People who are color blind make up about 8% of men and .5% of women, and of those people, the vast majority aren’t actually color blind, it’s more that they see colors differently. Though we think of color blindness as seeing the world in black and white, the most common form of color blindness is where people have a weakness in the green receptors of their eyes. What would it be like to experience color that way?
Bob Davis, a dear client whose landscape I designed last year, described it by asking me to imagine a continuum of yellow, green and blue. Along that continuum, most of us see any number of subtle shades of yellow, yellow-green, green, green-blue, and blue. Bob sees yellow, green and blue, period. So all those gently contrasting greens rolling through the garden? It’s all pretty much the same color.
In addition, many tones of red actually appear green to him, making what might otherwise be a bold contrast of red flower against green foliage, well, kind of lackluster. Every spring, his wife Judy raves about the gorgeous red Camellia out back, but Bob just sees the same greenery he sees all year. He can make out the shapes of the flowers, but the color contrast of red against green is lost on him.
For us landscapers, color is the easy button for designing a garden. You come up with an awesome color combo, and even if your textural contrasts aren’t what they could be – eh, who’s gonna notice with all that splashy color? Those of us who can see the full color range notice color first. But for people who see limited numbers of colors, composition and contrast become key.
Bob was kind enough to give me some tips about what stands out most to him in a garden, what elements he sees most boldly and clearly, and which seem to be lacking to his eye.
But before we move on, a bit more color background:
Many people who are color-blind in the most common ways can see a single shade of blue or yellow, plus black and white most vividly. Colors like red and green are visible, but often look alike or lack subtleties in tone, and for many people greens can take on kind of a muddy appearance. Pinks can be visible as pink, or can look more white or more red/green, while purples often look like a single shade of blue. Orange is often visible as a distinct color, but isn’t necessarily the shade we’d expect.
Here are two examples to show you how someone with color blindness might see a garden. (You can click to see the images larger.)
On the left, you can see the vivid contrast of red and green. But if you remove your reliance on the color contrasts, you can see that the textural contrast is what stands out:
In this next picture, much of the interest comes from the interplay of blue and purple, and the foliage color contrast between the heathers and the Hydrangea to create a bold accent. Once those subtleties are removed, you’re left with a more soothing monochromatic look:
Elements to focus on when designing a landscape for someone who is color-blind:
Because color isn’t the star of the show, contrast takes center stage. In order to adjust your eyes to see contrast and texture as more important than color, try taking black and white photos of gardens you love and see how they hold up when their reliance on color is taken away. Gardens Gone Wild has an excellent article about this.
Once you’ve started to adjust your mind, try playing with:
Light – the contrast of dark and light still works, even when subtle color variations don’t show up. While strong contrasts of black and white, dark and light can work to draw attention to focal areas throughout the garden, you can also play with light in more subtle ways by selecting trees that allow either a speckled pattern of light to shine through or throw a bold pattern of shadow on lawn or patio.
Designer Rebecca Sweet has an article that will help you see how to be playful with light in the garden.
Texture – set large leaves next to small frizzly leaves, lacy ferns in front of a substantial plant, grasses with softly draping leaves beside spruces with spiky needles.
Variegation – while the delicate striping on many plants doesn’t show up well, bold outlines in white or gold, particularly on larger leaves where the contrast is evident, show up as brightly as flowers otherwise would.
Flower color – just checking to see if you’re paying attention! Seriously, white shows up with boldness against most types of foliage, so if there are any white flowers you can use in your plan, they can help bring a bright splash of contrast and light to your garden. Yellow and blue also show up boldly for people with the most common types of color blindness.
Bob pointed out that using varying shapes can turn up the visual volume on a garden and allow it to shine even without the obvious lure of color. Try to vary, or do interesting things with:
Size – differing sizes add drama and interest – small in front of big next to medium, near a tree. It just adds a bit more variation to the whole picture.
Form – contrast a stiffly upright plant with one that has a weeping character, something tall and skinny and spiky next to something rounded and soft.
Big honkin’ flowers – You can see in the Hydrangea example above how boldly large flowers of the right color can stand out against the sameness of so many greens. Choose white, blue or yellow.
Layering and density – seeing through an open, waving, or lacy plant to a plant with a bolder presence can add interest by guiding the eyes through the garden and providing textural contrast.
Because Bob is a photographer, he was able to share a number of tricks he uses in his photos that also translate well into the landscape.
Lead the eye – landscape designers are always thinking about focal points and where we want to lead people to look. But without being able to rely on bold color to lead people in the right direction, we need to pay more attention to where the sizes, shapes, and textures lead our eyes. Spiky grasses direct out gaze up and out, while trees with gently drooping leaf tips frame the picture and bring our eyes back down into the garden.
On a similar note, pathways or other elements that trail out of our line of sight create a sense of mystery and pleasant tension. Because our mind can’t fill in the ending, we’re draw to elements that seem to go beyond where we can see.
Structure the view – when garden rooms were all the rage a few years back, we were all thinking of how we framed and structured our view. In photography, the limits are more obvious, and we can choose what to include in the shot. In landscaping, the view is more open, but we can still pay attention to how we frame views from seating areas, windows and pathways.
Rule of 1/3’s – photographers use the rule of thirds to get the balance of their shot right. The idea is that elements that are centered are less visually interesting than ones that are offset by a ratio of thirds. You can see it in play in this photo. The sunset only takes up one-third of the visual space, but because of the drama of its placement, the sun takes prominence in this photo.
Non-color attributes and senses:
In order to amp up the enjoyment someone with color blindness is able to take from their garden, consider what other visual and non-visual attributes you can integrate.
Motion – Bob shared that because color isn’t the first thing he notices, he’ll often miss seeing a far-off person who is standing still, even if they are wearing red. But as soon as that person starts to move, his eye is drawn like a magnet.
Other people with differences in how they see color may also be more drawn by movement. Use swaying grasses, loosely waving perennials, and trees tall enough to ruffle in the breeze.
Attract Wildlife – hummingbirds, songbirds, honeybees and native bees can all bring life and joy to a garden. Attract wildlife as much as possible by providing a water source, shrubs for nesting, native plants and other plants that provide a year-round food source.
Sound – A trickling fountain, the rustle of trees or clumping bamboo, birds foraging – all contribute to a sense of aliveness in the garden.
Scent and taste – lemon blossoms, jasmine, herbs, fruit trees and vegetables all help bring your senses into the moment. When you stop to inhale a lovely fragrance or eat a blueberry off the shrub, you aren’t thinking about your tech issues or your pesky co-worker, you’re just there, enjoying the garden.
The most important thing to remember when designing for someone who is color-blind?
Ask questions, and listen. Remember that every human being experiences color differently and has different tastes. Bob, for example, loves blue, but even though he can see yellow clearly, it isn’t necessarily his favorite color.
Also, even though I’ve gone over the most common kind of color blindness here, there are a number of other types of color blindness, as well as an infinite number of variations on which shades people can detect and what those shades look like.
Going out to gardens together and viewing plants at the nursery to see what colors and types of contrast are most visually pleasing can be extremely valuable. Photos are also helpful, but because many people with color blindness can see synthetic colors (like in a book or on a car) more vividly than natural colors (like flowers or wood), you probably also want to get out in the real world and see what stands out best to them on actual plants.
Designing a garden for someone who is color blind isn’t reducing enjoyment for anyone else, rather it’s stealthily adding a whole new dimension of enjoyment.
If you’ve ever integrated plants that feed wildlife or are low-maintenance into a garden, you know that these kinds of changes on how you design a garden didn’t spoil how it looked in any way. It was more that you were adding another dimension that might not be visible to people (or creatures!) not in the know.
Designing to enhance enjoyment for someone who is color blind is the same way. None of these design tips would make a garden unattractive to someone who does see color, and you can still put your red flowers in without guilt! Rather, it’s just one more lens you can design through; one more element to consider when choosing between options.
Want to learn more about how people with color blindness see the world?
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