New Color Scale Makes Data Visualizations Easier for Colorblind People to Read

Mars topography visualized on a rainbow scale
Mars topography visualized on a rainbow scale
NASA/JPL/USGS

When designers want to visualize changes in data, like in a heat map or a topographical survey, they often reach for the rainbow. The rainbow color scale is almost the default for visualizing scientific and engineering data. And yet, putting all the colors of the rainbow into a single image isn’t a good idea. For one thing, as Scientific American reports, it makes visualizations impossible to read if you’re colorblind. And even if you can pick out every color in the image, that doesn’t mean you understand what going from red to violet means.

Now, researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington have developed an alternative to the rainbow color scale that will make data visualization and other images easier to decipher for people with color-vision deficiency and the general public. Using a mathematical model of how the brain perceives differences in color, they created a new color scale they call cividis, which shows data exclusively in shades of blue and yellow—the colors that someone with colorblindness would see while looking at a rainbow color scale.

A nanoscale image overlaid with four different color scales
The new blue-yellow color scale is labelled CVD-Jet
Nuñez et. al, PLOS ONE (2018)

They took traditional rainbow color maps and ran them through software that converted them to look closer to the blue-yellow scale that reflects what someone with the most common form of colorblindness sees. Then, the software adjusted the color and brightness of that image to look more consistent with how people interpret data. One of the problems with the rainbow scale is that people automatically see the brightest color as a peak, sometimes leading them to incorrect conclusions. Even though yellow is one of the middle colors in Roy G. Biv, it often jumps out at people as the most extreme color on the map, though red is the highest on the scale. In this color scale, the color does get brighter as the values go up, so you don't have to work as hard to interpret it.

In general, most people don’t intuitively know what order the colors of the rainbow should appear in at all. Red and violet are at opposite ends of the Roy G. Biv scale, but that’s not visually apparent. Narrowing the range down to two colors makes it easier for readers to pinpoint where on the scale a specific point is.

The two-color scale also makes changes in data look more gradual, whereas with a rainbow of colors, the difference between each color looks very stark. The ability to show a gradual progression can reflect more nuance.

It’s not just a matter of aesthetics. An eye-catching, complex rainbow visualization can lead scientists to misinterpret their own data, while an easier-to-read scale makes it easier for them to pick out patterns. In one 2011 study cited by Scientific American [PDF], scientists at Harvard found that doctors were faster and better at spotting signs of heart disease while looking at 2D images of arteries on a color scale that just used black and red than while looking at a 3D rainbow visualization.

Cividis has already been added to the color-scale libraries of some image-processing software, and its creators hope to convince more scientists and designers to use it in the future.

[h/t Scientific American]

Interactive Version of a Classic Color Manual Used By Charles Darwin Is Now Available Online

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iStock

Scientists who study the natural world do more than tally numbers. Sometimes making an accurate scientific observation comes down to finding the perfect word to describe the shade of dried lavender flowers or the breast of a screech owl. In the 19th century, naturalists had Werner's Nomenclature of Colours to refer to—and now anyone looking to expand their color vocabulary can access the book's contents online, Fast Company reports.

Published in 1814, painter Patrick Syme designed the guide based on the work of geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner. It features 110 distinct hues, each with a name, number, and a list of the animals, plants, and/or minerals that feature it in nature. Prussian blue, for example, naturally occurs in blue copper ore, the stamina of bluish purple anemone, and the spot on a mallard drake's wing, while wine yellow can be found in the saxon topaz, white currants, and the body of a silk moth. The book was used as a handy reference guide by researchers recording observations the field, including Charles Darwin.

Now, using free scans of the book from the Internet Archive, designer Nicholas Rougeux has transformed it into an interactive digital experience. The original color swatches and descriptions are included, as well as some modern additions. Click on a color and the entry will expand to show photographs of the plants, animals, and minerals mentioned. Rougeux has also made posters based on the manual available on the website.

Werner's Nomenclature of Colours may have been the color bible of its time, but it still covers just a fraction of all the shades that have been named. After exploring the digital guide online, continue to grow your knowledge with this color thesaurus.

[h/t Fast Company]

Writing a Term Paper? This Font Is a Sneaky Way to Meet Your Page Count

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iStock

Stretching the margins, widening line spaces, making your periods slightly larger than the rest of the text—these tricks should sound familiar to any past or current students who've ever struggled to meet the page requirements of a writing assignment. As more professors get wise to these shortcuts, students are forced to get even sneakier when stretching their essays—and the digital agency MSCHF is here to help them.

As Fast Company reports, MSCHF has released an updated version of Times New Roman, the only difference from the standard font being that theirs takes up more space per character. When developing Times Newer Roman, the designers manipulated one character at a time, stretching them just enough to make a difference in the final page count without making the changes look noticeable. The result is a typeface that covers about 5 to 10 percent more line space than Times New Roman text of the same size, saving writers nearly 1000 words in a 15-page, single-spaced paper in 12-point type.

Getting the look right wasn't the only challenge MSCHF faced when designing the font. Times New Roman is a licensed property, so Times Newer Roman is technically a twist on Nimbus Roman No.9 L (1)—an open-source font that's meant to look indistinguishable from Times New Roman.

If you'd like to test out the font for yourself (for curiosity's sake, of course; definitely not to use on your term paper), you can download Times Newer Roman for free.

[h/t Fast Company]

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