September 25, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Try to imagine being unable to distinguish green from blue. What impact would this have on your daily life? For the colour blind, simple things like crossing the street, shopping for clothes or navigating the tube can become extremely complicated. However, this may now be aided by something known as ColorADD. ColorADD is a colour identification system that allows the colour-blind to identify colours using a code. This ‘colour-blind alphabet’, composed of simple, universal shapes (as shown on the pencils in the image above), was created by the Portuguese graphic designer Miguel Neiva during his master’s thesis.

Starting with the idea that most visual communication relies on colours, Neiva realized that colour vision defects are seldom taken into account by graphic designers. Although one-tenth of the male population is affected by colour-blindness, nothing had been done to provide them with a tool that would help them in their everyday life. Neiva started by sending surveys to colour-blindness sufferers across the world. The study revealed that 42% of those surveyed found it hard to fully integrate into society, and 88% had trouble choosing what to wear every day. This led Neiva to create the ColorADD project, aiming to “facilitate colour identification for the colour-blind while contributing to their social integration and welfare, making communication more efficient, responsible and inclusive”.

Creating a graphic code that would be easy to understand and to memorize took eight years of hard work. The system is composed of monochromatic icons that symbolise a range of colours. The basis of this system is the primary colours, represented by three forms that can be mixed together to create a diversity of tones.

Before trying to release and spread his code, Neiva made sure the scientific community approved. He attended conferences including the prestigious World Congress of Colour, which recognised the value of and need for such a system. It was also validated by the College of Medicine of Porto, received the Emerging Design Talent Award from the Royal College of Arts in the UK, and was appointed one of the ‘40 ideas that are going to make a better world’ by Brazil’s Galileu Magazine. Neiva’s goal is to implement his code worldwide.

The possible applications of this code are wide-ranging, especially in aspects of life where colour aids or influences decision-making. Companies in the paint and textile industry have already adopted the ColorADD code for their catalogues and price tags. Nevertheless, Neiva has some priority areas. Accessibility of public transport is one of them, as 50% of travellers use colours to quickly identify their destination. Experiments in this area, including one currently taking place in Porto’s subway to help users navigate, may be rolled out to the public transport systems of London and Sao Paulo in the future. Another area of application is healthcare: the Sao Joao Hospital in Porto is adding the code to coloured bracelets that classify patients (The Manchester Triage), and is also using it on direction signs. The code could also be of a great help for the pharmaceutical labels and products.

The first symptoms of colour-blindness are now being detected at school age. This has led to Neiva becoming particularly committed to the educational aspect of his project, where the possibilities are countless: books, school materials, didactic games… He has created an association to promote the use of his code in the educational system, the only area were ColorADD doesn’t require an operating license.

Ten years after the idea first sparkled in Neiva’s head, the company he created now employs five people and is gaining increasing publicity worldwide. One of the biggest projects ColorADD is currently working on is 2016’s Olympic Games, to be held in Rio de Janeiro, where the colour identification system might be useful for visitor accessibility. The project’s mother country has recently recognised its usefulness further by releasing edited stamps using Neiva’s code. But for Neiva, the best appreciation of his work is by people with colour-blindness themselves: testimony from all over the world arrives daily in his mailbox. Some of this contact is sceptical and even critical, pointing out the difficulties of associating a colour with a sign if you cannot conceptualize the colour, memorising all the figures, and not becoming confused by the orientation.

Yet, even the most critical remarks praise the ColorADD system as the first initiative to fully include the colour-blind in society. The fact that it is a designer and not an ophthalmologist that developed this system shows that initiatives aiming at helping the community can spring from anywhere.

More > See Neiva’s TED talk on ColorADD here.