the colour would feel like for others. It’s not necessarily an ideal tool, and I obviously cannot estimate colour perception of human beings solely based on colour components, but it still gives me a hint. Every little thing that helps me to understand the outcome is great on its own.

Contrast is very important for those who can’t perceive certain colours

Sometimes I have to show various combinations of background and foreground colours to my friends or colleagues to find out the best pair of them. Background and foreground (text) colours must have enough contrast in order for colour-blind people to be able to recognise the text.

There are numerous standards that define accessibility guidelines for the World Wide Web, but most of the web-sites will never follow through the complicated guides like W3C Content Accessibility Guidelines:

The visual presentation of text and images of text has a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1, except for the following

Designers must always keep in mind that there are many people who cannot see close colours, and avoid using them while presenting some important content to the end-user. Of course, logos and other similar branding things are not that important as textual content, so drawing them doesn’t require too much attention to accessibility.

Greyscale palette is easily recognised by any colour-blind person

Text is the main resource and the most important part of the Web. It’s crucial to keep a web-site readable, so users can access the content they want to access. There are many things already done from both the client and the ‘server’ sides of the Web to achieve readability of web-sites. Take Safari Reader, for example. It makes any web page readable by just pressing a single button in the navigation bar.

The magic button makes any web resource readable

There are quite a few web-based services and desktop applications that allow you to save internet pages for later. These tools are good not only for that, but they are actually great for presenting readable and high-contrast text. This is extremely useful in cases when web site designers didn’t bother themselves with creating an accessible version of their design. The printable version of a web page is readable in every case, indeed, but it’s not convenient to use this feature at all.

Isn’t it nice to read text like this?

It’s no use to complain, because most of all modern web sites (at least those that I read and visit) look decent to me. Most of them are readable and understandable. Black text on white background is the best combination to read for me, and it’s being almost always used. Yet there are some web pages that have very unpleasant user interface in terms of accessibility.

I hope even more user interface specialists start caring about properly colouring their user interfaces. Accessibility is already a very important part of UI studies (books, classes, webinars, and conferences), but there are still many things to do.

Making great user interfaces is always about creating something that is easy to use for everybody. Whenever you use certain set of colours for your interface, it would be really great if you think about them not only from the aesthetic perspective, but also think about these colours in terms of accessibility. I and many other colour-blind internet users would really appreciate that.

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