Alone in the club: working as a designer with color blindness

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Jansen Cumbie is New York-based visual designer with red/green color blindness. We spoke with him about how this impacts his work, the accessibility of internet interfaces, and his Readymag-made portfolio aloneinthe.club.

Trying to see what would click

I discovered I was red/green color blind about ten years ago, when I failed an Ishihara plate test. This wasn’t a particularly traumatic diagnosis by any means — red/green color blindness is the most common type of color blindness, it affects around 8% of all males, and mine was fairly mild. I have difficulty distinguishing certain reds from certain greens, but otherwise I can see as well as the average person. That’s if I have my glasses or contacts in, as I don’t have 20/20 vision — I have 20/900 vision, meaning I see at 20 feet what people with 20/20 vision see at 900 feet. Thanks mom and dad!

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It does feel a bit paradoxical to have a career that’s very color-focused at times. I kind of fell into graphic design by accident. I moved to New York to write for a publication and I didn’t love it — a bit too much criticism, not enough constructing. I ended up working at a coffee shop for a while. I felt a bit stranded and didn’t know what to do — I worked as a web developer, but I didn’t love how black and white things were when it came to problem-solving. However, I stuck with it, since it was an escape from coffee. A friend reached out, told me someone he knew was looking for a junior web developer, and that I should apply. I did, and the interviewer emails me: “looking forward to you coming in for the junior designer position.” Since leaving the coffee world was my #1 priority, I took an online course called “Intro to Photoshop” the night before the interview. Somehow, I got the job. And that surprise was followed by another surprise: on my first day, I found out the company wasn’t using Photoshop, they were using Illustrator — a program I have never used.

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If you ever want to learn something extremely quick, I highly recommend getting yourself into a similar situation! It lit a fire beneath me to learn design, and luckily, I fell absolutely in love with it. I had assumed graphic design was simply making posters or artwork — a combination of art and commerce. I soon realized what a massive umbrella of subjects “design” consisted of, and ultimately became drawn to psychology of visual communication, especially how much can be communicated with only a few, or even zero, words.

It’s pretty easy to work around my eyesight condition, but at times it can create a bit of distrust or confusion (though often just mild embarrassment). Handicaps occasionally arise when selecting colors for clients’ branding. A particular shade of red I’ve chosen is probably not the bright fire engine red that I’m seeing — I typically need to run those kinds of choices by colleagues to make sure none of these hues are actually offensive. Understandably, it can sometimes undermine the trust of my clients, so I’ve decided to put it as one of the first things on my website for transparency purposes.

Portfolio

I’m a big fan of an unorthodox URL — it’s a small detail that can lend a large amount of personality to a site. As an introverted queer man with an ambivalent attitude toward nightlife, my domain name aloneinthe.club is a self-deprecating joke, which is where my sense of humor tends to land. Additionally, the domain is absurd and completely fails to give off an air of competence (fingers crossed that the work itself accomplishes that). This tiny bit of subversiveness runs through my entire site, with the goal being to filter out any overly pedestrian clients.

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My modicum of coding knowledge wasn’t enough to create a portfolio that I was truly satisfied with, so I had to look around at various portfolio websites. Unfortunately (at least a few years ago), these tended to be very minimal showcases for your work without much to offer in terms of customization. Readymag was one of the few tools that both allowed for creativity and made a lot of delightful UI flourishes that I was aiming for incredibly easy.

The built-in animations are a huge time saver compared to coding them on my own. The layout system in general is far ahead of other platforms I’ve used. And the Examples tab on the Readymag site is a great source for inspiration.

About the accessibility on the web

Generally speaking, the design world has a long way to go to make the internet accessible to everyone. I feel strange speaking on this as any sort of authority figure, since my own colorblindness is quite mild, but insufficient color contrast is something I see all the time on the internet. The most common offense is light grey text on a white background — countless sites are striving for a “minimal” and “subtle” look, but the text is nigh unreadable for a great deal of people. Here’s a small checklist with advice to make your website more accessible:

  • Webaim.org is a stellar resource, and their contrast checker is an indispensable tool to make sure all your text is at a proper level of legibility.
  • Don’t rely strictly on color for your confirm/failure states.
  • Branching out from color blindness a bit here, but make sure your images have alt-text.
  • Make sure your form fields have proper text labels.
  • Provide text transcripts for your audio content.
  • Speaking of text, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts’ Centre for Visibility Design has some enlightening and engrossing research on legibility.
  • Finally, understand the issues others are facing and practice empathy. Hire designers with a disability — look into Liz Jackson’s The Disabled List. There’s always so much more to learn.
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