Painting for people who don’t see colour

A demonstration of the colour code system created by Miguel Neiva

A demonstration of the colour code system created by Miguel Neiva   | Photo Credit: Karla Daniella Pequenino


Portuguese designer’s alphabet to describe colour is helping the colour-blind

For more than 19 years, Tiago Santos did not understand colours. As a child, growing up in Santa Maria da Feira, a city in Portugal, he had trouble choosing the right crayons. It seemed so easy for others, but when he tried colouring brown trees or blue skies, his classmates laughed at the crayons he chose.

“I thought I did not ‘get’ colours, just like some people struggle with mathematics,” Santos, now 34, said.

Today, Santos knows he suffers from daltonism, which is a genetic form of colour blindness. While most people can spot around 30,000 shades, people with daltonism can identify up to 800. But when Santos was young, people did not talk about colour blindness in Portugal. He often used to leave his crayons at home, so he could ask his friends to pass him the right ones and avoid being bullied.

Choosing ripe fruit, matching clothes, and understanding the subway lines were other challenges. Santos finally learned why, when he arrived at university and had to ask for help drawing maps during history exams. Being diagnosed did not make his life any easier.

“I spent another 10 years pretending there was nothing wrong,” Santos said, adding that he felt ashamed of having a condition that few people understood. “ColorADD changed that.”

In 2008, a Portuguese designer named Miguel Neiva presented a new system to identify different colours through shapes as part of his Masters dissertation at the University of Minho, in Portugal.

With ColorADD, each of the three primary colours (red, yellow and blue) is linked to a basic geometric shape (triangle, slash and inverted triangle). By combining different symbols, it is possible to recognize different colours; orange is represented by a triangle with a slash (the combination of red and yellow).

Neiva, 49, said it took him years to perfect the system. He has never struggled with identifying colours, but is familiar with Tiago’s childhood story. “I had a kid like that in my classroom and I was part of the group that used to laugh at him. Children have a cruel innocence about things they do not understand,” Neiva said.

“At the time, only referees who were criticised for giving red cards to soccer players were described as colour blind. I developed a phobia of becoming like that.”

As a designer, Neiva needs to be able to distinguish different shades. Colour blindness affects about one in every 12 men and one in 200 women around the world. “It seems little, but in a classroom with 14 boys, up to two of them can have this problem,” explained Neiva.

He spent eight years interviewing colour-blind people all over the world to create what he calls his “special alphabet.”

On garment labels

Today, ColorADD is included on the garment labels of several Portuguese brands, on coloured pencils for children, on card games and transport systems.

In 2014, a group of Portuguese programmers even used it to create an iPhone app to label colours automatically through a smartphone camera. It was praised by the United Nations for its global impact.

“More than a code, the projects that come from ColorADD made it possible for me to stop hiding my condition. They give me independence in a society that lives by colours,” said Santos, who uses the smartphone app daily.

Companies and institutions that want to use ColorADD in their product pay a licence fee, but there is a pro-bono version for schools and universities. The money goes to ColorADD Social, a project that takes Neiva’s new alphabet to schools and libraries all around the world. But the designer believes there is still a lot of work to be done. Many subway systems do not use ColorADD, the new iOS 11.9 updates are interfering with the iPhone app, and there is no Android version.

This article was originally published in Publico, Portugal.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 1:55:14 PM |

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