I never noticed anything out of the ordinary: the corridors of my primary school were probably pasted with coloured sugar paper cutouts spelling ‘Yellow’ or ‘Red’, but it didn’t ring any alarm bells. On sports day, I never had any problem working out which team I was in – I always managed to wear the right colour T-shirt for the annual egg and spoon race.
When I was 12, during a routine eye check, the optometrist passed me the Ishihara colour vision test. (It’s named after Japanese eye specialist Shinobu Ishihara, who invented it in the 1900s.) You’ve probably seen something similar: a circle of coloured dots, with a number picked out in a different colour.
“Read me that number,” the optometrist asked me. “What number?” I replied.
I couldn’t distinguish colours: it was as clear – or unclear – as that.
I was told I had a variation of colour blindness where I can’t easily tell the difference between reds and greens. That doesn’t mean I can’t tell what colour grass is; instead, I find it almost impossible to spot berries in a holly bush. Day to day I don’t notice it, and it doesn’t stop me doing everyday tasks, although being told that my favourite brown trousers are actually green was rather awkward.
From an early age I loved drawing and colour-by-numbers. I never seemed to have any issues with it, but I suppose when you’re growing up, parents and teachers don’t necessarily assume every child who draws a purple dog is colour blind.
Throughout school and university I was interested in all aspects of art and design, from Jackson Pollock and Joan Miró to Zaha Hadid, David Carson and Stefan Sagmeister. The artists and designers I admire mainly break conventions in shape and form, and don’t rely solely on colour to capture an audience – they focus on expression and concepts, rather than using a single element to evoke a response.
I wouldn’t say my colour blindness has held me back too much in my design career. If I’d wanted to be a pilot, it would have been a different matter. But being colour blind means I instinctively design colour-blind-friendly work – I can’t help it. If I can’t read a block of text on a coloured background, I’ll change it. And I’ve always been old fashioned when it comes to checking my work. I’m not too shy to ask: “Excuse me, can you check that this colour is what I think it is?”
People with red/green colour blindness may not be able to tell the difference between green and red tomatoes, ripe and unripe bananas, or ketchup and chocolate sauce. Electrical goods that have red/green/orange LED displays can be frustrating, as all the colours often look the same.Opposing sports teams’ colours may be hard to tell apart. Cricket and hockey balls can disappear against a green background, and snooker balls may all look the same.Flowers are hard to distinguish from their leaves, and it can be tricky to tell whether a plant is dead or alive. Picking strawberries can be a long, slow process.
Christmas is the only time when I find it challenging, design-wise – everyone traditionally wants reds and greens on everything. At that point, I have to look at the concept I’ve chosen. Is it strong enough that if I strip the colour out to simulate colour blindness, it still works? Thankfully, over the years, trends have steered towards more sophisticated colour combinations.
My main frustration is when I come across designs that use ill-conceived colour palettes, because it makes it nearly impossible for me to see them. Graphs are an absolute pain! There are so many occasions where the shades of blue, purple and green look so similar to me that the key may as well not exist. At the very least, the designers could consider a better contrast of tints. At best, different patterns would make understanding trends, forecasts and profits a whole lot easier.
I do get it: certain colours are ‘trendy’, ‘punchy’ and ‘fresh’ (replace with your favourite buzzword). But if your product is for mass consumption, why design it in such a way that people can’t read it?
There are loads of tools and plugins that are available to simulate colour blindness and other visual impairments. Many of them let you overlay a window on top of any project you’re working on, to visualise colours as they are perceived with various types of colour blindness. It only takes a second, but can make the difference between people understanding and appreciating your work, and ignoring it altogether because they’re unable to see it.
Transport for London produces a monochrome version of the Tube map for people with colour blindness, which uses patterns instead of colours to differentiate between each of the train lines.