Made by Michael Shea: Why Being Colorblind Lets Me See Design More Clearly
Senior designer Michael Shea is a man of many secrets. A self-proclaimed nerd and father of two (his “first born” a pug named Cheerio, and his second, a human daughter named Arya), Michael’s hidden life of intrigue includes moonlighting as a muralist in his youth, selling a painting of a horse for $12,000 at the Houston Rodeo during high school, starting a custom longboard design company in college, and designing water sport gear for Eagle Sports before joining the argodesign team.
And when he’s not snowboarding, geocaching, or doing volunteer work, he’s taking on design projects involving virtual reality headsets, gesture controlled wall displays, augmented reality glasses, and IoT products for the likes of Intel, Disney, Dell, Pizza Hut, American Idol, Marvel, Whole Foods, ConocoPhillips, CTCA, and AT&T.
But his biggest secret?
Michael Shea can’t read the numbers below. He’s colorblind. However, this doesn’t make his design work any less impactful. In fact it’s quite the opposite.
In this week’s argomade designer profile, we learn how Michael has used colorblindness to his advantage and what lessons there are for product designers in the experience of designing color blind.
Q: How does your colorblindness affect your design work?
Everyone has a different life journey, and the delta between those journeys instills everyone with inherent value to the design process. Part of my journey is experiencing the world with deuteranomaly: I have trouble differentiating between reds and greens as well as blues and purples. This makes it difficult to tell if meat is fully cooked, if someone is sunburned or blushing, or to use applications that haven’t considered color accessibility.
This surprises most people who learn I’m a designer — they generally assume that colorblindness is a disadvantage for my work. Yet, it’s exactly the opposite.
Being colorblind is a superpower that forces me to deal with color accessibility in a way that I cannot choose to ignore. In a diverse world with a large range of perspectives, being able to relate to and advocate for underrepresented groups is not only helpful to those people, but it’s also fun and fulfilling. Being colorblind makes me a better designer.
Q: Elaborate on color accessibility. Why is it a critical consideration in design — even when your users are not colorblind?
Color is a tool; it can enrich a design, but it can also become a problem if it is the only differentiator utilized.
A good illustration of the point is the popular gem games thousands of people play on their mobile devices. These games use a variety of visual differentiators, including shape, that can open up a design to a larger group of users.
Consider a map that uses a green-to-red color spectrum to represent data (this is very common). Since red-green color blindness is the most prevalent form, these are the least ideal colors to convey information to the greatest number of viewers. Simply changing the color scheme to a monochrome scale makes information easier to decipher.
Stoplights use position as a universal indicator by placing red on the top and green on the bottom — and there is also a bit of orange and blue added so that the colors still look different for those who can’t differentiate red and green well.
Making use of tools like position, icons, contrast, and texture help clarify a design for colorblind and non-colorblind users alike.
To specifically address color accessibility issues in the design process, there are some cool tools out there, such as the Stark plugin for Sketch, which allows designers to simulate the colorblind experience over their work.
Q: How does being colorblind make you a better designer? What lessons are there for the design community in your experience?
I think of color as one of many ingredients that make up a design. Introducing color too early in the design process can cause oversights to other design components, leaving them unaddressed.
Wireframes are black and white for a reason, and that reason isn’t laziness. The simple shapes and lack of color work as blinders, allowing us to become hyper-focused on the big picture, addressing high-level decisions of features, content hierarchy, and user flows.
I’ve worked on several data visualization dashboards that rely heavily on status colors, including ones for ConocoPhillips, Intel, and WestRock. ConocoPhillips’ drilling data story was told best through gauges and graph plotting — components that use positioning to alert the user to high levels of dysfunction, rather than just color. Intel and WestRock both have red and green statuses, but they are complemented with Xs, checks, and other icons, making them not only recognizable, but easily scannable too.
So, being forced into designing with more clarity and universal accessibility makes me a sharper designer, and I owe that to colorblindness. But on a more personal level, I enjoy being able to advocate for people who are normally overlooked.
I become passionate about a design when I look at it through the lens of the end user, colorblind or not. Knowing that the project will delight or improve someone’s life keeps me motivated.
Q: Speaking of motivation, what are you obsessing over presently, outside of user-centric design?
I’m creating a board game. Gaming, whether digital or analog, has always been a part of my life, so when a few co-workers and I tossed around fresh game ideas over lunch, I was was inspired to execute a vision we shared based on the story of Jason and the Argonauts.
It’s a co-op game where you work as a team to assemble a ship, overcome challenges, and fight off sea monsters. A lot of the gameplay is inspired by the things we do every day in the design process: creating things, team-based decision making, and learning from mistakes.
At first I thought designing a game would be a piece of cake, but now that I’ve come too far to quit — much like Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece — I’ve realized how daunting it really is! More than a hundred hours in, some ideas to improve the game mechanics can seem like an overhaul of the entire project.
But that’s the beauty of rapid prototyping: I implement a change; we play a round of the game; and I learn from the testing and improve the product.
Q: You’ve done a wide variety of things in the design industry. Any advice for your younger self or young designers?
I highly recommend being bored more often.
With smart phones and internet, people don’t get bored enough these days. Waiting for an oil change, sitting at the bus stop, or on a trip to the bathroom, I all too often whip out my phone to stay entertained. Although mindlessly scrolling through feeds can be satisfying, it robs us of those really important moments of boredom.
Try sitting at Jiffy Lube for 40 minutes, staring at the tree outside or the dirty, off-white wall, and see if a moment of genius doesn’t strike. The lack of input allows your brain to do all kinds of things, like boost creativity, problem solve, and self-reflect. All of which are pretty awesome.