Accessibility Trumping Design

I recently came across a pretty clever redesign of the common traffic light on Facebook. After doing some research, I discovered that this was the work of a designer by the name of Thanva Tivawong.

The concept is ingenious: instead of the light switching from green to yellow to red, we would instead see a helpful hour-glass that slowly ticked down how much time was left before the light switched from stop to go. It’s simple, clever, and attractively designed. Here’s the recap from Yanko Design:

Rethinking the common traffic light?

Pretty clever, right? I can see a lot of ways that this could potentially reduce confusion and increase efficiency of people getting through lights.

But there’s one glaring problem with this design that’s really easy for most people to overlook: it simply will not work for color blind people, like myself. There are a number of different kinds of colorblindness that vary in severity, but as a whole it affects approximately 7 to 10% of the male population (it is much rarer among females). That’s a lot of people who could potentially run into trouble differentiating whether it was safe to go through an intersection.

I discovered I was colorblind in elementary school, and it explained a lot of little issues I had been having (coloring grass and trees brown, for instance). It’s not something that affects me terribly often, but every now and then it can get me into trouble.

I can’t speak for everyone with color blindness, but I know that I use traffic lights a little bit different than most people. I don’t look at the color of the light, I look at which light is lit. If the top light is on I stop, if the bottom light is on I go. While  I can generally distinguish between red and green, bright sunlight causes them to blend together, so I always default to position over color for the sake of safety.

This is a problem for me when I’m in an area where the lights are horizontal instead of vertical like I’m used to. I essentially have to relearn how to read the light, and tend to slow down at a lot of green lights just to make sure (my fellow drivers no doubt appreciate this).

These redesigned traffic lights are beautifully conceived, but unfortunately suffer from an accessibility issue that presents their safe use.

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