The Colour Nazis

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a movement obsessed with removing colour, especially those whose skin colour or religious preference was different to their own. This went to great extremes, caused the greatest of all wars, and we are all aware of the terrible atrocities done as a result. It is one of the horrors of our current time that those beliefs, which we thought had been consigned to history, seem to be getting some renewed attention and following.

If faced with political extremism, the predominantly liberal groups who control and shape our technology would typically be horrified and opposed. However at the same time they are forcing on us fashions and design paradigms which in their own way are just as odious, impacting the richness of our experience, and limiting rather than improving our ability to interact with technology.

I refer, of course, to the Colour Nazis. The members of this movement probably don’t think of themselves that way, and if forced to adopt a label would choose something much more neutral, but it is becoming apparent that some of their thinking is not that different.

This is not the first time I’ve complained about this. In 2012 I wrote “Tyranny of the Colour Blind, or Have Microsoft Lost Their Mojo?”. The trouble is that things are getting worse, not better. Grappling with Office 2016 I’m coming to grips with some really dramatically stupid decisions which can only be explained by a Nazi zeal to remove the colour from our technological interactions.

Here’s a quick test. Find Open, Save and the Thesaurus in Office 2003:


Now let’s try Office 2010:


Not too bad. The white background actually helps by increasing contrast, and the familiar splashes of colour still draw your eye quickly to the right icons, although the Thesaurus is a bit anonymous. Now let’s try Office 2016:


The faded grey on a grey background colour scheme has wiped out most of the contrast, and you’d be struggling to make these out if you have ageing sight in a poor working environment. The pale pastel yellow of “Open” is still just recognisable, but the “Save ” button has turned to a weird pale purple, and the Thesaurus is completely anonymous. I’d have to go hunting by hovering over each and reading the tooltip. (Before anyone shouts, I know I’ve used an add-in menu here to get a like-for-like comparison, but all this is equally true for the full-sized ribbon controls.)

Now let’s look at a really stupid example. One of Word’s great strengths is the ability to assemble and review tracked changes from multiple reviewers. In Word 2010 each will be assigned a distinctive colour, and I can very quickly see who’s who:


OK that works well. Let’s see what they’ve done in Office 2016:


WTF! One place where colour has a specific role as an information dimension, and they’ve actually taken it away. In the document the markup does use some colour, but in the form of a few pale pastel lines. Instead the screen is cluttered up with the name of the author against every single change, which makes it unreadable if multiple authors have made changes to a single page.

I am always among the first to remind designers not to rely on colour, as it doesn’t work well for about 8% of the population, or in some viewing conditions. But that’s no reason to remove it. Instead you should supplement it (e.g. make icons both distinctive colours and shapes), or allow the users a choice. Word 2016 should allow me to choose whether to use colour or explicit names in markup balloons, and I wouldn’t be having this rant.

There is apparently a name for this fad, “Complexion Reduction” (see Complexion Reduction: A New Trend In Mobile Design by Michael Horton). The problem is that its advocates seem to have lost sight of some key principles of human-computer interaction. One of these is that for normally-sighted people there’s a clear hierarchy in how we spot or identify things:

  1. Colour. If we can look for a splash of colour, that’s easiest. That’s why fire extinguishers are red, or the little red coat was so poignant in Schindler’s List.
  2. Shape / position. We manage a lot of interactions by recognising shapes. That’s why icons work in the first place. We even do this when the affordance supplies text as well. If you’re a native English speaker and reader you will inevitably have tried to move a door the wrong way, because “PUSH” and “PULL” have such similar shapes, and your brain tries shapes first, text second.
  3. Text. When all else fails, read the instructions. That’s not a joke, it’s a real fact about how people’s brains work. If I have to go hunting in a menu or reading tooltips, then the designer has failed miserably.

Sadly I don’t know if there’s any way to influence this. These decisions are probably being made by ultra-hip youngsters with ironic beards and 20 year old eyes who don’t really get HCI. I’d just like one of them to read this blog.

Addendum — May 2019

So the hierarchy for interactions is first colour, then shape, then text.

So please could someone explain to me why the latest versions of Android have also decided to force almost all application icons into a uniform shape (circular on my Sony phone, a rounded rectangle on my Samsung tablet) with exactly the same background colour?

On my phone, all the main Google apps now have icons which are white circles with tiny splashes of the same four colours. The Sony apps (including the main phone functions) are white circles with small icons, using the same pale blue, within them. To add an extra spice, the launcher I use occasionally moves the icons around, if I add a new front-page app or the labels change.

My poor brain has no chance whatsoever. I open my phone, and then have to READ labels to make sure I’m opening the right app. Hopeless!

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