A↔N #6: LESSONS LEARNED FROM OLIVER SACKS – Colorblindness and Wayfinding

LESSONS LEARNED FROM OLIVER SACKS – Colorblindness and Wayfinding

Grace C. Lee

The 2015 Color Rush football game between the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets? The Bills were dressed in all red, and the Jets were dressed in all green. The Color Rush games are intended to celebrate the NFL’s 50thanniversary of the first color broadcasted game [1]. However, this particular game ended up as a nightmare for people with red-green color blindness. Imagine loving football and not being able to enjoy the game due to this oversight?  This game exemplifies how humans are still designing programs, designs, etc., as a world without adversities. In Oliver Sacks’An Anthropologist on Mars[2], the chapter “The Case of the Colorblind Painter” provides a look into an artist, Mr. I., who was suddenly achromatopsic due to a car accident. A person with achromatopsia cannot see color, only shades of grey. Approximately 1% of the population have this condition. Though extreme, his story is extremely interesting – more to come later.

 The most common disorder in the 8% of the population that experiences colorblindness is deuteranomaly. Sufferers experience red-green color blindness, and a significant proportion of them see yellows and greens with red tints, and they find it difficult to distinguish violet from blue. There are four types of red-green colorblindness: protanomaly (limited function of red cone photopigment), protanopia (no functioning red cone photopigment), deuteranomaly (limited function of green cone photopigment), and deuteranopia (no function green cone photopigments).

There are several other forms of color-blindness. In tritanopia, there is a is a lack of blue cone cells and blue appears green and yellow appears violet or light grey; In tritanomaly there is limited function of blue cone photopigments and so blues can appear greener, and yellow and red are hard to distinguish from pink.

All types of colorblindness may be hereditarily linked to the X-chromosome. Brain trauma, such as an accident like Mr. I’s, or a stroke, and aging are also reasons for the development of colorblindness [3].

Back to Mr. I’s story. Immediately following his accident, this artist had great displeasure in not being to paint. Eating was no longer enjoyable because the associated colors were not present, thus affecting the perceived taste. Even taking a walk in the evening and being able to watch a sunset became difficult. Moreover, it became difficult to safely walk outside due to the lack of typical color contrast.

Mr. I’s experience immediately made me wonder how we design and implement wayfinding.  In grad school, I often explored the various approaches to wayfinding. I began to notice spaces that defined their floors and/or areas by color coordination – the nearby mall, the nearby medical center, the trolley, etc. utilized this method. Also as a New Yorker, if someone asked me for subway directions, I provided them with a color line and a northbound or southbound direction.

Logically, it was convenient to transform my color-coded adjacency diagrams into wayfinding maps for my projects. In one of my projects, a hypothetical elementary school, grades were divided into pods which were organized to form a circle and creating a centralized courtyard. One of the defining points of my presentation was that each classroom would be color coded, and the exterior circular pathway would follow the rainbow of colors and lead a student back to their classroom. In another hypothetical project, I took a city block and created this pavilion that utilized colors in the same manner.

What a treacherous idea. Below is what my “brilliant” idea would look like for a person without color blindness and a person with deuteranomaly. (Photoshop has a great proofing tool that simulates protanopia and deuteranopia.)

Immediately, I began to wonder how anyone with any form/degree of color blindness can follow traffic signals. The New York side of me forces me to be a lifelong non-driver thus when traffic lights suddenly have four lights instead of three, or when I come across a traffic light with just one light instead of three, even I — someone without a colorblind adversity — immediately am confused and annoyed. For example, I’ve come across a single flashing red light – if I can’t understand the meaning behind that, how can people with a form of colorblindness identify the color to determine the meaning behind the traffic signal? (For the inquiring non-driver’s mind: A flashing red light has the same meaning as a stop sign [4].)

There are several online testimonials and published research articles regarding this situation – people with deuteranomaly easily learn the order of the traffic lights and their associated meanings as long as they are standardized. However, the difficulty they experience occurs in seeing the lights due to the lack of brightness contrast, rather than the issue fall solely on the color itself. Colorblind drivers are often searching for this information rather than the immediate information that’s provided for non-colorblind drivers [5, 6]. Unfortunately, non-standardized traffic lights and the lack of brightness contrast can be the cause of automotive accidents, though it is a small number against the overall number of accidents. Additionally, most lights are being retrofitted with LED lights which, fortunately, provide a better brightness contrast, (Though, I’m certain the change was based on financial and maintenance factors, not with adversities in mind.)

People with any form of colorblindness puts themselves at a slightly higher risk of a car accident than those that have all cones and related functions intact. This general statistic also makes me pro-autonomous vehicles as it’ll essentially eliminate this issue and any other adversities that hinders or prevents a person from currently driving [6].

Granted, as seen in the constant theme of An Anthropologist on Mars, your brain is quite adaptive to the world thanks to neuroplasticity. Essentially, the brain is able to “re-wire” itself to some extentin the case of various types of brain damage though not in others. The artist in the book was able to readjust and learn how to paint in color despite not being able to see any color [7].

Unfortunately, Oliver Sacks provided little information on how Mr. I. was able to paint in color again. Though in simple, non-neurological terms, color became an emotional expression rather than use color as a direct representation of reality. Mr. I.’s paintings became abstract rather than literal, and he slowly experimented with one color then added other colors to his repertoire over the course of time.

Almost a year ago, I had the privilege of touring Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, CA. In the Main Building, floors are defined by numbers, colors, themes (Deep Ocean to Shallow Water, etc. up to Mountains), animals, trees, and flowers/leaves found on that specific ecosystem. These animals, trees, and flower/leaves aren’t just symbols on a map, but are seen as sculptures in the walls, on fabrics on upholstered furniture, and as patterns embedded in the floor. It’s an ingenious and appropriate theme for a children’s hospital and is clearly a leading example as to how we should be practicing branding in terms of wayfinding because it caters towards conditions of colorblindness, age, and impairments related to stress [8].

Pedestrian lights have also adapted multi-features to prevent confusion – there is the red stopping hand, the white walking pedestrian, the audios of “stop” and “walk side on (street name)” and the chirps.

In a quick search, similar multiple dimensional features have been proposed as new traffic light designs. In 1983, researchers found significant improvement when traffic lights are associated with a shape and color. For example, in the United States, a red light would be shaped as an octagon, and a yellow light would be shaped as a triangle [6]. Additionally, in 2012, Japan added a pink X to their red stop light which is undetectable to a non-colorblind driver, but clearer for those with protanomaly or protanopia conditions [9].

While neuroplasticity is a powerful feature of the brain, it doesn’t rewire the brain so that a person with colorblindness can suddenly see colors. This was not Mr. I’s path to regaining his art. Thus, as designers, there are clear benefits to taking that extra step of detailing and combining numerous forms of wayfinding methods to make the divergent human experience less stressful. Why don’t we step away from the simple and normal single-factor forms of wayfinding and develop new, multi-factored methodologies that’s welcoming for everyone to navigate through a space? As broad as this rhetorical question may be, it can be made specific by analyzing “everyday” situations through the two lenses: (1) As a designer, are these “everyday” designs multi-faceted for various adversities? We tend to focus on ADA, specifically wheelchair accessibility, but “disabilities” come in various forms. In Master Planning projects, can designers and planners encourage the use of research, such as these experimental traffic lights, to make the project progressive? (2) As a scientist, research should dictate why our designs need to change. Could researchers place more emphasis on and/or communicate their study’s results with designers so there could there have been / be a greater push to utilize LED lights, shaping each traffic color’s lights to that of the analog signal, and/or Japan’s pink “X” within a red light? Environmental conditions, such as wayfinding, provide a great opportunity for designers and researchers to collaborate for a more ideal and less stressful built environment.


[1] CBS Sports – Bills-Jets game is complete torture for colorblind people: https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/look-bills-jets-game-is-complete-torture-for-color-blind-people/

[2] Oliver Sacks – An Anthropologist on Mars: (Year and Publisher?) https://www.oliversacks.com/books-by-oliver-sacks/anthropologist-mars/

[3] National Eye Institute – Facts about Color Blindness: https://nei.nih.gov/health/color_blindness/facts_about

[4] Driver’s Ed: Traffic Lights https://driversed.com/driving-information/signs-signals-and-markings/traffic-signals.aspx

[5] SpringerLink – Defective color vision is a risk factor in driving: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-94-011-5408-6_54

[6] Canadian Medical Association Journal via PubMed – Colour-blind drivers’ perception of traffic lights: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1875309/

[7] TedTalks – Growing Evidence of Brain Plasticity:https://www.ted.com/talks/michael_merzenich_on_the_elastic_brain?language=en

[8] Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital – Maps & Destinations: https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/content-public/pdf/wayfinding-maps-stanford-childrens.pdf

[9] The Telegraph –Japan testing traffic lights for colour-blind drivers:https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/9069236/Japan-testing-traffic-lights-for-colour-blind-drivers.html

[10] Mollerup, P. (2013). Wayshowing > Wayfinding: Basic & Interactive: BIS Publishers.

About Grace C. Lee

As an Architectural Designer for Perkins + Will, I continually have the opportunity to incorporate research studies into the projects our firm is working on. Some studies have provided design exceptions to local preservation codes, and some studies provide informational design approaches and decisions. This interdisciplinary approach emphasizes P+W’s unique push to incorporate research into our designs. After finding the perfect job that designers strive for – great projects and a great working environment – I began to question if there’s more to design than design itself. At that point in my life, I had approximately a decade’s worth of volunteer experience with people experiencing various forms of psychological and/or neurological adversities and have started reading Oliver Sacks’ books. The combination of the two experiences validated my desire to have psychological and neurological studies help dictate my design approaches and decisions.