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How I deal with colorblindness as a digital product designer

Colorblindness is any visual anomaly where someone has an altered perception of colors. It can be total or partial. The A11Y Project already has an article that exhaustively covers the different types of color blindness while also providing tools that you can use during your design phases.

In this article, I’d like to tell you what it means to be a colorblind designer and what the main problems are that someone with colorblindness can encounter if they decide to pursue a career as a designer.

Colorblindness from a user’s point of view

During elementary school, like most colorblind people, I discovered that I have deuteranomaly, the most common form of colorblindness: I have a deficit in the sensitivity of my green color receptors. In my offline life, it’s never caused me too much inconvenience, other than the strange color combinations of my clothes.

Growing up and during my introduction to the internet and the first video-game consoles, I encountered more barriers than I had expected. From then on, I started using special filters if an application offered them, and I preferred to browse sites that didn’t over rely on color alone to convey information.

Recently, I was pondering whether most people with colorblindness had problems online or whether I was one of the few people to experience that.

Through deep user research I found two interesting answers: the first is that I wasn’t the only person with colorblindness to have problems online; the second is that, unfortunately, I found many more people than I had imagined.

In light of this, I decided to write a manifesto of ten rules that all designers should follow to create digital products that are more accessible to the colorblind community.

Working as a colorblind designer

In addition to being a colorblind internet user, I am also a colorblind designer. This part of me comes into play when I have to design digital interfaces, either alone or as part of a team. When I’m part of a team, I immediately let people know about my colorblindness to avoid any potential misunderstandings.

But there are many other contexts where my colorblindness manifests itself more, and it can even create slowdowns or serious misunderstandings.

During remote design sessions, we often use Post-it Notes to brainstorm. Many times Post-it Notes of different colors give life to different and common streams of reasoning, while other times Post-it Notes of different colors end up beside one another.

When Post-its with similar colors are placed side by side, my brain can't perceive the color differences between them anymore.

Another element that comes up during design sessions is my constant request for the exact color codes for different interface elements. Unfortunately, it’s not enough for me to know that an element should be made more blue or more red—I need to know what the shades of blue and red are intended to convey because that could be different from what I might imagine.

Working as a digital designer, I continuously refer to screenshots from which I sample color codes. My Mac’s desktop is full of temporary images whose only purpose is so that I can find the right color before I throw them in the trash.

With the type of interfaces that I design, you can usually tell that they’re mine because they have high contrast between colors. And they probably don’t have fancy shades or secondary decorations. I always treat color solely as a decoration because if color alone were to convey information, that could exclude colorblind users.

Improving the work experience

The most important thing that I’ve learned is to immediately let my coworkers know that I’m colorblind. This also helps the other people on the team better understand the types of communication that I’m most comfortable with.

And I continuously seek feedback. When I’m lucky enough to work on projects with other product designers, I ask for their opinion on the work we’ve just done, especially about color and how it could be perceived by noncolorblind people.

Being colorblind is something that for years I’ve considered a limit that would’ve held me back in life—but it’s turned out to be a great strength. It lets me see the world from another point of view. Our goal as product designers should be to work with increasingly diverse teams so that we can create digital products that can better respond to the needs of those around us. And these differences between human beings offer opportunities that we need to make the most of.