Black and White is Clearer Than Color

“If you are lost, going in the wrong direction, you had better go real slowly,
because you have to come all the way back again to get where you should be.”

This is not a scientific article, just some musings about the way Pete looks at things, both physically and metaphorically.

Life, as well as design, especially human-centric design, means just that: good products and designs mean the right direction of thought and process. Head the wrong way and the results show it. But — this is the big but — you have to have some idea of which direction you want to go in. A major indicator of the correct course should be the ability to observe the design process from conception and modify direction as you proceed. Rather like the captain of a ship: “There are rocks over there, steer course 180.” To do that, you need to be able to see what’s happening very clearly. In fog and confusion, it gets very difficult.

Modern technology is both a blessing and a curse. It allows us to do marvelous things, especially with the rapidly increasing computer horsepower, which allows for parametric design and rapid prototyping. The curse is we can also build some really stupid products very fast. Good design is clear thinking made obvious; don’t make a move until that’s clear. If you add technology to poor design, business, anything, you get: “Poor Design / Unclear Thinking Hidden by Technology!”

Contemplating how to improve the way in which we handle these new wonder tools has led me to some thoughts that always seem to develop into a forward and reverse process, rather like navigating out of a maze. Several times I attempted to reverse the available aspects of the technology to see if the results could be improved without drastically altering the design aspects. One of these journeys led me to believe that the use of selective simple black and white, in the initial design phase, is more beneficial and, in many cases, far superior to, full color (far superior to what!?!?).

Modern computers, especially the newer workstations, offer probably 85 percent more capacity to handle enormous software options, far more than we can ever possibly use. This, even to the trained eye, adds a state of over-confusion that in turn creates misdirection and leads to products being designed poorly.

Casinos and supermarkets have long known that if you block out comforting and calm sensory feedback to the building’s inhabitants (read customers or shoppers) then a state of confusion exists and the confused customer in the maze will let go of far more cash than they intended. Who has not, when unpacking the grocery cart said to him or herself, “What on earth did I get that for?” In the casinos, you don’t normally get to take anything away: those machines are not called “One-armed Bandits” because of their cute color scheme.

Design systems on computers, to me, have created the same sense of deprivation and confusing designs we really don’t want and have quite enough of. Let me relate some stories that gave me some clues on how, with very simple logic, the process might be improved.

* * *

A few years ago, I became involved with a problem with the British Columbia Health Authority in Canada involving something that they had created. It was a very simple product, namely books, flashcards and other teaching aids for special ed children. The Canadian government had spent a tremendous amount of money on this system and, in short, the improvements over the old system, the teacher, or “The Learning Empowerer” at the blackboard, with white chalk (black and white, get it?) were minimal and, in the majority of cases, there was even a decline in performance. Let’s first look at the flashcards, the simplest. They were beautifully made, full color, in flip binders — just the sort of thing everyone needs on their coffee table. In a sample scene, one card showed a group of happy children, all different colors, as was politically correct, in a green field under a perfect blue sky and sunshine, throwing a bright yellow ball. The exercise here was labeled simply “Ball,” in both French and English, and I was told that several native languages would be added later. The other material was designed in a very similar fashion.

On talking to the teachers and aides, who tended to regard their captive pupils under the horrific labels of “disturbed” and “backwards,” they commented that the children of today were not as intelligent and simply could not do the exercises. Well, to cut a long story short, I copied the flashcard of the “Ball” and eradicated the word text at the bottom and showed the same scene to groups of adults, including government officials, and guess what? Not one made the reference between the indicator card and the correct word. Guess they were dumber than the children, who at least got it some of the time.

At the time, my trusty design tools were a black and white Mac SE and a laser printer NT, with which I set out to try and create an improved product. (I had a limited design kit because this event took place in pre-history, “BL” or before laptops, and the only decent color printer in the US belonged to Howard Hughes.) The politics at this point were pretty intense, as anyone who has tried to criticize a government creation will tell you, and so I decided to do it in stages and let the teaching aides play with the samples at each and every step of development. So step one became a round, line art, black and white circle with the word BALL, in English (my only language) prominently displayed underneath on a nice shiny white 6″ x 4″ flashcard, which, because it was going to be shown and handled by so many, had been laminated and connected to its fellows by a shiny metal shower curtain ring. I visited the first center to see what results we could get; there were ten identical cards in the pack.

While the teachers viewed my first primitive efforts and proceeded to denigrate them next to the beautiful examples supplied by the government, a pack of the prototypes had been left on the desk in the classroom and one of the new teaching aides, unbeknownst to us, started to hand them out. Ten minutes later a senior administrator with a bright red face came rushing into the office, where by this time I was getting prepared to slink away with my tail between my legs having been thoroughly roughed over, to insist that everyone come see what the children were doing. What they were doing, of course, was the equivalent of the scientist’s shout of “EUREKA! I have found it!” Now they understood what this silly adult had been trying to tell them for weeks: “This is a ball.” Now they could see the thing, as all the clutter had been unconsciously eliminated. Cards were being merrily held up to the light, licked, hung on various parts of anatomies and put numerous other uses way beyond my intent and thoughts — “Newus Toyus Discoverus.” Bless them all. More importantly, all the children really did now get the point. So, BALL it was and did they have one.

At a later date, when I related this story to a child psychologist, she displayed little amazement. She then described to me the normal learning cycle, which, if I remember correctly, goes: singular before plural, linear before vertical and of course first line art, then grayscale, then three colors, then light color and finally full color—and that’s for us so-called normal saps, and oh, yes, one language at a time, please. To particular people, especially non-intuitives, this learning sequence is very important and unless the sequence is followed 1-2-3-4, they will never understand the true meaning of what they are trying to learn.

* * *

Monty Roberts has a unique and unbelievable talent: he can communicate with animals, especially horses. It was Monty’s exploits that inspired the Horse Whisperer film and novel. Monty discovered at an early age that there were subtle signals being sent between the herd leaders (whom he saw were the mares and not the stallions, as previously believed) and the rest of the wild horses in the group. A total communication system, which he has now decoded and perfected to a fine art. How did Monty recognize these signals and inferences when for a 1,000 years or more, they were hidden? Monty has acute achromatopsia — he is colorblind. It was this totally different perception, un-camouflaged by color, that enabled him to see something that had remained hidden for 2,000 years. He now teaches — or, again, lets the horse become an empowered and willing pupil to learn — what he wants done by communicating with the horse in his Equus language, using body movements and signs, without touching the horse.

In some of our most recent wars, prized bombardiers in aircraft and other observers were people such as Monty who, because of their colorblindness, could see through enemy camouflage and recognize objects on the ground that were totally invisible to their color-sighted companions. Likewise, snipers pre-night sight. It was also said that Napoleon used such people with his semaphore system that he placed around Europe and their error rate in reading signals was far less than their so-called normally sighted companions. Similar stories have been told about observers on the high seas, no pun intended. I once knew a man in Rhodesia named Ozzie Bristow who had developed a relationship, similar to Monty’s with horses, with very wild animals (read lions, elephants and more) and once he told me in a very embarrassed way that he had severe trouble with colors. People always joked about his tendency to cruise right through red lights. Instead of being looked at as a gift, in his case, he viewed it as the opposite. It’s the world’s view at present that people like Monty and Ozzie are impaired, but what if, as the eminent Dr. Oliver Sacks says, “they are examples of another way of health” and, in specific areas, they have far more prowess than their color-sighted counterparts and, in fact, see things far more clearly? Dr. Sacks has a history of studying what I call this type of savantism and it’s not too far a jump to assume that maybe these savants are not to be seen as impaired, but quite the opposite: they have developed formidable skills way beyond the reach of normal mortals. Their systems frankly don’t have the same clutter to contend with as we do.

* * *

Once, we could be assured that there are two things in life that you could really depend on – Death and Taxes. Well, today we have another and that’s Computer Classes. We even have Classes on the Classes because of the ridiculous complexity that has evolved in software and operating systems. Well, I have news for you guys, unless things get really simpler, a lot quicker, there will be a new amendment to the US constitution because crappy buggy big software violates “The right to the pursuit of happiness.” The new amendment will be “ No software shall be bigger than one meg, and take longer to load than my coffee takes to brew or take longer to learn than ten minutes,” or as Dilbert would say, “I am analog for God’s sake and no Digiteratzi is going to make me any different.” At a recent computer training class I attended, it became really obvious that several attendees were in over their heads, including a companion of mine who was sitting next to me. One night, all of a sudden the grunts and expletives next to me ceased and were replaced by “Oh, yeah, this is what it means” and other sighs of utter contentment. I looked over at the screen and guess what? Someone had turned off the color. Like a dummy, I immediately corrected the situation up to 256 colors and was nearly physically thrown through the window, as the previous grunts and frustrations returned to my companion. OK, what the heck, black and white it is, and before long, several members of the class had done the same, and guess what, they all insisted that the systems were far easier to use and understand. Go figure.

When primitive non-artist types first learn to work with a color palette, we use a system called, delightfully enough, paint by numbers. This, for those with skill, eventually teaches the mortals to understand color, which, again according to the great Dr. Oliver Sacks, is a perception of our brain function and not a chemical or scientific sequence a la the theory of relativity, gravity, whatever. Perceptions as well as psychological types vary, thank you Isabel Myers Briggs. At the top end of sophistication, we have the Pantone chart of colors, which provides a measure of conformity and when someone in Hong Kong says to someone in Memphis, this is Pantone color XXX, they both know immediately what they are talking about. They may kill each other over which type of green should be used, but the color identification number will remain specific as the choice changes. We can now design and create files with a color view range in the millions, beyond human comprehension, and if that’s not an oxymoron, what is? Maybe they are for some next generation super person, who knows. Well, a very big problem with color files and computers is that they are often too large and take terabytes of space, even compressed, and are really slow to load and manipulate. Don’t get me started on our parametric full modeling colleagues who boast that their base design model file is now 5 gazillion tetropobites big and how about that wiener?

What if there were a software program that looked at all the colors and immediately assigned them Pantone numbers and saved and transmitted the numbers instead of the colors? Sort of paint by numbers in reverse. Think of the savings in space, time and effort let alone cost of hardware. There is a newspaper in Santa Fe, New Mexico called simply, “THE.” For many years, it was printed exclusively in black and white and won rave reviews for its clarity and design layouts. It really was a beauty to behold. Ansell Adams knew it and we are just discovering it again.

* * *

So, in conclusion, maybe we may want to advise our next generation of designers to turn off the color and confusion when working and sing along with the rest of us, “I Can See Clearly Now that the colors are gone, I can make real great stuff now that they (colors) are not in my way.”

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