Color Language System for Braille

This article has been updated to include a discussion on the impact of sunlight on color saturation.

I ran into an article on Good about how Pantone, which sets color standards for the design industry, challenged students of the San Francisco's Academy of Art University to show how color can be used as a social vehicle to create change. Having made a career as graphic designer and marketing communications manager for over 30 years, I took great interest in the article. One of the projects the students took on was to create a Reveal Color Code System that applied symbols to color that could be felt like braille. To me their solution of triangles, squares and hexagons were confusing with other meanings. So I took on the challenge myself and came up with what I believe is a better solution.

First I had to determine if the blind could experience color at all. How can color be felt? The answer was by emotion. By turning J. A. H. Hett's "The Colorist" Color Wheel 90 degrees, I discovered that I could apply a level of emotion to the Color Wheel (see below) that expresses a state of Excited, Active, Passive and Relaxed that then could be assigned a braille color code.

J. A. H. Hett's "The Colorist" Color Wheel from Wikipedia Commons
rotated and modified to add emotion callouts.

What the students should have done is to establish a symbol system similar to the bar code system that uses the same symbols in various configurations in order to identify the symbol first as a color. Then which color in increasing and decreasing values of the primary colors the way painters mix paint. So many parts of this one color and so many parts another color. Not an easy thing to do the way the students handled it.

My solution was a rectangle comprised of a series of lines and symbols, with a ) on the left to indicate what follows is a color. For example the pigment primary colors would be RED !!)XXXXXXXX, BLUE )//////// and YELLOW )\\\\\\\\. Because of the different color systems for light and computer displays, GREEN would also be considered a primary color as  )||||||||. So, these four color codes represent pure unmodified color. All other colors are mixes of these four color codes. To apply emotional intensity to a color I added the ! symbol for Excitement and the  symbol for Relaxing.  By adding the greater > (lighter) symbol and lesser < (darker) symbol we indicate the intensity or brightness of the color. When applied to graphics, such as the Yin-Yang symbol, we get: symbol =  !)\\\\\\XX  when displayed in Orange. A two color symbol in Turquoise and Scarlet would be symbol )////|||| > +  !!)XXXXXXX/. Now you have a system that is understandable, cannot be confused with any other meaning and can be typed with a common keyboard.

The world is made up of textures and patterns, thus we need to add to the color system a symbol for texture. Two  #  symbols can be felt as a texture. So ## )||||||||  is a texture in a single color. In order to apply a pattern we use only one #Thus the color code
)||||||+ !!)XXXXXXX>  is a pattern of two colors.  If the item is both a pattern and a texture we apply it as #+##)||||||+ !!)XXXXXXX>

Now there are three colors not on the color wheel. Black,White and Gray. To solve that I determined that brightness was the solution. Black becomes )<<<<<<< because it is the darkest or least bright. White becomes )>>>>>>> because it is the brightest. Neutral Gray becomes )>>><<<<, Warm Gray )>><<\\\\, and Cool Gray )>><<////. Light Neutral Gray becomes )>>><<<<+>while Dark Neutral Gray becomes )>>><<<<<+<.

With all this the blind still will not know what color is, but they will understand how it feels both to the touch and emotionally. The above LINEAR system of lines works because it can be felt as a pattern of lines, which I expect is easier to feel than would be the use of letters and would be distinguishable from text in standard braille characters. But, how does one speak color comprised of lines. You can't. So a modified version of this system is needed for us sighted-persons to speak to the blind persons in order to explain the system.


With such a LINEAR system as described above, one could then create an ORAL system based on sound to aide in understanding color. The emotion level could be assigned a pitch and the symbols in the color code a letter. For example, Red !!)XXXXXXXX could be a high pitched X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X  sound and Purple Magenta !)XXX///// could be a mix of pitches like X-X-X-M-M-M-M-M sound.  Warm Gray )>><<\\\\  could be U-U-O-O-L-L-L-L. Thus, you could explain a color orally.

Now, lets see if I can apply the above LINEAR and ORAL Color Systems to the entire Emotional Color Wheel shown above:

Going clockwise around the above color wheel,
with RED at the 11 o'clock position:

Linear Color Code
Oral Color Code
Scarlet Red
Purple Magenta
Purple Violet
Blue Violet
Bluish Cyan
Cyan Blue
Greenish Cyan
Bluish Green
Sap Green
Yellow Green
Lemon Yellow
Orange Yellow
Orange Red
Neutral Gray
Warm Gray
Cool Gray

In braille the LINEAR system would appear as follows:

In standard braille, Orange Red  !)\\\\\XXX from the LINEAR system could be written out, or typed out in braille as:

The first two characters are the ! and ). Next, come five \s and the last three are Xs. .


In a braille sentence, mixed in with other words, it would be difficult to distinguish a color from the Oral Code list from words and could be confused as a misspelled word. However, with such an ORAL system you can now have a conversation about color with your blind friend or spouse. I paired the two systems together in the above table in order to make it easy to jump between systems.

As you can see, the subtle changes in color are indicated by the volume of symbols used that increase or decrease from one color to the next. Thus, the blind I predict will be able to understand the subtle changes from one color to the next.

BTW, you will notice I added a ninth symbol at the end of the color Purple Violet, it seems the color wheel isn't so balanced as it would appear because the number of symbols does not work out evenly for all colors using an eight symbol code. I found my error after having completed it and had to add a symbol to resolve the problem.

This is just a wild idea I had, which may or may not work in the real world. But, its worth testing to see if it does.


Color Saturation:

Having decided to revisit this subject , I thought a discussion on the intensity or saturation of color was in order. The range from a mere slight hint of a color to its full strength. The best way I can think of to explain this relationship to a person who relies on touch is the use of several different grades of sand paper. Sand paper ranging from an extra course grit of 24, a course grit of 40, a medium grit of 80, a fine grit of 120, very fine grit of 180, and a super fine of grit 400. One end of the range represents the color's full saturation, and that all the other grades are various weakened strengths of color, down to barely a hint of color on the opposite end. 

One of the problems of explaining saturation and color is that product manufacturers of cosmetics and other products have given color names to what are various saturation levels of a color. For example, is Pink a weak saturation level of the color Red or is it a color on it's own merit? The problem is that we don't distinguish between the two, and so Pink is both a saturation level of Red and the color Pink has it's own saturation levels. Thus, any saturation level can become it's own color if the public accepts. We don't go to the paint store and ask for Red saturation level 3 for our daughter's bedroom.

Now, here is where saturation gets real complex.  Depending on the color medium you are using, the lowest saturation level of a color is either the absence of color (transparent) or white. Why? Because it depends on the surface color of the base you apply the color on to. If you printed a gray scale onto White paper the lowest level is the White color of the paper. We print on White paper because it has no affect on the colors printed on it. If you mixed paint, the lowest saturation level is the White color of the base paint component. In Photoshop, the lowest saturation level to a digital retoucher can be either white or transparent (meaning the absence of color.) Transparent is used when you want to gradate or fade out one color on top of another. However, when the background is set to transparent, it has no color until it is printed on White or any other color paper.

The Impact of Sunlight on Color Saturation:

As any photograph or painting can show, direct and indirect sunlight can have a dramatic impact on the saturation of color as we view it. Resulting either in a lightening or darkening of the color. Thus we get a gradation of color on a round or cylindrical object as the sunlight creates highlights, mid-tones and shadows on the object. Highlights being brighter and shadows being darker than the mid-tones. Objects with a texture tend to have thousands of very tiny pebble-like structures, each with it's own varying degrees of highlight and shadow, that affect the overall saturation of the color of the object. As a result, the intensity of the light source can alter the color we actually see. 

To add this phenomenon to the above color system would be just too complex to understand. However, once the blind understand that sunlight impacts color, they may be able to determine the impact in many cases by the feel and heat of direct sunlight or other light source to some degree.

The Impact of Reflectence and Absorption on Color Saturation:

Imagine if you will a dark room with only the light of a digital clock on. The whole room is dark, yet objects in the room can be clearly seen as yellowish subdued variations of their original colors. For example, a black office chair in a dark room. If it weren't for the light of the clock you could not see it in a dark room. The light of the clock reflects off the plastic portions of the chair, and the surrounding walls, differentiating the dark shadows from the highlighted portions with a yellowish cast. In other words a yellowish black )\\\\\\\\ish<<<<<<< or yellowish color of whatever color the wall behind it is. Where as the fabric portion of the chair absorbs the light and are seen only as black )<<<<<<< or the lack of color. The lack of color means we cannot actually see it, however, the reflecting surfaces around the fabric areas, and our knowledge of the chair construction, tell us that there is fabric in those negative spaces. It is these reflectence and absorption factors, and the travel of direct and indirect light across a three-dimensional room, that result in why the paint you chose from a flat swatch looks so different than the room you just painted.

The Impact of One Color on Another:

Place a small swatch of one color in the middle of a large area of another color. Each color will impact the other in the immediate area of the smaller swatch. It is not that the color actually changes, but rather our minds have difficulty perceiving the colors accurately because the yellow square in the middle of all that blue does not look the same as it did before placing it on the wall.  

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