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]

Architect Creates Renderings of Frank Lloyd Wright Designs That Were Never Built

Frank Lloyd Wright designed more than a thousand works in his lifetime, but hundreds of his ideas were never built. One of those was the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective, a tourist attraction commissioned in 1924. Now, thanks to new renderings by Spanish architect David Romero, you can get a better idea of what the proposed project might have looked like had it been completed, as Curbed reports.

Romero is the creator of Hooked on the Past, a project in which he translates plans for Frank Lloyd Wright's unbuilt designs into photorealistic scale renderings. He imports data and plans Wright drew up for the projects into modern modeling software in order to create the most accurate renderings possible of what these structures would have looked like. For the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective images, he collaborated with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which recently ran the images in its magazine, Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly.

A spiraling building on top of a mountain
David Romero

Intended to stand atop Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the plan for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective called for a planetarium and restaurant to accompany a scenic overlook. Its developer, wealthy Chicago businessman Gordon Strong, envisioned it as a destination where families would drive for the day from Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The design shifted substantially from draft to draft. In some, it called for a dance hall instead of a planetarium; in another, a theater. He also designed in waterfalls, pedestrian paths, bridges, an aquarium, and a car showroom.

A rendering of a pedestrian bridge
The unbuilt Butterfly Wing Bridge
David Romero

Above all, it was to be a destination for drivers, as the name suggests, and visitors would have driven up to park along its spiral structure—similar to the one that would later come to life in the design of the Guggenheim museum, which Romero looked to as inspiration while translating Wright's failed plans into 3D renderings.

A rendering of a spiral-shaped building at night
David Romero

Romero also painstakingly researched the context and location of the building, including adding era-appropriate cars, traces of rain and dirt on the building, and other details in order to bring the project to life. As a result, at times it can be hard to tell these are illustrations rather than stylized photographs.

Romero has also created similarly detailed renderings of other unbuilt or demolished Frank Lloyd Wright projects, including ones that have long since been destroyed, like the demolished Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, New York and the burned-down Rose Pauson House in Arizona. You can see more here.

[h/t Curbed]

Dutton's New Young Adult Books Are the Size of a Smartphone—and They're Horizontal

Sometimes, the desire to read takes a backseat to how cumbersome it can be to carry a hardback book around all day, but a new line of pocket-sized volumes will ensure that’s never a problem. Dutton Books for Young Readers, a Penguin Random House imprint, has released a new line of books that are only a fraction of the size of the traditional hardback, as The New York Times reports.

The new design takes inspiration from the popular Dutch books known as dwarsliggers. In contrast to nearly every other book on the market, the text of these minute volumes is oriented horizontally, creating a flipbook effect. (The term comes from the Dutch words dwars—meaning crossways—and liggen—to lie.) The Dutton books are about the size of a smartphone, with extra-thin pages that make each volume only as thick as your finger. In other words, you'll only need one hand to read them.

A copy of the Penguin Mini version of 'Paper Towns' resting on two open copies of the book
Penguin Random House

The Penguin Minis are made by a Dutch printer, Royal Jongbloed, which is currently the only company in the world that makes books in this specific format. It uses ultra-thin paper sourced from just one Finnish mill.

The first books released in the new format are young adult novels by none other than Mental Floss friend John Green, host of our YouTube series Scatterbrained. You can buy the tiny versions of The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, An Abundance of Katherines, and Looking for Alaska at major retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as at independent bookstores for $12 each. (There's also a boxed set of all four books on Amazon for $27.)

A boxed set of John Green novels released as Penguin Minis
Penguin Random House

Dutton is printing 500,000 copies for the first run, and if the compact novels prove popular over the holidays, there will be more volumes on their way in the future.

[h/t The New York Times]

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