Design Process
min read
May 10, 2023
May 21, 2021

Reimagining Colors for Digital Accessibility

Reimagining Colors for Digital Accessibility
Table of contents

Accessibility is more than just a buzzword. Digital accessibility is the democratization of design and the efforts of some good designers can help ensure this design revolution — "Digital accessibility enables people with disabilities to understand, navigate, perceive, contribute to and interact with the web. It is a way to include everyone to use and applaud your designs".

Accessibility recommendations for making web content more accessible come from Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

The WCAG guidelines are hard to understand and require help from accessibility experts and professionals. Small steps in the right direction can help reach the goal of complete accessible designs. While all accessibility guidelines are vital, the most common of them all is color contrast and visibility. 

“Data shows that the most common accessibility issue is color-related."

— Mathias Bynens, a software program engineer at Google

Color accessibility means creating color combinations and palettes that display enough contrast for the content and makes it clearly distinguishable from the surrounding page. Reimagining colors with accessibility guidelines at the beginning of a product's life cycle saves time, effort, and money.

The calculated, conscious, and considerate use of colors that allows each user to have similar digital experiences is spreading empathy. This also reaches out as a brand message to a wider audience as "we care about you".

The 5 points below explain the steps designers can take to learn and understand the use of colors for an accessible user experience. 

1. Understand color-related disabilities to empathize with the end-user needs.

Some people are more sensitive to color. They are unable to distinguish certain shades of color and sometimes completely unable to perceive any color. This is known as color vision deficiency or color blindness.

Most people are not actually “color blind” but “color deficient.”

— Pablo Stanley

The decreased ability to see color is not rare, there are an estimated 300 million colors blind/deficient people worldwide, which also includes some public figures like and Mark Twain, Mark Zuckerberg, Pablo Stanley, Christopher Nolan, and Eddie Redmayne.

Color blindness and deficiency affect approximately 1 in 12 men (8%) and 1 in 200 women in the world.

According to an enchroma blog color blindness or color vision deficiency includes a wide range of causes and conditions and is actually quite complex. 98% of those with color blindness have red-green color blindness.

This image shows colors as viewed by a person who can see all colors as they are truly reflected, deutan color blindness and protan color blindness.

Understanding different types of color blindness and deficiencies are important for the expansion of colorblind-friendly designs. This requires research, patience, and hard work but these efforts help to create designs that are more visible, readable, and fair to all.

2. Use colors and symbols together to make important visual information useful for all.

Colors are important means of conveying information but symbols should be used to make that information more useful. Geometric patterns, lines, text, textures, and labels of different kinds improve readability and visibility for everyone.

Trello, a website and an app that allows users to create actionable tasks and organize them have a colorblind-friendly mode. An easy-to-find function that lets users distinguish between different labels.

Image showing the non color blind mode of a web based application Trello
Trello’s mode for non-colorblind users with colors alone as labels.
Image showing the color blind mode of the web based application Trello with labels which have colors as well as symbols of different kinds
Trello’s mode for colorblind users with patterns helps people distinguish between labels.

A web product is truly aesthetically balanced when the design is also understandable for all. Designers who highlight or complement the already existing design ensure an authentic output that resonates with a wider range of users. 

3. Put in efforts to create color combinations that fit all.

The right color combinations help to distinguish one color from another. Understanding different kinds of colors are crucial to effective composition in interface design and having a rational understanding of color helps to create the right color combination.

At the same time, between many different color deficiencies and blindness, it’s hard to create a color palette that fits all. Common forms of color deficiency include difficulty distinguishing between red and green, or confusing blue with green and yellow with violet.

Blue is considered the safest color for most color deficiencies and blindness, as well as all age ranges. Blue is the most accurately distinguishable and can be viewed by most people.

Some very frequently visited websites and apps — Facebook, Microsoft, Safari, Twitter, Shazam, etc. have established that blue is good, but it should not be treated like it's the only color that exists in the world. Although, here are some color combinations that should be avoided to ensure a good user experience.

Color combinations that should be avoided while designing a web interface for everyone
A chart of color combinations that should be avoided by

Selecting colors based on personal preferences is a mistake that no designer should make. Colors don't have the ability to solve all the problems. They are important but they alone don't add to the usability of the user interface. The prime focus of a designer should be to research, learn and create a color palette that meets web accessibility guidelines to help websites provide a more inclusive web experience.

4. Use propitious color contrast for users with low contrast sensitivity. 

Color contrast is everything. A good color contrast benefits all users and is mainly beneficial for users with low contrast sensitivity.

Low contrast sensitivity is mostly seen in older people, and people who are colorblind or deficient. They mostly have trouble differentiating between similar colors and understanding digital information which has less contrast between foreground and background.

The WCAG guidelines provide a formula to calculate the amount of contrast between two colors, which results in a perfect contrast ratio.

(L1 + 0.05) / (L2 + 0.05), where

  • L1 is the relative luminance of the lighter of the colors, and
  • L2 is the relative luminance of the darker colors.

In short, to meet W3C’s minimum AA rating, the background-to-text contrast ratio should be at least 4.5:1. High contrast allows clarity between foreground and background colors and mostly helps text stand out better.

5. Utilise the tools available all over the web.

Each kind of color deficiency and blindness causes inconvenience to the users. Inconsiderate use of colors escalates that stress on them. This stress can be easily avoided by testing the color palette with the available tools.

These tools help to see how users with different forms of color blindness and deficiency view colors and some of them also help to create custom color palettes.

Figma color filter plugins are an easy way to apply grayscale, color deficiency, and other color blind simulation colors to layers and frames.

Image of Figma Color filters depicting simple plugins that allows you to quickly convert all the colors in your selected layers or frames
Figma Color filters is a simple plugin that allows to quickly convert all the colors in selected layers or frames.

Color Oracle is a free color blindness simulator that shows in real-time what people with common color vision impairments will see.

WhoCanUse is a tool that helps to understand how color contrast can affect people with different visual abilities.

Google Chrome add-on “I want to see like the color blind” lets everyone simulate color blindness on live websites and testing environments. 

Khroma uses AI to learn which colors you like and creates limitless palettes to discover, search, and save.

Image of Khroma, a website that helps to create infinite color combinations.
Khroma Instagram for inspiration curated by Lucie Bajgart.

Unclear information creates confusion, causes avoidable trouble, and affects the overall user experience. The tools mentioned above and many like these help to take into consideration people with different abilities and empathize with their true needs.

An accessible user interface doesn’t require a lot of additional time. We are beginning to realize that digital accessibility can ensure more meaningful, balanced design solutions. The ability to understand the end-user needs is crucial than ever. Designers, as they stay keen on learning, reimagining, and solving problems should use the superpower of empathy combined with accessibility guidelines to reimagine colors for those who see the world differently.

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