I didn’t know I was colorblind until I was about eighteen years old. The embarrassing realization came after months, nay, years of making fun of my brother for having the same thing. It started innocently enough. I said a friend’s car was purple, when it was actually blue. One trip to the eye doctor later, and it was confirmed: I was red/green colorblind. It’s important to note that full-blown colorblindness, or monochromacy, is extremely rare, and not what most people are talking about when they say they’re colorblind. While I can (thankfully) see colors, my eyes have what is categorized as protanomaly, or red/green colorblindness with a more reduced sensitivity to red light. Basically, I don’t see as many shades of color as the average person, and I have a special problem with extracting the red out of blues and purples. Sometimes, the two just blend together, or other times, greens don’t seem green and reds don’t seem red. Hence, the wrong answer on the car color. Or how for years, I had been calling the green couch in our living room the gray couch. Oh, how much this explained.

The colorblind, it turns out, are in good company: Mark Zuckerburg, Christopher Nolan and Bing Crosby — and maybe even Van Gogh — are some examples of famous colorblind people. Don’t let the list fool you, either — women can be colorblind, too, but it is much more rare. In any case, it turns out roughly one in eight males will have some form of colorblindness. For females, it’s closer to one in 200. That’s a pretty sizable chunk of people who will experience color in a different way than most.

It was startling to realize just how many things I took for granted and were different in the color reality I didn’t get to experience. The world shifts once you realize it wasn’t designed for someone like you. Generally, it’s not huge changes that will stand out (and yes, for the thousandth time, I can tell the difference between red and green stop lights. Not so for others!) It might manifest itself while playing Peggle, for example…the different colored pegs were hard for me to differentiate. Other times, it happened before a movie, when a production company’s logo utilizes the exact method they use to text colorblindness (see below).

The logo for Marv Productions, a movie production company. Not that I would know what the text says.
One of my favorite games, Peggle. To me, there are only two colors of pegs in this photo.

As an aspiring fashionista too, it was difficult to reconcile the fact that my outfits, at first, looked just plain bad. A lot. In fact, most of the time they were awful, and this is coming from someone who preaches fashion as being subjective. The learning curve to dressing well is steep, and for me, it seemed like the difficulty was switched from “normal” to “advanced.” Online was no help, as the color descriptions for items of clothing would range from the concrete “red” to the ambiguously named “sunrise.” It’s still a struggle, and the only thing that a lot of colorblind people, including myself, can fall back on, is what they know works. That usually starts with asking the classic question, “What color is this?” If I wasn’t asking it of someone else, they were surely asking me every time I mentioned I was colorblind. It’s a hard question to answer, and often times will come down to a plain old guess.

It soon became clear to me that while color was a huge part of life and design, for me (and a surprising number of other people) it was a huge part of something crucial: simple usability. Color-based design may seem beautiful to most, but to me, it was plainly confusing. Not only do applications I use and everyday experiences rely on colors instead of symbols, they use the very colors many have trouble with! “Red = bad, green = good” is rule number zero of usability, but often the differences were so minute that I had trouble telling exactly what I was going to be doing by pressing a button on a form, or continuing a transaction at the self-checkout. Momentary pauses with questions like “Is this button what I actually want to press?” are more common than you’d think.

That brings me to the title of the article. How does color keep design both beautiful and accessible? They can, and should, work together. And while I have no degree in graphic design, usability testing is a large part of any product’s development. Color ends up being a huge part of this — from features like highlighting text and clicking hyperlinks, to errors like required areas in form fields not being filled out — and it’s not just limited to websites and apps. Everything you see is designed, and designing color with colorblind access in mind can create a better design standard. With that being said, here are three things that help colorblind people better understand and use a system.

Symbols, symbols, symbols. Using symbols with color can create an easier-to-understand system. That goes for text, too. Relying on color alone assumes everyone will interpret that color the same way. Heck, some people like me don’t even see the same color that non-colorblind people see. This isn’t limited to screens, either — even traffic signs use shapes and text labels.

Twitter uses both color and symbols to indicate a valid entry.

Stay away from close color combos. If you have to use them, symbols can help. Red and green, blue and purple, orange and yellow — all can be problematic in the eyes of a colorblind person. In the example of Peggle I used above, they stuck to their color scheme, but implemented a “colorblind mode” that was easier to comprehend for colorblind users.

“Colorblind mode” in Peggle keeps the colors, but adds symbols.

Keep it simple. Using lots of colors is not only an assault on the eyes, it’s confusing to keep track of. It’s convenient that minimalism is “in,” because that makes the job easier. Color should be used sparingly and effectively as well — focusing on one means focusing on the other, and they both end up improved as a result.

Facebook’s landing page, despite being seen by hundreds of millions of people, uses only a few colors, none of which are incredibly bright or flashy.

Is it even worth it to design for such a small demographic? Here’s the good news: whether it’s an app or a system, great design means accessibility, and helping colorblind users creates a simpler system for everyone. It’s the reason why stop signs are identifiable from a distance, from either side, without color, but still manage to utilize color.

To recap, I’ve run into a lot of systems that don’t utilize color effectively — either using too much color, colors that are too similar, or just a general lack of direction besides color. Keeping color in mind when designing doesn’t just mean finding the best color combos for a beautiful product— it means finding the best colors for a beautifully usable product.

Work at Microsoft, writing about the intersection of technology & fashion.