My Blög

I can has contrast?

2012-09-12

Contrast. This is my desperate call for contrast! Contrast, in contrast of resolution and sharpness, is what makes difference for many, many, many people. And it’s so often neglected, or even ignored.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a few times after I realized that my vision is no longer that of a kid. I used to have excellent vision. One optician said I had close to 200% vision, and at 20 I could almost read the small “Copyright 1980 whoever, Printed in whereever” text on the Snellen Chart. Now at 51 I need glasses to restore the resolution I had. Different ones for near and long distances I admit, but I do get sharp vision back again with them.

But not so when it comes to tell difference between different levels of light. Or, differently put, see well in less than optimal lighting. This was acutely demonstrated for me a few weeks ago when I unfortunately hit a deer while driving to my summer house with parts of my family. My dad, still a strong and agile hunter at 72, ran after the poor animal to end its suffering while the rest of us stayed close to the car. It was dusk but I could well see my dad out on the field doing the grim reaping, but only the outline of it. Nuances were gone, the scene reduced to a few levels of gray. The 6 year old niece, however, enthusiastically reported details that we adults just couldn’t see. When my dad returned he confirmed what she had told us.

This illustrates what will mercilessly happen to each and all of us. We will gradually lose our vision, no matter what we do. Not necessarily resolution, but definitely the ability to see in low-contrast situations. As you grow older you will need more and more light to get the same amount of information from a certain view. According to scientific reports, for every 13 years you need double amount of light to keep a certain level of visual information. Several factors come at play: the retina gradually loses its sensivity, the pupil shrinks from average 4.7 mm at age 20 to 2.3 mm at 80 so less light enters the eye, and colour vision changes as more blue light is absorbed by the pupil. These factors should be taken into consideration when designing things for the eyes, like web pages and applications for screen based devices. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case.

WTF WHTR

Just recently the world saw the release of WTHR, an app for displaying weather forecast for the current location. It’s design has been discussed on Dribble for a while and has now materialized to a real app. The app is very amiable with a pleasant retro feeling with many nods (or rather worship-like bows) to Dieter Rams who I do appreciate as much as David seem to do. But, alas, it is none the less a useless app.

I tested the app on a few colleagues, spanning in age from late 20s to early 50s. Most of them said the app had a cool look and they generally understood the purpose of the app within short time, but all of them had some trouble reading the small letters and numbers. And there was a lot of squinting.

Some characters are white on a light beige background while others are in an ever so slightly darker tone than the background. The contrast is extremely low. Way too low for characters that are a mere 1.6 mm high on a screen that most people older than, say, 40 has to keep at some distance unless they wear reading glasses. (If you’re look at the screen-shots in iTunes, take note that they are bigger than on an actual iPhone and has slightly higher contrast than on the iPhone - at least thats the case on my MacBook Pro with high-rez glossy screen.) For me, the background just floods the characters and symbols and drowns them in a beige goo. The information the app was supposed to deliver just isn’t there.

Don’t get me wrong now, I don’t mean to say that WTHR is the work of a bad designer. On the contrary I consider his work (at least what I have seen on Dribbble) fantastic, but in this case I believe he has lost track somewhere in the process. And I’m sure WTHR will be a great app for some sharp-eyed users once it’s functional quirks are sorted. But for me WTHR is currently useless and serves only to illustrate my cry for contrast in design.

Dribbbling off the road

It’s easy to lose track, especially in one-hero, hobby-based projects. Dribbble is a great place to show off your design qualities but if you want opinions that are representative of all of your potential users you must go elsewhere. Or if you want true and honest criticism. The Dribbble crowd is homogenous; people have a like interest in design per se, there is a small variation in age compared to “real life”, the general computer experience level is probably much higher that the average buyer of an iPhone app. And so on. The crowd that gathers to comment on your (ongoing) work is self-selected. Those who dig will stay and keep on digging, while those who have issues with the work tend to shut up and just surf away without a trace. It takes time, effort and some courage to criticize and few people do it since the reward is usually nothing but silence, or even a “if you don’t like it, go away!“. So you get surrounded by yea-sayers who follows and amplifies design trends. Just have a look at the typical Dribbble comments. Most are of type “wow, super, you rock - I drool, oh man I need to change underwear”. Very few comments contain suggestions for improvement. You have to look very long for a comment of type “this just won’t work because this-or-that”. With only flatter pouring in it’s easy to stray away, get stuck in a pixel-peep-and-refine loop, making thin lines thinner and grays grayer and text lighter and contrast smaller. Eventually you end up with something that’s only design and no content.

On Dribble, no-one ever says “STOP! Walk away from your project, forget it for a few days, come back and try to see with fresh eyes, with other peoples eyes. How will it work in daylight, or in a dark basement? How will it work with an attention span of only 2 seconds? How will people who has never seen it perceive it?” and so on. It’s sorely needed, but never happens.

(And then I stumbled upon this Dribble post.)

Disclaimer: I’m only a grumpy ol’ man, not a designer (world, rejoice).


Per Ejeklint in disguise

Writings by Per Ejeklint, living and working in Stockholm, Sweden. Follow me on Twitter!