Imagine you’re 3 again and you’ve lost your mother in the grocery store. Shopping for clothing is one of the more problematic experiences for the colorblind. It brings together some of the most fundamental problems of being colorblind.

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On buying clothes, the color of asphalt and price tags.

Imagine you’re 3 again and you’ve lost your mother in the grocery store. Shopping for clothing is one of the more problematic experiences for the colorblind. It brings together some of the most fundamental problems of being colorblind.

Anyone shopping for clothing has to decide on two very basic things:

  • What color is this item?
  • Does it look good with my other clothing or certain outfits?

Some time ago I found a shirt I liked; it was either green or gray. The name of the color is sometimes listed on the price tag, in this case it was ‘asphalt’. As I was reading it I realized that I had never thought about the actual color of asphalt. Green, black or maybe gray?

Suddenly buying this shirt came to be about one of the great questions of life; what color is asphalt?

After careful consideration I decided on gray as that is the color of industrialism and other manmade structures. Concrete buildings being gray was something I confirmed at some point I seemed to recall.
Green is also preserved for colors of nature, a green road through a grassy area would reduce the contrast between the two, causing dangerous situations.

In the end I used a combination of learned information (buildings are gray, building roads costs money) and cultural context (industrialism is gray, nature is green – asphalt is not nature) to decide on the color of the shirt I was holding.

But careful consideration can only take you so far, it’s a frustrating and error prone process that relies on previously learned knowledge you have to fall back on. And that knowledge might even be wrong.

The only way of really being certain is to go and find someone and ask what color is it. This changes the way you make decisions, you have to decide twice.

First you have to decide on the general color category. I know orange doesn’t look good on me (or so I have been told) so I try to keep away from that.
But this is not enough to make a decision. Green, gray and blue belong – for most colorblind – to the same category. But green is not gray, you might not see it but there is a world of difference between them.

After this rough estimate you have to decide if the piece of clothing is nice enough to take the step of asking someone about the exact color.

These decisions add another layer of complexity to the process. But most of all it makes you feel helpless. It’s like you’re 3 again and you’ve lost your mother in the grocery store.

There’s this helpless feeling you get, standing in the middle of the store with a piece of clothing in your hand, looking around for someone to ask the color of the shirt you’d like to buy.
Who will you ask? The guy next to you is dressed the complete opposite of what you dress like, he obviously has no fashion sense. The store clerk is nowhere to be found and the woman in the next isle is on the phone.

When you finally find someone they often give you a confused look, as if you where joking.
And you can’t really blame them. The question is kind of silly when not being asked by a child, everyone is supposed to know the names of all the colors after 3rd grade right?

It’s about style, not function

You could argue that this whole process could have been avoided by just putting ‘gray’ on the price tag. But that’s not the ultimate solution, sadly. The name of a color is only one part of the process. You still have to decide if that color fits in an outfit and your general apparel.

Arguably, the names of the colors on a traffic light are irrelevant. The concept of directing traffic will work as long as you’re able to tell the difference between the colors.

This doesn’t work for buying clothes, the exact color of a shirt is quite relevant. It’s about style, not so much function. Function is manageable because of the alternatives available, style is subjective and has far less of these alternatives.

This example only illustrates a small portion of the problems and inabilities the colorblind encounter.
In a next article I’ll go deeper into the naming and telling apart color and the different influences that have an impact on this process.

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Comments

  1. Drew Arman

    THANK YOU, This helps sooo much. I have severe deutronopia and theses things always raise a problem for me. Shirts are the worst, i know i look good in orange and blue, but i dont always know which ones those are.

  2. Lisa P.

    Thank you!!! I am one of the rare colorblind women, and buying clothes is the WORST!!! If I don’t have someone with me, I always have to ask a stranger what color things are. “JUST TELL ME IF IT’S GREEN OR BROWN!!!”

  3. Tushaara

    Hi!

    I am a design student in Singapore and I am currently working on a project based on colour blindness. I was wondering, with your permission that is, if your are willing to take a questionnaire?

    This questionnaire is specifically for those with colour blindness.

    I am seeking to understand the perspective of those with colour blindness, so as to make design of everyday objects, printmedia and digital media friendlier to them. It would greatly help in my project which hopes to help the colour blind community.

    All personal details will be kept confidential and information will be left anonymous. It will only be used as research analysis for a thesis paper.
    This is the link to the questionnaire: http://www.mobosurvey.com/S34WH
    Thank you for your time :)

  4. Ryan

    Just thought id bring an iphone app called ‘hue vue’ to peoples attention. It may not be 100% but it lets you take a photo and and then tap it to reveal the colour in that portion of the screen – its a bit less embarassing than asking a shop assistant even if its not always right haha.

  5. Sarah S

    Please note, my comment below was directed to Ned, not this article. The article is really interesting. Once, I asked a colorblind man to help me mimic gasoline with food coloring in water, and his help as to the grayscale values made it really convincing. I only later learned he was colorblind. He had no cultural cues as to the named color of gasoline, and I had never seen it in situ, it was the blind leading the confused, but it worked out wonderfully.

  6. Sarah S

    Can you please not lobby against color coding? It’s not “disabling” you to color code things. It’s super incredibly helpful for people like me, who get a lot of information from color! It’s more sensible to advocate for color-coding that also adds textures or patterns, or even a gray-scale mouse over or alternate version like the one for the “humble indie bundle”. Colorblind people lobbying against color coding and other systems that help the non-blind, is like blind people lobbying against lights on the street at night. The aim is not to disable all of us so we are equally miserable, is it? Should the dyslexic lobby against written instructions, or should they have text-to-speech versions available? Should the deaf lobby against music? Or should they feel the beat on the speaker and dance? Please try to think of others and their needs as well as your own, just something doesn’t help you does not mean it should be banned.

  7. Dan

    Good article. I don’t think the stores understand the importance of having the color names on the tags. People have no idea about my color blindness, but if they looked at my wardrobe overall, they would realize there are a lot of solid colors – or ties that have a specific shirt color in it. When I was single I would often by a tie and shirt together in a store, especially if they were on display together. Now I just ask my wife.

    The names of colors are interesting. I remember as a kid preferring to have crayons that had the names written on the crayon itself – not the cheap crayons that didn’t. I would pick a color out of the box thinking it was one thing, but the name would tell me it was actually something else – especially when the boxes are larger with shades of red or green.

  8. Ned

    I just posted a comment on the January 12, 2012 article. I am red-green colorblind. In a nutshell, I am interested in helping to start an organization that calls color coding what it is: disabling (though perhaps unintentional) discrimination against a perception-challenged group that comprises more than four percent of the population. In the US (where I live) and probably many other countries, there must be a number of advocacy organizations for much smaller groups of people with various disabilities. I wonder if the absence of such an organization for the colorblind can be explained by the reluctance of men to admit their weaknesses. Anyway, let’s get together and lobby against color-coded maps, charts, electrical wires, lights (especially in electronic devices), trail markers, and other significant features of modern life.

  9. ria de rijke

    leuk om je website te bezoeken.voor iemand die kleurenblind is zie je er altijd leuk uit.gr. je tante ria

  10. Matt Doar

    Good article. I just take a friend/wife/daughter/mother with me for clothing

    “The store cleric is nowhere to be found ”

    Off praying in the back perhaps?

    • Tom van Beveren

      Oops :) Fixed, thanks!