Color-Blindness & Plan Communications: Ensuring Graphic Accessibility

It’s no secret that the smart use of color in visual plan communications is a great way to engage your audience, distinguish important elements and evoke the proper reaction.

In Western cultures, for instance, “red” typically connotes “bad” or “risky.” It’s a great way to get the message across that a particular deliverable is in trouble without cluttering your chart with extra words.

But there’s a problem with only using color to deliver critical information in a project graphic. According to the National Eye Institute, as many as 8 percent of men and 0.5 percent of women with Northern European ancestry are color-blind. They have trouble distinguishing – or in some cases can’t distinguish at all – between red and green (more common) or blue and yellow (less common). Green means go and red means stop, but for those with red-green color-blindness, neither means much of anything.

NFL Color Rush & Color Blindness

How last year’s Bills (red) vs. Jets (green) “Color Rush” NFL game looked to color blind individuals. h/t The Sporting News

How can you ensure your plan communications are accessible and useful to all? Here are three tips.

  1. Use Color Judiciously

This isn’t to say you should simply not use color in your graphics. Doing so would mean removing a remarkably valuable and effective arrow from your quiver. Instead, use it smartly and sparingly. The rule of thumb is this: If viewers need to repeatedly refer to a legend to understand what certain colors mean, you’re using too many. Six is a good maximum, with the ideal being around three or four. This is a good idea in general, but applies particularly acutely to the color-blind population. They’re going to be paying far closer attention to color than most, and its overuse will likely distract them, rather than engage them.

Too Many Colors

Using too many colors makes a chart extremely hard to understand, color-blind or not.

  1. Avoid Shades

Once you’re beyond six colors in a chart, you’re almost certainly using multiple shades of similar colors. To a color-blind individual, it’s likely that purple, dark purple, blue, and dark blue are going to be indistinguishable from one another. By limiting the number of colors you use, you force yourself to avoid such close shades. The more differentiation, the better.

On a similar note, try to avoid using only red and green or blue and yellow. These combinations are particularly troublesome to color-blind individuals, who will have trouble telling one or both sets apart.

  1. Add Elements

Color isn’t the only way to delineate elements in a plan communication graphic. Shapes – rectangles, circles, stars and chevrons – can be just as evocative. When color is the only way, consider judiciously using hash marks or different borders as additional visual cues.

In this example, status is shown using both color and shape.

In this example, status is shown using both color and shape.

By keeping these tips in mind, you can ensure that your valuable data is accessible to all, color-blind and not.

This entry was posted in Audiences, Best Practices, Project Visualization by Jim. Bookmark the permalink.

About Jim

Jim earned his PhD in applied physics at Harvard University in 1977 and has filled both R&D and executive roles at software-development companies since 1981. His employment history includes Texas Instruments, IBM, Landmark Graphics, and GuideWorks/Comcast. His roles have included Senior Member of Technical Staff at TI, Program Manager at IBM, Vice President of R&D at Landmark, Vice President of Marketing at Landmark, and Senior Vice President of Engineering and Development at GuideWorks/Comcast. He co-founded OnePager (originally Chronicle Graphics) in 2005 because he needed the tool himself and hasn't missed the corporate ladder ever since!

5 thoughts on “Color-Blindness & Plan Communications: Ensuring Graphic Accessibility

  1. Thank you for this article. I am a female who is color blind and it’s nice to see other recognize the issue and show possible solutions.

  2. Thank your for this blog. I really struggle to find a consistent way to make the colors and shapes effective…
    Lately, I’ve been doing one of the following:
    – White, Gray, Green (% Complete), e.g. Apple style
    – White, Black with different shapes
    – Varying shades of blue (light to dark)

    I don’t have any colleagues asking for changes, so I might be a bit critical on this topic. However, I want the data to be easily understood and used..

    • The varying shades of blue idea is interesting. I wonder how many shades can you use and still keep them distinguishable?

  3. This was a great reminder article. I actually work with a startling percentage of color blind engineers. There has to be a correlation. I usually check with one them first before I send something out anyway, but the visual reminders were great for those of us who don’t normally have that problem.

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