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Seeing Red (hardly)

It turns out, my mother was right.

My favorite color really is forest green.

And to think all these years I thought it was a healthier grass green. My mother knew it before I did, but I never gave it a thought. I just decided to ignore her.

It was only until years later that her theory was validated. My doctor informed me I was partially color blind.

I recently uncovered a hidden design talent that gives me an ability to see the world differently. I have a partial red-green color blindness (40%).

While we are a minority, most color-blind folk pay little attention to their deficiency—unless you happen to be a designer. It is bad enough trying to make out pantone colors by indoor light. A color blindness handicap makes it even more of an adventure.

Rather than retire with a rousing Lou Gehrig “Luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech, I found a way to use my talent to serve me well. It’s the perspective. When I was told with a solemn and sunken head that “you won’t be able to differentiate between small of differences in reds and greens,” I do confess the whole thing was quite liberating. So my reds will scream. My greens will melt. But really, what is 40% anyway? That’s not even a majority. And this is a democracy, Ladies and Gentlemen. In democracies, a little compromise and error is part of the process.

Is this a problem?

When you are a designer, the devil is in the details. And these are the details, of course, that we are (in)famous for. It is the reason none of our non-designer friends want to go to our parties. We more than sweat the details, they come gushing out of our pores. We meet in bars after work and bring up great kerning stories. We sit around catered lunches like cowboys and trade tales of the toughest Bezier curves we’ve had to wrangle. We point out wrong historical font usage during movies.

We are paid to be detail nerds. But when it comes to close calls in reds and greens, I have to do the unthinkable: shrug my shoulders and guess.

Those details are not missed. Not by me. I am tired of details. I like ideas. Thick, savory ideas. The details monkey is off my back. We have made peace for now.

I know this is blasphemy. I know the AIGA would just as soon tear up my membership and tell me to go into advertising. But I am here to let you know there is a one person who doesn’t mind the occasional “it’s close enough” comment slip through his lips, or “don’t worry, it’s fine,” and the all-time favorite “c’mon, no one is going to care, or even see that…”.

My color blindness has allowed me to think more broadly about the work we create. Will a tint of red make anyone notice but the audience of ourselves? Sometimes I think we lose that kind of perspective. Because in the end our work is for the public to understand and enjoy. Not the graphic designer peanut gallery.

Maybe it is only a case of struggling with a sense of self importance. Isn’t that the never ending question: does design matter? Other fields don’t have these questions. I have never heard someone ask “does medicine matter?”, “does law matter?” And other creative fields matter in ways that design can’t. Architecture, for example, provides essential shelter. If I had a 40% deficiency in, say, angles, then my building would be unsound and dangerous. I would have failed. But a poster campaign with a slightly “off” red isn’t going to be deemed a problem in the public’s eye, only in our own tortured minds.

Maybe our day of detail liberation is coming.

Do you see?

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PUBLISHED ON Jan.14.2006 BY Jimm Lasser
Randy’s comment is:

Works until you have a concept that relies on subtle details and the beauty of the attention given to them for the message to be fully enjoyed or understood.

On Jan.14.2006 at 11:01 AM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

I hear ya, Jimm.

On one hand, graphic/communications design is so, so, so, so much less important than we wish it was. And I've experienced both slaving over & missing details that in the end nobody noticed.

On the other hand, yesterday after I exported the PDF of the leaflet & just before I burned the cd, I noticed that one set of parentheses was not the weight I had chosen to use. (Thanks a lot, Bringhurst.) I went back, changed it, converted all the type to outlines again, and exported it again.

Somehow I don't think my personal detail liberation is coming anytime soon.


By the way, Jimm. From your second Speak Up article onward I have thoroughly enjoyed your writing. Keep it up!

On Jan.14.2006 at 11:52 AM
Paul’s comment is:


Of course, in many endeavors we find ourselves in pursuit of perfection (which absolutely does not exist). Our drive to get as close as we can is admirable and most times, in many businesses and crafts, needed. But I always remember something a teacher told me long ago...don't let the best get in the way of the good. So many times, the quest for perfection dampens and holds back the good ideas, the ideas that need to come out before our best efforts are realized.

This is so true in my work, music, as well. Right now, I'm working on a Pierre Boulez piece that is one of the most difficult pieces I've ever played. And it's all about the details on this one, so one mistimed syncopation can leave you feeling miserable. But that same "perfection quest" can squelch any life and spirit out of your art.

I think in the end, it's all about finding a balance and realizing what does and does not matter.

On Jan.14.2006 at 12:38 PM
Ravenone’s comment is:

While not being colorblind (sometimes I wish I was, massive amounts of color have been known to stun me. I learned this when I opened the 300-odd set of prismacolor pencils in college and poured them out on the floor, and ...stared. For hours. Until my roomates, laughing, 'rescued' me.)...

My own disability... is... a lack of finite depth perception. Due to my eyes being as they are (or one! One dumb eye!), I have only gross depth perception. For a while I worried about 'what I was missing'. But really. I can live, do what I want, get a job, etc.

It's nice to hear about people not giving in to the pressure which is sometimes overwhelming, to fit in and conform or do what other people 'know is best'; it is inspiring to hear that they're doing well.

Yes, the devil may be in the details... however, I am of the opinion that wracking one's brains and going absolutely bonkers... isn't necessarily the best thing. This isn't to say that one shouldn't check and double-check for errors; but one should also know when it's time to just let a project ...go. When to stop fiddling.

On Jan.14.2006 at 02:26 PM
Steve’s comment is:

I suppose at the end of the day, it all wraps up and those slight differences will typically not be the biggest deal. Perhaps you're normally bad at choosing reds and greens, and your disability ends up helping you out. When you think you've chosen the right color, you have, but only because it looks differen't than you think. Isn't that convenient?

I won't hear a word of this!

On Jan.15.2006 at 01:48 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Herb Lubalin was colorblind. You should do so well.

There is no way to compare “40% deficiency” in color perception to angles being off by 40%. A ninety-degree angle is, arguably, an actual feature. Color is not inherent in objects. As much as we think that an apple is red, ’taint so. Said apple bounces some frequencies of light and absorbs others, all to varying degrees. Depending on the light cast on the fruit, the bounced light affect photoreceptors in our eyes to varying degrees and though a series of complicated actions end up being perceived as “color” in our minds. Different patterns of reflected frequencies might cause the perception of the “same” color in most people but it is a perception; a change in light source will change the colors. And something like fifteen percent of people (most of them, BTW, male) won’t have the same perception as the majority of people.

slaving over & missing details that in the end nobody noticed

And you don’t think that lawyers, doctors, housewives, carpenters, insurance agents, and store clerks do that? Specialists are supposed to do things that others can’t appreciate. That’s why they are specialists. If you just do what others are aware of and want done you are not an advisor or a craftsman, you’re a servant (and not a very good one at that.)

On Jan.15.2006 at 11:54 AM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

And you don’t think that lawyers, doctors, housewives...

You are, of course, correct Gunnar, and I would be loathe to let any mistakenly weighted parentheses out of my office.

Here's the bit of Jimm's article that really connected with me: "I am tired of details. I like ideas. Thick, savory ideas." Especially after a day like Friday, spent wrapping up loose ends, proof-reading, double- and triple-checking. On other days I revel in the details, but on days like that I wish for someone else to fix the parentheses while I go have "savory ideas".

On Jan.15.2006 at 02:55 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Anyone interested in a simulation of how different sorts of color blindness affect perception of colors might want to check out this color picker. (The pull-down menu on the lower right makes the changes. Esepcially note the effect on red and green schemes.)

On Jan.15.2006 at 04:58 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

I used to have an art director and mentor who was color blind. We didn't mind the turqoise and orange Christmas colors because there was so much yet to learn.

Think of this as a perceptual shift and it's not so big. Ideas are big.

On Jan.15.2006 at 06:25 PM
Tan’s comment is:

I also used to work w/ a designer who was partially colorblind. But he was totally open about it, and was very careful and deliberate about his color selections and proofing. Of course, he preferred colors in the part of the spectrum where he wasn't colorblind — and was quite adept at it. He was also one of the most detailed typographers I've ever known. His colorblindness certainly didn't keep him from being a good designer.

Pesky/Gunnar are right, there are so many other things about design that's equally if not more important than color. Work to your strengths.

>I am tired of details. I like ideas. Thick, savory ideas.../...I know the AIGA would just as soon tear up my membership and tell me to go into advertising.

I know this is just a backhanded quip, but there's lots of truth in this. I work at a hybrid advertising/design agency and there always seems to be a conflict between the 'big, savory ideas' and the obsession to intangible details. But the best advertising, as well as the best design, strive for excellence on both sides of the fence. It's no easy feat, folks.

On Jan.15.2006 at 07:01 PM
brian’s comment is:

After 7 years as a production artist I can offer one maxim, passed down from a consulting firm who taught me about Quality: Recognize good enough and move on. I want to scream it at the large, reputable agency that sends multiple revisions of files with teeny, tiny layout changes for a job with thousands of different parts. Or the one that makes me to spend two days color correcting to their stupid match proof for a creative that won't even be close to one produced using a different print process.

On Jan.16.2006 at 12:08 PM
Hex’s comment is:


I can totally relate to your article.

Recently (about a year ago), I also discovered that I was colour blind. Until now, no one knew (not even my wife). I have been slugging it out in the trenches in this industry for 12 years, so far it hasn't really been a problem, and I can't see it hindering me in the future. Besides I have a business partner who is great with colour and I run everything by her anyway. If I am way out to lunch, then she helps set me straight. She gets a kick out of it and I let her feel superior without giving up my secret.

I just look at it like trying to colour calibrate your monitor - it is never going to happen and be 100% accurate, so just look at the colour break downs and trust the numbers, rather then your eyes.

On Jan.16.2006 at 02:43 PM
Ravenone’s comment is:

Gunnar- thanks for the link to the colourblind sim! It was quite enlightening, to see how different things might be precieved by others.

It's interesting to see how people are treated before a 'disability' is known and after...

To those with colorblindness: Were you treated differently before and after it was found that you were colorblind by your peers?

On Jan.16.2006 at 09:36 PM
Doug B’s comment is:

Nice post.

I have color deficiencies to some degree in almost all the spectrums. I could never pick out the number or letterform that was obvious to almost everyone in the colored dot tests my family doctor used to give me as a kid. I was very often sent back up the stairs in grade school (and high school) by my mother saying, "You can't wear that color shirt with those colored pants". Now my closet is filled with 80% black and gray, or other clothes (20%) that I know will 'go' with black or gray. You learn to adjust.

I've had to explain colorblindness to people since I can remember, since many people think that it means seeing things in black and white (like a dog or bull). The best way for me to describe my personal deficiency is to compare it to forgetting the name of a color altogether. I can see all colors, but there are hues and variations of certain colors which simply don't register a color's name when I see them. I can tell the difference between red and blue, but there are many blues that I can't distinguish from many purples. Khaki green and tan (brown) is a very 'grey' area as well. (bad pun). Picking the correct color out if asked is a guess at best. Sometimes the grass looks orange to me, but I know it's green, and have been able to compensate.

As a young artist, I was always happy to have names on crayons and colored pencils. As a designer, I have pantone books, rgb converters, and other designers in our studio to tell me if a photo of a man's face (for example) looks sunburned instead of tan. I think my skills in typography have been strengthened by my lack of skills as a colorist: I often design in black and white (especially with type) first, then introduce color at a later point.

The only time I think it affected me professionally was about 10 years ago when I was on the phone with a design headhunter about a "great new opportunity" with a Fortune 500 company's art dept. They loved my work, yadda yadda. I let slip that I was colorblind, I never heard from them again. I'm sure I'm better off for it...


On Jan.17.2006 at 04:02 PM
Patrick C’s comment is:

Khaki green and tan (brown) is a very 'grey' area as well. (bad pun).

Great pun! I love it! These are the colours that give me lots of problems...they also happen to be the ones I like most and often want to use. So I usually ask my wife to check the colour before I go with it if it's in that area.

On Jan.18.2006 at 11:50 AM
Bjorn Oskar’s comment is:

Hi Guys

My name is Bj�rn and I am writing my final paper in Psychology. My subject is depth perception and I am astouned by the fact that some colorblinds have problems with depth perceptions. Is that in all cases or only in some cases?

On Jan.21.2006 at 04:49 AM
Ryan’s comment is:

I was truly excited to read this discussion. Like others who have posted, I too am a color deficient designer suffering from a red/green deficiency. I've experienced everything that Doug B described from needing names on crayons to designing in black and white. Color correcting photos and Pantone matching colors will never be easy.

The only difference being is that I'm still a student.

As some have stated already, you learn to get by and focus on your strengths. I agree with this "strategy" to a certain extent. Rather than shying away from color, I'm using this topic of "color perception" for my senior thesis project. Having read books about the disease as well as color theory by Albers, Itten, and Goethe, I am looking learn as much as I can about my condition before entering the field.

Not knowing any other color deficient designers, it was good to hear that one can still be successful as a professional with such a condition. My questions to any of you that are willing to reply or email me are:

- Besides focussing on typography and/or color schemes that you are comfortable with, how has being color deficient affected you as a professional designer?

- Are there specific situations that give you problems?

- How would you, or did you, approach your search for your first job?

- Do you have any suggested reading, comments, etc. for my thesis?

- Do you have any advice in general?

Hopefully I'll hear back from some of you. If possible, I'd like to ask even more questions. In the mean time, however, I'm enjoying my studies abroad in Mexico where the color is absolutely amazing. Even for me.

On Jan.23.2006 at 03:31 AM
allijack’s comment is:

Do you see?

Can't help but say: Good is Dead.

On Jan.26.2006 at 10:47 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

other color deficient designers

In case nobody has mentioned him: Herb Lubalin.

On Jan.26.2006 at 10:58 AM
Doug B’s comment is:

Scott Makela was colorblind as well...

On Jan.26.2006 at 12:08 PM
T.J.’s comment is:

Tibor Kalman, too (M&Co, Colors mag). From Rick Poynor's write-up in the book TIBOR:

"(Kalman) is red-green colorblind and, although this is not severe, it means that he treats color as an 'idea' rather than a sensation to which he responds according to intuition or taste. He will know intellectually that 'sky blue' is called for to get an effect he wants to achieve without being able to specify for himself which shade of blue it should be."

It goes on to mention his reliance on visual collaboration with other designers to fully flesh out his ideas.

Being a color-deficient designer myself, I've found that collaboration with others is key. Color balancing photos is left to another person in the shop, I know spot to process builds for problematic colors, and I often refer to books on favorable color combinations. That said, I haven't shared my condition with most of the people I work with and feelings of professional inadequacy creep in every now and then.

I try to remind myself that if I can be affected by and have opinions about the colors around me... book jackets, clothes, nature, etc... I should be able to dish it back out in equally evocative ways using the same criteria. That and I'm addicted to the rush of a good idea.

On Jan.29.2006 at 02:53 PM
christy ’s comment is:

I found the comments on depth perception interesting. I was born with a strabismus (lazy eye, now corrected with surgery) that means I have no overlapping field of vision between my two eyes - in other words, the flatness that is seen when 'normal' people close one of their eyes is how I percieve depth all the time.

I told this to one of my sculpture teachers once and she found it fascinating - said she had to have an eye patch for something once and she kept hitting her nose when she tried to eat.

I've heard theories that Rembrandt perhaps had no depth perception, as the focal point of his painings seems to be coming from monocular vision (not really sure how that would be figured out, but that's what I read).

The book was one by Edward T. Hall, I highly recommend all his books as very interesting reading if you're into cultural perceptions - apparently even space and time concepts, hence how a person perceives space and time, depend on culture.

On Feb.07.2006 at 12:23 AM