Careful Color Combos for All

One of the first times I gave much thought to what makes color I was playing with a rainbow suncatcher at my grandma’s house. Young me was amazed by the little, vibrant pieces of rainbow it cast around an entire room and had a zillion questions about why and how this happened. I was told that sunlight is actually made up of all the colors in the rainbow and by reflecting the sunlight, this ornament breaks the light up into the different wavelengths of each color. I definitely did not fully understand this response back then, and even now that I have a better grasp on it, I still find it fascinating to think about the many different wavelengths that are absorbed or reflected to show us all the various colors. I’m by no means a color expert, but lately I have been giving a lot of thought to color as I design my data visualizations and reports with care, so they are accessible to people who see color differently or not at all.

Data visualizations are one of many pieces of research that cross the divide between math, science, and art. The colors we use in our visualizations can influence how people interact with the data, how they feel about it, and what they take away from it. Color can be used to guide the readers’ eyes and highlight key pieces of information in data visualizations. A visually appealing chart is going to be more engaging for an audience and the more engaged an audience is, the more likely they are to understand and retain the information being presented to them. That being said, imagine how frustrating it would be to try to decipher a legend that is difficult to read because the color choices aren’t accessible.

Around 1 in 200 people assigned female at birth (0.5%) and 1 in 12 (8%) people assigned male at birth experience some form of color vision deficiency (CVD), also called color blindness. This means a data visualization made with accessible color choices will engage many more people than one using inaccessible color choices. In addition to reaching more people, accessible color choices help libraries stay compliant with current accessibility guidelines such as WCAG (web content accessibility guidelines). However, even after recognizing the prevalence of color vision deficiencies, it can be challenging to know how to move forward with accessible color choices if you don’t understand what CVD really means and what makes a color palette accessible…

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Sara Wicen
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