Communication: Colour deafness

My husband is colour-deaf. No, that’s not a typo, he’s not colour-blind: he can see colours well enough, but they just don’t “speak” to him – hence, he’s colour-deaf.

It’s not that colour is unimportant to him, either. In his professional life, he designs management information dashboards. Clients who often expect to see RAG (Red, Amber, Green) screen displays might be surprised by his passionate advocacy against these colours, precisely because they are difficult to grasp for red-green colour-blind users.

It’s just that he doesn’t “get” the messages intended by brand owners’ carefully chosen use of colour. For example, at the end of our business meeting, we instinctively reached for the wine list in our hotel bar. The list had been helpfully broken into separate sections for whites, rosés, reds and full-bodied reds. To make the list visually appealing and easy to browse, each section was printed in a corresponding or relevant colour – a crisp green for the whites, pink for the rosé and two shades of red for the reds. I made a casual remark about how I thought this was quite clever, at which point it became abundantly clear that my husband had not even noticed that there even was any colour scheme.

Further discussion revealed that he often sees these colour messages without even noticing them and, if prompted, he has to make a conscious effort to analyse their meaning. Passing Waitrose, with its green-on-white branding, he said thoughtfully “Ah, I suppose you’ll tell me that it’s to suggest crispness and freshness”. Top marks for analysis, but this was no intuitive, instinctive reaction – like mine to the wine list. He really had to deconstruct it quite deliberately.

When marketers and designers spend a lot of time, money and effort selecting a brand’s precise colours and when the quasi-science of “colour psychology” (whereby certain colours are meant to invoke a particular mood or frame of mind) is now familiar territory, what about those people who just aren’t going to get it? Can you make sure that your message gets through to them, too?

Of course, these aren’t questions that apply only to use of colour, or even just to marketing or design. Getting the message across is the fundamental point of any kind of communication. Let’s consider slide deck presentations, like PowerPoint, as a familiar example. If you pack your slide full of text, the audience is likely to be staring at the words on the screen – and not listening to what you have to say. Or they give up on trying to read and tune out entirely. (And don’t even get me started on the people who just read out the exact same words that are on the screen. Maybe I’ll save that for another rant, another day). You can resolve the wandering attention problem by increasing the number of slides and reducing the amount of content on each one. “But aren’t more slides going to increase the likelihood of Death by PowerPoint?”, you squeak in horror. No. Quite the opposite, in fact. With less content on each slide, you’ll be moving on from slide to slide much more quickly. The dynamism of your presentation will increase simply because the screen will change more quickly.

Instead of an avalanche of words, why not spend a bit of time finding some unusual but pertinent visuals that can stay on screen while you talk around the subject? While your audience members are looking at an image, they can still absorb what you’re saying – in a way that they simply can’t if they are trying to read and listen simultaneously. It’s a brain thing and there’s oodles of psychological research into demonstrating that it works. What, you want to know more about this? Chris Atherton’s blog is a great jumping-off point & highly recommended.

Just in case you’re thinking that this is somehow connected with the popular theory of different learning styles (“I need pictures because I’m a visual person”, etc.), it isn’t. Have a look at this Wikipedia link for a good summary of the growing swell of scientific scepticism for learning styles theory. However, even discounting learning styles, it would be foolish to eliminate the use of different communication methods that might help your potential audience to absorb what you are trying to say.

Having an aesthetically pleasing, consistent look & feel to a presentation/website/brand will create cohesiveness. The use of fonts, layout, visuals and sound clips can all enhance delivery of your message – without losing contact with the colour-deaf.

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