The Esperanto of Colors

Why is color blindness such a complex condition?

M. N. : Because there are many types of color blindness. Some people cannot tell two colors from one ano­ther, while others only perceive black and white. 350 million people in the world are color-blind, and only 20 % of them realize it before the end of their twenties. Neither medicine nor technology has succeeded in addres­sing this question. I told myself that I had to look at the problem differently. Rather than trying to treat the condi­tion, why not try to improve the way society integrates color-blind people? I began my research by interviewing 150 color-blind people from all over the world in order to understand their needs. I asked them about the everyday life-hacks they used to succesfully iden­tify a color they didn’t perceive, while picking up clothes, spotting a specific medication or reading a traffic sign.

This is how you came up with the ColorADD language for the color-blind. How does it work?

M. N. : I simply went back to the things we all learn in nursery school: the combination of primary colors, black, and white is enough to obtain every imaginable colour. While the color-blind cannot correctly identify some colors, they have no trouble at all identifying shapes. So I associated a visual symbol to each primary color. Shapes can be mixed in the same way colors are. With the help of these three symbols, it is possible to indi­cate any possible color. The thickness of the frame helps to point out diffe­rent shades. Of course, it is still hard to identify the specific shade of red of a Ferrari, but at least we can know its general color.

What makes this method universal?

M. N. : If our sole purpose was to ima­gine a code limited to Portugal, we might just as well have written out the names of the colors on the objects themselves. But we wanted to create a system that evryone in the world could understand, through the use of universal symbols. However, this lan­guage will only become prescriptive if society adopts it, if it gets integrated into locations and situations where colors matter. To pursue this goal, we have trained a team and set up a business model. In order to be able to display ColorADD on their products, companies pay us a royalty, according to their size.

With public authorities?

M. N. : Of course. We are already col­laborating with municipalities to schedule awareness programs in schools through our NGO, ColorADD. To work closely with the authorities is essential in order to help our pro­ject grow. We also cooperate with the Ministry of Education, Health, Sports and Youth, as well as directly with the Presidency of the Republic. It is fun­damental for such public entities that everyone is able to understand them. They have a duty of exemplarity in terms of inclusiveness and anti-discri­mination policies.

How can you ensure the widest adoption of the system?

M. N. : We try to progress cluster by cluster, to show that this new idea is already brilliantly put to use by other structures. For example, the subway system of Porto has integrated our code into its boards and signs. Every single metro line has a different color code and those symbols are very use­ful, even to foreigners. Porto’s success helps us attract other public trans­portation systems in the world: at the moment, we are working on the implementation of ColorADD in the underground railway systems of Lon­don and Madrid. As of today, we are approaching five or six large interna­tional groups working in transport, school materials, textiles, healthcare and games. These have come up as the key sectors to reach in order to ensure a massive adoption of the code by a large section of the color-blind public.

What is the impact of the project so far?

M. N. : It remains difficult to precisely calculate the number of beneficiaries, because the code is not only spread to the color-blind, but to everyone. But we started four years ago with colored pencils; and today we have established more than 250 different partnerships, in order to maximize the chances of reaching every color-blind person.

Can design solve a public health issue?

M. N. : I have always thought that designing should not be reduced to making beautiful objects. I see it as a tool for building a better world. In my case, colors were my raw mate­rials, and I decided that I had to do something with them. A few months ago, one of the greatest ophthalmolo­gists in the world declared that Colo­rADD was the very first remedy ever conceived by a designer. And he added that it was a non-toxic, democratic, inclusive and free piece of medication. I was quite touched.

On the 26th of May, the german Diversity Day, Boehringer Ingelheim offers in cooperation with ColorADD a webinar together with Miguel Neiva. For more Information click here.