Each of us sees colors slightly differently. As we discussed previously, external environmental factors like light, background, altitude, and noise can affect our ability to match colors to a standard. In this post, we’ll consider more personal factors:
Together, these factors interfere with our ability to accurately perceive colors.
Vision certainly begins to fail with age. Although we might need glasses, or accept that our peripheral vision isn’t what it once was, many people might not be as aware that accurate color perception is also affected by age.
The muscles in the eye lose strength with aging, and eyes are less responsive to lighting changes. Cells in the retinas of older people also lose sensitivity, which affects color contrast. Blues are especially likely to appear more faded to older adults, possibly because the lens of the eye yellows with age and cataract formation.
A study in the 1990s tested color vision loss by decade. Researchers found that ability to perceive both hue and saturation began to deteriorate at age 50, and more rapidly after age 60. A more comprehensive study published in 2014 confirmed color confusion with age, especially with the color blue.
Some of the conditions that accompany aging are commonly treated with medications that can affect color perception. A 2016 Canadian report surveyed the literature to identify these drugs, and discussed a few commonly prescribed to seniors.
Other populations, of course, are also prescribed these drugs, if less frequently than the elderly.
Designers, if aware of potential color deficiencies, can accommodate them in anything from floor coverings to power buttons on appliances. And imagine what a difference it could make to a person with even slightly impaired color vision if pharmaceutical companies used shape rather than subtle color changes to identify medications.
Color perception is both physical and psychological. It involves the eye, but also the mind. There are a couple of different ways color is affected by memory.
First, memory affects the way we name and perceive colors. We’re likely to call the identical orange-yellow color “yellow” if seen on a banana but “orange” if viewed on a carrot because of our previous experience of both objects, and expectations about their colors. Beyond naming, “memory color effect” has been shown to make viewers see a banana as yellow even if it’s actually gray.
Secondly, memory of color isn’t terribly accurate over time and distance. It’s difficult to match the color of an accessory in a store to an article of clothing at home, for instance. Our memories are inaccurate, and the lighting and other context variables can change the perceived color, too. A study on the effect of memory and context changes on color matching was published a few years ago.
Whether side-by-side or from afar, memory is a factor that affects our ability to see, describe, and match colors.
Mood is another psychological characteristic that affects our perception. A person who’s “feeling blue” might actually be less able to accurately identify colors on the blue-yellow spectrum than they would on upbeat days. While emotion in and of itself plays a role in perception, there are also physical explanations. For example dopamine, the neurotransmitter that affects feeling of well-being, is linked with color perception.
“Gray days” might have a physical component, too. A German study measured the ability of patients to perceive contrast, and found a “strong and significant association” between the severity of depression and decreased responsiveness of the retina.
Subjectivity and color management
As we’ve seen in this series of posts, numerous physical and personal factors interfere with our ability to perceive colors. This makes subjective high-quality color management impossible. To accurately identify and reproduce colors, we need tools and processes that help us step outside our own limitations.