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Color Is Information

Problem Summary

When color is used arbitrarily and gratuitously information is obscured.


The Function of Color

Properly used, color itself can convey information. It can reinforce typographic information, add to order and logic, indicate varying qualities and quanities, call attention and emphasize, establish tone or connotation, and clarify complex ideas. Generally speaking, use “neutral” colors like black, white, and greys to just present the facts with no particular “spin”, and use other colors sparingly to reinforce or enhance a message… As discussed in Colors In Context, colors change depending upon both physical and psychological situations.


  1. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte.


Colors In Context

Problem Summary

When the same color is used in different contexts the perception of that color can change radically.


On Color Theory

Color is a deep subject. Artists and designers spend a long time mastering color theory. Perhaps the world’s foremost master of color is Josef Albers, whose paintings are essentially case studies in color, demonstrating how the same color can look radically different (or even how two different colors can look the same) depending upon their contexts.


  1. Interaction of Color, Josef Albers, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1975.
  2. Graphic Design for Electronic Documents and User Interfaces, chapter 4, Color, Aaron Marcus, ACM Press, 1992.
  3. Exploring Color in Interface Design, Subing, Falk & Johansen, Interactions magazine, July/August, 1996.

Colors For The Colorblind

Predecessor Patterns

. . . the importance of color in conveying a message is described in Color Is Information, and we know that color perception changes according to Colors In Context. Here we consider a special context for color information, the effects of colorblindness, color-deficiency or dyschromatopsia.

Problem Summary

Using colors that are confused by the eyes of colorblind (color-deficient or dyschromatopic) people will exclude a significant percentage of the population.



Most colorblindness is a genetic defect involving the X-chromosome which affects the approximately 6 million color-sensitive cells of the retina called cones. (Approximately 100 million light-sensitive cells called rods are responsible for night vision, etc.) Other causes include tumors, aneurisms and some diseases.Just as most “blind” people are not completely blind, most people who have deficient color perception are not completely “colorblind”. Hence, we hesitate to use the adjective, in favor of the more scientifically correct color-deficient or dyschromatopic. Regardlessly, the percentage of the population afflicted by this condition makes the problem non-trivial:

             Causasian   Asiatic     Others       Male  8.0%        5.0%        3.0%
     Female  0.5%        0.5%        0.5%

Normal color perception is trichromatic, i.e., consisting of the three primary colors of light (red, green and blue). Six general types of dyschromatopsia have been identified. People with complete colorblindness, a rare retinal defect affecting the cones of 0.003% of caucasian males, are achromatic, also known as monochromatic. People with partial colorblindness are either dichromatic or anonamlously trichromatic.

Dichromatic people are missing one of the color-sensitive photopigments in retinal cones, usually an inherited genetic condition. For example, when either the red- or green-sensitive pigment is missing, reds and greens are unable to be distinguished. Specifically, there are three kinds of dichromatic colorblindness, presented here with the percentages for caucasian males [1]:

    Protanopia missing red-sensitive pigment:  1.0%
Deuteranopia missing green-sensitive pigment:  1.1%
   Tritanopia missing blue-sensitive pigment:  0.001%

Anomalously trichromatic people have all three pigments, but one or more may be abnormal. This condition is more common than being dichromatic, accounting for nearly 6 of the 8% of caucasian males who are colorblind:

      Protanomalous abnormal red sensitivity:  1.0%
  Deuteranomalous abnormal green sensitivity:  4.9%


While designing for all forms of colorblindness may be difficult, we can construct some rules of thumb for using colors that people with dyschromatopsia can distinguish. In particular, since the majority of color-deficient people are red-green deficient, we can pay special attention to red-green confusion.


  1. Color Vision, Leo M. Hurvich, Sinauer Associates Inc., Sunderland, Mass., 1981.
  2. Color Theory and Its Application in Art and Design,, G. A. Agoston, Berlin: Springer-Verlag, second edition, 1987.
  3. Measuring Color, R. W. G. Hunt, New York: Halsted Press, 1987.

    Josef Albers

    Josef Albers (/ˈælbərz, ˈɑːl-/; German: [ˈalbɐs]; March 19, 1888 – March 25, 1976) was a German-born American artist and educator whose work, both in Europe and in the United States, formed the basis of some of the most influential and far-reaching art education programs of the twentieth century.

    Homage to the Square

    Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, 1965

    Accomplished as a designer, photographer, typographer, printmaker, and poet, Albers is best remembered for his work as an abstract painter and theorist. He favored a very disciplined approach to composition. Most famous of all are the hundreds of paintings and prints that make up the series, Homage to the Square. In this rigorous series, begun in 1949, Albers explored chromatic interactions with nested squares. Usually painting on Masonite, he used a palette knife with oil colors and often recorded the colors he used on the back of his works. Each painting consists of either three or four squares of solid planes of color nested within one another, in one of four different arrangements and in square formats ranging from 406×406 mm to 1.22×1.22 m.[12]

Impossibles (1931) dates from Albers’s years at the Bauhaus and represents his experiments with nontraditional materials and techniques. The mechanical means of producing such glass pieces allowed him to achieve the discipline and detachment that he considered necessary to create nonrepresentational forms. Like other artists of his generation, Albers moved from a figurative style of picture making to geometrically based abstraction. Homage to the Square: Apparition, painted in 1959, is a disarmingly simple work, composed of four superimposed squares of oil color applied with a palette knife directly from the tube onto a white, primed Masonite panel. It is part of a series that Albers began in 1950 and that occupied him for 25 years. The series is defined by an unmitigating adherence to one pictorial formula: the square. The optical effects Albers created—shimmering color contrasts and the illusion of receding and advancing planes—were meant not so much to deceive the eye as to challenge the viewer’s faculties of visual reception. This shift in emphasis from perception willed by the artist to reception engineered by the viewer is the philosophical root of the Homage to the Square series. Albers tried to teach the mechanics of vision and show even the uninformed viewer how to see. He was always proud that many nonart students took his classes at Yale.” Via




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