After reading the diaries of Albert H. Munsell, discovering that the word “blue” was absent in all of Homer’s descriptions of the sea in The Iliad and The Odyssey, and surrendering to the superior visual system of the Mantis shrimp, I finally found my ground in the color literacy lessons of Simmon’s Subtleties of Color.
Simmon was articulate in communicating the importance of using color properly in visualizations. He makes a distinction of seeing color versus thinking about color. Though one of the foundational points was using CIE L*C*h color space of hue, saturation (or chroma), and lightness, as opposed to the more computational model of Red, Green, and Blue (RGB), it was much more nuanced than using a single tool. Beyond abandoning the rainbow palette, and the lack of clarity it provides to viewers (especially around creating artificial boundaries due to the striations of hue), we have different types of data to manage. Each one, whether sequential, divergent, or qualitative, requires a specific color approach.
In his summary, Simmon mentions lightness being the “strongest” variable in the hue, saturation, and lightness triad. This was interesting because not only do humans have an average of 92 million rods on the retina, but each one is 100 times more sensitive to a single photon than a cone cell is. Rods are connected to seeing in dark settings and with night vision, whereas the 6-7 million cone cells are responsible for actuating the red, green and blue wavelengths. So perhaps this makes sense both intuitively and physiologically with rods outnumbering cones 13:1. Quite interesting.
I found the work of Robert Kosara to be insightful as well. By using luminance without hue as a way to determine consistency in the values of presented data : here. He pointed to a sort of luminance integrity factor. The point was similar to Tufte’s idea of graphical integrity, but instead of using line length to determine the “lie factor”, here Kosara is using luminance as a way to measure integrity. What an interesting way to think about color misleading when the jumps in scale of luminance do not match the jumps in scale of data, and the ratio becomes misaligned with what we see.
I’m truly beginning to wonder if semantics are equally as important as our physiological limitations in how we see. Having a word for something may allow us to notice it more. When Simmon mentions there being no “dark yellow”, all I could see was “dark yellow”, though I didn’t have an exact word match for it. The argument of language playing a role in how we come to internalize color was made clearer to me in the RadioLab conversation on color. An interesting listen alongside the tools and techniques supplied by Simmon.
Question: Do you think language limits our ability to see?