The Case Against ColorADD

Why the color identification system may harm the efforts in designing for the color blind.

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ColorAdd is a “color identification system” created by the designer Miguel Neiva.

It was considered by the GALILEU Magazine one of the “40 ideas that are going to make a better world” and it was recently distinguished by the Portuguese Parliament with a gold medal as per the 50.º anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And for me it not only fails at what it proposes to do, but can actively harm the effort of designing for the colorblind.

Before I explain why I think this, I must begin by saying that, like Miguel Neiva, I’m a designer. Unlike him, however, I’m also colorblind.

I only discovered that I’m officially colorblind after I got my degree and was already working professionally as a designer, but I always knew I wasn’t very good at identifying colors. A deficiency I attributed to what I thought was poor education or just plain stupidity (a though that I’ve come to learn is quite common among the colorblind: they often think it’s their fault they aren’t able to distinguish between colors.)

People are frequently amazed when they discover that I’m a colorblind designer. They ask me how I’m able do my work. The truth is I see it as an advantage. In my view, a (good) designer has an obligation to communicate clearly and make things understandable for all. As such, I’m able to know first hand if what I’m trying to create can be understood by people with the same condition as I do. It is part of making good design and good usability choices.

It has also helped me become more aware, more sensible of the whole issue of legibility. Designers—especially those who come from a Fine-Arts background— often get to attached to their own opinions, to their egos as creators. I often caught myself doing the same. To know that there are people who see the world in different ways, and through different contexts, and keeping this in mind when I design, makes me a better designer for it.

I’ve also come to discover that I have develop a series of techniques (mostly due to embarrassment of this condition) in order to discover which color it really is: I look more closely into luminosity, hue, relationship with other colors. (This may, in fact, lead to the development of a certain high level of visual literacy among the colorblind, but I speak only for myself and a few examples that I know, for there is, to my knowledge, no study to support this theory.)

But still, there are cases when our colorblindness is a pain in the ass; shopping for clothes, for example, where choosing the right color is important but there is little support for those who have trouble perceiving it. And it sucks to ask someone at the store what color a certain sweater is. It’s these situations that ColorADD attempts to address.

The ColorADD Code

You can learn more about how ColorADD works by visiting the site, but it can be described as the creation of 5 symbols that represent the “Primary Colors”: Blue (Cyan), Yellow and Red (Magenta) plus Black and White; with the combination of the these you would get the Secondary and, so claims the author, Tertiary colors, etc.

There are also indicators of Light and Dark Greys, Gold, Silver, as well as Lighter and Darker Tones.

 The ColorADD Code

The ColorADD Code

First let’s ignore the unspecified choice of color system (since it appears to suggest that is a subtractive CMY mix while at the same time using Blue instead of Cyan and Red instead of Magenta, which are very different colors).

Immediately we’re presented with a problem: while it’s easy to combine the “primary” colors in order to get the secondary ones, contrary to the authors’ suggestion, the combination of primary with secondary symbols is not obvious. How can you represent a bluish green, for example? You can’t add the blue symbol to the green symbol. One might, of course, argue that it is the objective of the system to give simple symbols to basic and common colors. My opinion, for that case, is that this seems as an overtly complex system. If, on the other hand, the objective is to clear up doubts regarding unclear nuanced colors, than the system isn’t complex enough.

The second problem I see with ColorADD is exactly the whole complexity of it: While each individual symbol is simple and abstract, it needs a previous knowledge of how the system works to understand it or, as you can observe on the photo starting this piece, a whole accompanying chart of the combinations. This invalidates one of the applications that the author intends: to print the symbol in clothing labels, since the system isn’t universal itself to lack context.

But let’s consider the whole premise: the need for an abstract symbol to represent a color. Why? Why can’t it be a textual representation? When I look into the label of what I’m wearing, there is a bunch of information in different languages regarding the materials, where it was made and how to wash it. Why not add what color is it in clear, readable language, in a couple of different languages? By doing that, you’re able to be as specific as you want: black, blue, gray, gold, pink, yellow, violet, green, green with pink stripes, you name it. In fact, this is already done in certain items of clothes, like blazers and suits, where it might be easy to mistake a navy blue for black. And it is already a common and accepted practice, unlike ColorADD.

The third, and what I personally believe to be the most dangerous problem, is that it diverts the need for good, thoughtful design: A system like ColorADD can be seen as a crutch: a way to quickly fix the problem of identifying colors: by slapping a symbol on top of them, instead of carefully choosing distinct and discernible colors and adding other information to the design, such as shapes. (For some examples on how, or how not, to design for the colorblind, visit the excelent: wearecolorblind.com)

Let’s look at the example of Metro do Porto, Porto’s subway system, which is adopting ColorADD:

 From  Metro do Porto's website . It reads “ColorADD in METRO, Color is for Everyone!”

From Metro do Porto's website. It reads “ColorADD in METRO, Color is for Everyone!”

What, exactly, did the system add to the understandability of the system and its different lines?

These maps were already very well made, with letters associated with colors, and the colors themselves distinctive enough for a clear understanding of which is which. There was no prior confusion. Now, the maps are cluttered with useless descriptions of how ColorADD works.

Designers should focus on creating interfaces that are easily understandable by all: be it colorblind, visually impaired or illiterate. Creating this system was all very well and good for Miguel Neiva, but I believe our efforts (and responsibility) should be on designing things as clear and understandable as possible, without the need for an accompanying glossary.

A more sensible solution

If there’s a true need for a color identifying code I propose one that, while not as innovative or glamorous as ColorADD, is one that is clear and can accommodate almost any color, and one that is already in practice: CMYK.

Going back to the example of clothes-shopping, imagine a label with something like: C:100%, M:0%, Y:100%, K:0%.

Cyan (blue) plus Yellow creates Green. It’s the same basic color principle used in ColorADD but it a more readable and accurate way, with space left for complexity (light green, darker green, bluish or reddish-green). The adoption of this system might look complex but, if it taught in schools, it would be something that could used throughout the rest of their lives and could help understand a little bit more of about color theory.

Using natural language or unproprietary coding systems such as CMYK isn’t trademarkable or sellable, you don’t invent anything and it won’t make you famous, but it might just be a better, more sensible solution.

And that, in my opinion, would truly make for a better world.

Ricardo Melo