Ways of seeing

28 Oct 2011

Architectural researcher Scott Marshall expounds on alternative perceptions of colour in architecture

All designers understand or at least have an opinion towards the use of colour in architecture. And, most have been educated on colour theory as well as proper ways to implement colour in their designs. However, what if everyone in the audience wasn't actually experiencing the intent by the author's use of colour? The purpose of this article is not to suggest removing the use of colour, rather it is meant to bring awareness and challenge all designers to consider the perception of colour blind individuals when making decisions for using colour, throughout all aspects of their work.

To be colour blind most often does not mean that the individual only perceives colour in shades of black and white. The term colour blindness is actually a misnomer because only a small percentage of people are unable to see any colour at all. Most commonly, colour is observed. It is the difficulty to discern the differences between colours which results in an altered visual perception.  

Approximately 10% of the world's population is colour blind or colour deficient. The majority are men, but there is a small percentage of women also. Colour blindness by general definition refers to the difficulty in telling colours apart, but a more correct term would be having a colour vision defect. The most common types of colour blindness are Deuteranopia, Protanopia and Tritanopia. Deuteranopia is most common, affecting around 68%, and is best described as a colour blindness marked by confusion of purplish red and green. Protanopia is second most common, affecting 30%, and is defined as seeing the spectrum in tones of yellow and blue with confusion of red and green and reduced sensitivity to monochromatic lights. Lastly, Tritanopia is the least common, effecting 2%, which is when a dichromatism in which the spectrum is seen in tones of red and green.

Knowing this information, the choice of tone becomes increasingly important. My favorite basic example, as a colour blind architecture professional, is when black, white and red are used together. For people who perceive 'normal' colour, the white and black are the extreme for light and dark while the red bursts out, emphasizing importance. However, for those with colour vision deficiencies the tones of the black and red are similar and begin to blend together, so the intended emphasis is lost.  Overlooking a key aspect such as this could close the doors on experiences for many viewers.

Architects and designers should realize that it is probable for a colour blind individual to be in their audience, possibly even a major decision-maker for the client. Colour has been and is used by designers to evoke an emotion and emphasize an idea. However, those who have colour vision defects may not experience the same concepts as originally intended because of their lack of ability to discern colours as a way of language being expressed by the author to an audience.

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