Over There (in the UK)

August 5, 2005 at 6 PM

On Colour Blindness

A feverish discussion about a tongue-in-cheek demonstration of colour blindness got me thinking: most people don’t know what it is. For most people, it means someone failed to see the numbers in those circles of coloured dots. (A few years ago, I noticed that I indeed cannot see all the numbers.)

Fortunately, it’s pretty rare these days to face life-threatening situations involving numbers circles of coloured dots. Come to think of it, I can’t recall any situations where I needed to identify anything in a circle of coloured dots, except, oh maybe, I don’t know, in a colour blindness test.

The rest of the time, colour blindness is like that guy you knew in high school but only see now when you bump into him randomly on the street. It’s awkward. You don’t know what to say. He makes some comment about having eight kids and his stock options that makes you feel awkward and inadequate. And then he leaves and you forget about the whole thing within a few minutes.

The important thing to remember about colour is that it’s all relative anyway. How does anyone really know what “Red” or “Green” is? We know it when we see it because we’re taught as children to do so. But consider that different languages don’t all have words for the same colours. Consider too that we tend to use words for colours that are taken from something else, which may or may not be that colour.

What colour is something that is “chartreuse”? Green? Yellow? The liqueur comes in both colours. In French, the word for pink is rose, and we use it in English to that effect too, but can you say what the difference between “pink” and “rose” is? If you can, could you do that in French? And if you think of the rose as a flower, don’t you probably think something red anyway?

All this to say that although colour blindness is a real thing, it’s probably not quite what you think it is. People who are colour blind, like me, generally confuse green and red with each other. But it’s emphatically not a case of the grass being red, or the stop sign being green.

For me, I notice that I perceive less red than other people. I caught myself off guard once when I complimented someone on their black sweater only to have them tell me it was dark burgundy. (Again with the alcoholic colours… what’s our problem, anyway?) If something is very dark red, there is a good chance I’ll confuse it with grey or black. I also perceive greyish brown as, um, more like brownish grey.

I sometimes mix up bright yellow and bright green. That is, they can look so similar to me that I have to make a wild guess as to what I’m seeing, and when bright green is used next to yellow on a chart or graph, I can’t tell which is which unless they’re right next to each other. Don’t get me started on mustard and olive.

It’s not that I don’t see any colour, it’s that my brain can’t tell me whether what I’m looking it is reddish or yellowish enough to be “Brown” or “Taupe”, or greenish enough to be “Olive” or, well, “Green”.

Now, most colour blind people are either weak in the reds (“protanomaly”) or weak in the greens (“deuteranomaly”). I’m weak in the reds. So how could I think something green was yellow, which is closer to red in the spectrum? I can only explain this by theorizing. Since yellow and bright green have always looked similar to me, I’ve been conditioned to assume that this colour is “Yellow” because yellow is a primary colour, and is more common in general life than really bright green. If someone else could see my version of yellow, it would probably look too green. Maybe.

Finally though, I have been known to mistake the purple for blue, and in times of duress, vice versa. This is more obvious: I see less reddishness in the purple so it looks the same as blue, which has no reddishness. Sometimes, I overcompensate though, and guess something is purple when it’s not. In fairness to me though, I’m pretty sure there was a solid 5-year period in the 1990s where new products kept coming out in “blurple” — that is-it-or-isn’t-it shade that hits the half-way point. (It’s not just me, is it? Who liked that colour anyway?)

In general, my colour blindness affects me very little besides providing the odd point of amusement for my friends. (“Oh my god, Luke, you can’t tell that’s green?! Bwahaha!”) I’ve managed to succeed as a graphic designer despite my “disability”. If I’ve run any red lights in my life, it wasn’t because I Thought It Was Green, No Really, Honest Officer.

I can leave you with an example, but of course it depends on your monitor (Remember? It’s all relative!). On my own monitor though:
An example of my problem



Previously: Here It Comes To Save The Day

Subsequently: When Gasoline Is Cheaper Than Petrol

August 2005
the Archives

In Earshot

In Frame