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Who Says an Art Director Can’t Be Colorblind?

By: Tom

Editor’s note: Nate Brown, an art director at Tom, Dick & Harry, is colorblind. This may seem like an insurmountable hurdle for someone whose livelihood depends on an astute sense of color. But Nate not only manages, he produces some of the agency’s most colorful work (shown on the left). Here’s how he does it.

TDH Social Media Manager (SMM): Can you see any color at all?  

Nate Brown (NB): I can! I see color, but the different shades and tints of red, orange, green and brown will look similar. It’s usually a problem when colors are similar shades.

SMM: How do you design? Do you put concept first and then deal with the color issues?  

NB: I think one of the most important parts of our business in general is to think conceptually. Sure, we could make things pretty all day but having a strong idea impacts viewers more. I always try to start with an idea, whether it be a visual twist or a metaphor, and go from there.

SMM: How do you get around this visual challenge? Do you consider it a challenge?

NB: It took me a while to get the hang of my genetic disposition. Luckily, just like everyone starting out, I was and am still learning. As I’ve progressed in my career, it’s just become the way I work. I always try to look at other people’s work, ask questions, get feedback and use the tools available to me to really nail color in my design. When working on an established brand it’s not as difficult because the standards are already set up.

SMM: How do you work in InDesign; do you memorize combinations or color names?  

NB: I do have a few color combinations that I like to go to that are my personal preference. As far as the color palette goes, I recognize a lot of the colors by the way it’s set up. I use Kuler a lot for research and finding color combinations. Some of the recent extensions in InDesign and Illustrator are pretty great as well. They’ll take a base color and split it into different harmonies. These tools only help as a starting point. From there, I just get feedback from people around me and trust my gut instinct.

SMM: Has there ever been a project where you made a wrong (or embarrassing) choice with regard to color?  

NB: Failure happens all the time. I’ve learned to not fear making mistakes, after all you’ll never grow stronger if you don’t make a few.

SMM: Do you seek help from others?  

NB: I always try to run color choices by people I know. One person in particular is my sister. She’s always been supportive and has a great artist’s eye.

SMM: What was it like as a kid?  

NB: A lot of explaining that I don’t see only black and white. And no, I don’t have dog eyes.

SMM: When did you learn that you were colorblind?  

NB: My first memory was my mom asking me to point out the colors of orange and green letters on the refrigerator. I didn’t understand why she kept asking me to tell her the color of two of them that looked exactly the same. After that I went to the eye doctor, took ishihara tests and felt pretty cool about it. Who else gets to look at sweet dot pictures?

SMM: Was it difficult in art school?  

NB: Not particularly. All my close friends and family encouraged me to embrace it. And I have.

SMM: Were you ever discouraged from choosing a profession that requires a strong sense of color?  

NB: There’s one instance early in my graphic design program that’s pretty vivid. Introducing myself in class I told everyone one thing about me – my colorblindness and the professor was pretty candid about his thoughts that I shouldn’t pursue a career in visual communication. I use that as motivation to succeed.

SMM: What advice do you have for other designers who might face this?

NB: Never give up.

We're pretty glad he never did.

07.25.14   The Studio, The Vault

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