A Word on Color

Over the weekend, there has been a lot of buzz about ‘the dress’ and whether it is blue and black, or white and gold. The reality of the dress is that due to white balance in the camera, lighting conditions and the fact that everybody perceives color a little differently the true color of the dress can not be known from that single photo. But it is this last piece I want to talk about today.

We All See Color Differently

Business Insider decided to comment on the dress by publishing an article titled “No one could see the color blue until modern times”. Conducting a test among a tribe from Namibia that has no color for blue,

When shown a circle with 11 green squares and one blue, they couldn’t pick out which one was different from the others … But the Himba have more words for types of green than we do in English. …When looking at a circle of green squares with only one slightly different shade, they could immediately spot the different one.

If we don’t have a word for a color we struggle to identify it. Additionally, it has been shown that some people see more colors than others. Men often struggle to see the slight gradiations between colors in women’s clothing. If a woman bought a new blouse that was Robin’s Egg blue, her husband will likely just see it as light blue not discerning the difference between the two shades.

Colors are tied to our language. As a collective we have decided that the sky is blue, however our biology isn’t as decisive. Some will see light blue, others dark blue, and some see a bluish-white color. This is due to the way our eyes are built.

Not All Cones are Ice Cream Cones

Our eyes posses cones that absorb light and sends the signals down the optical nerve to our brain to process into images. The images hit our cones inverted because of lenses work. Our brain is already correcting for that, so let’s keep the software in mind as we discuss the rest of the system.

Most people have three cones, one each for the red, green and blue channels. This is very similar to how TVs are made. The pixels in the screen have three channels, red, blue, and green. They give off light and we capture it using a mirrored system. However, not everybody can see these three distinct channels.

We know some folks are color blind and struggle with colors of the same shade or greens and reds depending on their type of color blindness. One in seven men suffer from this. However, some folks aren’t technically color blind and yet can’t see as many colors as others.

Rainbow of 39 colors
From Derval Research

This image displays a rainbow of colors. Some people can see around 20. They are missing a channel on their cones and relying on just two channels, similar to dogs. Some people see in excess of 35 (I see 39) and have a 4th cone. These people are called tetrachromats. Birds are also tetrachromats. They have cones that are sensitive to ultraviolet light.

Web Designers Need to be Aware

As designers and developers, hopefully we are aware of putting together designs that the colorblind can use. You can test that with a number of tools like, Colorable or WAVE.

However there are other color patterns that can hurt people and make your content and site difficult to navigate and read.

Not so Black and White

One combination is the classic black and white. Using pure colors can be difficult on a number of people. Some will need to turn down the brightness on their monitor (me), some will actually feel physical pain (common for autistic people). Simpy toning down the purity of the colors makes it more manageable. For instance, using #333 instead of #000 will drive a vast improvement in the readability of your content. You can go one step further and pull back from pure white to #fefefe.

But black and white aren’t the only ones who cause a problem. Bright neon colors are a recent trend, but reading text on these backgrounds or having neon text on a neon background will trigger physical pain for users.

The 2015 CSSConf just rolled out the new site for their conference in NYC this year. they have a beautiful, hot trendy neon design. But is it easy to read? Well that depends on your cones. If you have two or three channels, it might work. If you are a tetrachromat, the push to neon colors can be painful when put together or reading long text lines. Additionally, some of these colors don’t pass the WCAG 2.0 AA guideline for contrast (which should be our minimum goal).


When colors vibrate next to each other, they don’t make for good reading. Let’s take the time to carefully select our colors and test them with our target audience. Part of that testing should include asking the user what color they see and to describe it in detail. Color is important, so let’s work hard to make sure all our users are seeing what we want them to see in a pain free way.

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