Creating colours for accessible design

Colour is a vital element in any design. Despite its ubiquitous nature, colour provides context for the audience. The hues a graphic artist selects set the mood and tone of the piece, elicit emotional responses, build brand recognition, and influence purchasing decisions. As Kissmetrics’ Colour of Psychology cited, 85% of shoppers place colour as a primary reason for why they buy a particular product. In a transformative age of universal design, not only is colour selection incredibly important but so is considering how everyone actually sees colour.

First, let’s address the task of finding a colour palette, the combination of hues which create an appealing design. Two of the most distinct, traditional colour schemes are: monochromatic, colour schemes made of different shades, tints, and tones within a specific hue, and complementary, colour schemes created by combining colours from opposite sides of the colour wheel.

While many established brands have stringent colour guidelines, most new businesses or uninformed customers may not even be able to provide a Pantone colour for their logo. Frequently, a client may simply supply a logo and some pictures and request these pieces become a brochure or website – not necessarily an easy task to perform. Thankfully, there are a multitude of online tools to help quickly identify colours and develop complementary palettes.

Tools such as Impalette and Coolors are incredibly useful online resources, because they can help generate appealing palettes. Both websites allows users to upload an image or input the URL of the photo for assessment. The primary difference between the two is that, while both provide the hex colour codes (six-digit numbers where each pair represents the intensity of red, green, and blue), Impalette will identify the most dominant Pantones in the image; an invaluable resource to help identify a company’s brand colour.

Coolors is even more versatile. Once the hex colour codes are selected or inputted, a user can toggle to see all the shades of each hue and universally adjust the hue, saturation, brightness, and temperature of the scheme to produce more dynamic colour pairings.

After the initial colours are selected, now is the time to consider whether the palette is actually accessible to the entire audience. In recent years, inclusive design has become a bigger concern as society works to minimize discrimination against people with disabilities. For example, Ontario passed the AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act), which aims by 2025 to make Ontario accessible to people with disabilities in key areas of living. These laws will eventually impact how public communication materials, such as websites, and pamphlets, are designed.

Although accessibility laws are vastly different in each province and around the globe, best practices suggest that designs must accommodate the largest possible audience, including the 8% of the male population and 0.5% of the female population who are colourblind. Colourblindness is a result of people having malfunctioning red, green, or blue cones in their retinas, which changes how they perceive a particular colour.

However, a better way to describe the condition would be “colour deficiency” as most colourblind individuals are able to see the colours in the spectrum to a degree but have difficulty in distinguishing shades. Navigating a website or reading a printed piece should never be dependent on distinguishing colour as it impedes usability. Therefore, a good rule of thumb is to have at least a 70% difference in contrast between adjacent colours.

Brands appealing to colourblind individuals can face unique challenges. However, tools such as vischeck and Colblindor exist to help designers simulate different types of colourblindness with the aim of finding the most accessible solution. Vischeck allows users to download a Photoshop plug-in to simulate colour-deficient vision, while Colblindor emulates various types of colourblindness on uploaded photos.

Even though colour has an effect on the consumer, it is increasingly more important to make sure the content is accessible to everyone. By using high contrast colours, patterns, symbols, and stroke weights to create a significant visual difference in the right places, one can easily adopt universal design principles. As accessibility becomes a more mainstream concern, it is imperative to understand how to design for all members of your audience.