It's Not Easy Seein' Green: Designing for a Color-blind Audience

April 08, 2021 | 2052 Views

It's Not Easy Seein' Green: Designing for a Color-blind Audience

Patrick Yearout, FMP, CHT

Director of Innovation, Recruiting, and Training | Ivar's & Kidd Valley Restaurants

I only failed one test in all my years at school. In third grade, Mrs. Twohy gave each student a book with a colorful set of patterns and asked what number they saw inside them. I looked all the patterns and could only find a few numbers throughout all the pages (I wildly guessed on the rest), and at the end of the assignment was told I had correctly identified 3 of the 20 possible answers. I thought I would get a F, but instead received a diagnosis: you are color-blind.

color-blindness testImage Credit: Dots Vectors by Vecteezy

This news came as no surprise to my parents since I routinely described all living plants as brown and insisted my red Toughskins were also brown, so they knew I was either too lazy to learn my colors or simply couldn’t tell them apart. Well, I wasn’t lazy, but rather saw colors differently than most people and couldn’t always distinguish them from one another.

Later on, I would discover that I was far from the only one in the world with this condition, which is also called color vision deficiency. According to scientific estimates, approximately 8% of men and .5% of women are afflicted with some form: red-green color-blindness is the most common, but some people have trouble telling apart blue and yellow, and others can only see things in shades of gray.

types of color-blindness

Most of us color-blind people have learned mechanisms to prevent it from affecting us too much in our daily lives – a great example for stoplights is to remember “Top, stop. Low, go.” But every so often we will be confronted with a PowerPoint slide in which the presenter decided that a red font would look spectacular with a green background.


Seriously, why do people do this?


And then, of course, we have to raise our hands and let those presenters know we have no clue what it says on the screen, which can embarrass both us and them. As hospitality trainers and instructional designers, our goal should be to try to be as inclusive as possible for all our potential audience members, so when designing your next handout, training booklet, or presentation, please keep these five tips in mind so that everyone will be able to read and digest the information:

  1. Use the right colors – Color-blindness can affect people differently, so there is no official list of “safe” colors that you can use when attempting to contrast design elements or present multiple pieces of information. But, generally speaking, try to use colors with strong distinctions: dark green and yellow, blue and orange, blue and tan, or yellow and black. Combinations to avoid would include red and green (even if it is Christmas time), brown and green, purple and blue, or gray and blue.
  2. Add patterns – We color-blind folks LOVE PATTERNS! It becomes so much easier to distinguish items when they have a pattern instead of when the differences are based solely on color. If you can, try to add in varying lines (either straight or wavy), polka dots, or a checkerboard design inside your shapes, icons, or graphs to lessen the reliance on color.
  3. Add labels – We also LOVE LABELS! If you are creating something in which patterns cannot be used, consider adding labels right next to the individual elements instead of relying on a faraway chart key to handle the load. Yes, it may make the end result look a little more cluttered, but it will also greatly assist any color-blind participant comprehend the message you are attempting to deliver.

    Sample of a color-blind-friendly chart

  4. Increase thickness or size – Smaller areas of color are often much harder for a color-blind person to differentiate. I might be able to tell the large wall next to my desk has been painted red, for example, but a small red dot on a chart is practically impossible for me to distinguish from any of the other colored dots. As much as you are able within your materials, increase the thickness or size of any colored shapes, lines, arrows, or other important icons to make the colors as big, bright, and noticeable as possible.
  5. Review materials with a color-blind person – Most likely you know someone who is color-blind. A brother, friend, neighbor, or that guy in your office who always wears purple shirts but thinks they are navy blue. Before sending out your newest job aid or PowerPoint slides to the world, ask him to review the materials and provide feedback. Can he easily understand the illustrations and make sense of the information you are trying to convey? If his answer is no, ask for suggestions to alter the content so it works for color-blind recipients.

Of course, the reverse of the last suggestion is also true: if you are color-blind and design training materials, it’s probably a good idea to have your finished work reviewed by a non-color-blind friend or colleague before you ship it out to your hotels and restaurants. They can help you ensure that the colors you selected are complementary and a close match for your company’s standard design scheme.

Ultimately, it may take a little bit more time and effort on your part as a hospitality trainer or designer to adhere to these suggestions, but the end result is that your materials will become more accessible, understandable, and usable to those who are deficient in their color vision.

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