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Basic Color & Design SBFAQ

Marc Green

Seminar available on this topic.


Color plays an important role in human factors and design. The ability to see and to perceive color is often a critical visual factor in personal injury and intellectual property litigation. However, most people have little real understanding about color vision. Here, I explain the basics.

To paraphrase Selig Hecht, the renowned visual scientist, I am writing, not to add noise to the internet but to subtract from it. The internet is full of discussion about color and its use in design. The same questions arise again and again, almost invariably eliciting the same, usually inadequate and often plain wrong, responses. My aim is raise the signal to noise ratio on the web and to educate human factors and other visual design professionals on how, when and why to use color.

This is impossible, however, without also providing a good account of basic color psychophysics. Many human factors and other designers apparently have little background in basic color vision. It is also clear that there are many people who work in color technology who don't know basic psychophysics and perception very well. Clearly, there is need of an FAQ on basic color and design.

However, an FAQ is not enough. Someone once said that in order to ask a question, you must already know 95% of the answer. The problem novices often exhibit is that they don't even know the right questions to ask. So this is not an FAQ, but an SBFAQ - "Should Be Frequently Asked Questions." Not only am I providing the right answers, but more importantly, I'm also supplying the right questions.

Now a few disclaimers. This is not a highly technical document. There are no formulae for converting among color spaces or computing gamma correction, etc. These topics are covered sufficiently elsewhere. Instead, this SBFAQ is intended to fill a gap between the highly technical aspects of color and design. It consists of 6 parts. The first two cover questions about basic color psychophysics and the third covers color appearance and perception. (Perception and psychophysics are very different fields.) The following set of questions explains "color blindness" and the last two sets deal directly with effective use of color in design.

The SBFAQ assumes at least a rudimentary knowledge of physiology, technology and color. I won't be explaining CIE diagram, the eye's structure or the difference between additive and subtractive color mixing. However, I've included a small amount on these topics so that the reader does not have to jump all over the web in order to understand the text.

Lastly, this SBFAQ is not designed to be all things to all people. It is not a general introduction to color perception, which would require far more depth about far more topics. It is also not a document for psychophysical or perception experts. I've simplified many complex issues to avoid confusing the uninitiated with secondary and tertiary details.

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SBFAQ Parts:

  • Part 1: Basic Terms and Definitions
  • Part 2: Color Discrimination
  • Part 3: Color Appearance
  • Part 4: Color Blindness
  • Part 5: Using Color Effectively
  • Part 6: Color for Text, Sign and Graph Legibility
  • References

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