By Katie Wendover
The pixelated pattern of a heat map is like a colorful work of art. But how would you make sense of a figure like this without its vibrant colors? Science publishing today exists in an array of hues used to convey a dataset’s information. If the author of the paper is not careful to design figures with color in mind, the representation of data might be lost on those who are colorblind.
Approximately one in 12 males and one in 200 females have color blindness, making it likely that you know or work with someone who fails to see the full spectrum of color1. This means that a significant portion of people who read your paper may lack the ability to distinguish certain color contrasts. Accommodations for colorblindness fall under Section 508 of the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 19732. This amendment states that everything produced and used by the United States government on a digital platform must be accessible to people with disabilities2. But many NIH fellows might not know about this requirement, as private journals are not required to comply with Section 508 and many do not have guidelines for color blindness accommodations.
Fortunately, for fellows in the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the NICHD Biovisualization “Bioviz” group offers free graphic design help to create figures that look amazing and comply with Section 508. In particular, Bioviz member Nichole “Nicki” Swan has led efforts to design event posters, make figures, and create the NICHD Annual Report, all with Section 508 compliance in mind. Swan’s skillset is honed for these tasks. She started at the NIH in 2007 as a tech IRTA, where she helped with research figures, website design, and TheNICHD Connection after graduating from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with a major in animation.
According to Swan, there are easy ways to make an image more color accessible. For example, avoiding certain color contrasts will allow a figure to be understood by a larger audience of colorblind individuals. The most common form of colorblindness is known as Deuteranopia, which makes it difficult for individuals to distinguish red and green—yet this is one of the most frequently used color combinations in science figures1. Swapping out the green/red combination for other effective two-tone color pairs, such as green/magenta or red/cyan can make an image vastly more accessible1.
However, authors cannot rely solely on contrast to make a figure accessible to people with colorblindness. Swan suggests using different patterns within the image when possible. “If [a figure] works with zero color, it should work for all kinds of colorblindness,” she said. If the message of a figure cannot be conveyed without color, Swan states that the message must be clearly detailed in the figure legend. To help determine if your figure requires color to relay the information, there are a number of websites that simulate how people with various types of colorblindness will see your image (see “Simulating Colorblindness” below).
In a field where interpretation is vital, ensuring that the figures of a paper accommodate those who are colorblind benefits the dissemination of information. For the number of hours put into compiling and creating a figure, the benefit is high to ensure that an image can be well understood by all those who look at it.
For more information about the BioViz group, contact Nichole Swan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Summerbell, E. (2019, September 6). How to make scientific figures accessible to readers with color-blindness. Retrieved from https://www.ascb.org/science-news/how-to-make-scientific-figures-accessible-to-readers-with-color-blindness/.
- Fields, H. (2017, September 11). 508 Compliance: Making Your Website More Accessible. Retrieved from https://www.webdevelopmentgroup.com/2017/09/508-compliance-making-websites-accessible-for-people-with-disabilities/.
There are several ways to make sure your figures are accessible for people with color blindness.
Coblis (Color Blindness Simulator)
- With your image open, click on View → Proof Setup → Color Blindness – Protanopia-type or Deuteranopia-type.
- You can turn this soft proof on and off by pressing Ctrl+Y (PC) or Cmd+Y (Mac).
- Be sure to check your image in both views.
- Go to Image → Color → Simulate Colorblindness.
- Choose the type of colorblindness from the dropdown menu.
For more information, check out the following resources: