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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