What color is the radio?

Mantis shrimp in extreme closeup

The mantis shrimp has 16 types of cone cells in its amazing eyes. That’s twice as many cones as its next competitor. It can see polarized light, and who knows what else?

As someone who always thought it would be fun to do a radio show on design, I’m fascinated when I hear it done well. Roman Mars’s 99% Invisible and Debbie Millman’s Design Matters are two very different, very wonderful examples. Another great show on a much wider variety of topics is Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich’s Radiolab. It’s a sound tapestry that feels almost visual when you experience it. And when these boys dive into a subject, it’s always fascinating.

One recent show focused on the topic of Color from a number of angles, one of which was particularly thought-provoking. It turns out there are a few people in the world (all women) whose eyes have an extra set of cone cells — the receptors that enable us to see color — in their retinas. To understand what this means, consider this: dogs have blue-sensitive cones and green-sensitive cones This enables them to see a range of color from blue through turquoise to green. Period. Because of the way light works, with the addition of just one receptor — red — we humans can see thousands of colors. A whole world opens up. This is exactly what’s happening in the display you’re reading right now: all the colors are composed of red, blue and green light.

What happens, then, if you have yet another set of cone cells? Do you see colors normal humans can’t perceive? I don’t want to spoil the show for you, but I can say that — cones or no cones — if you’ve spent a lifetime dealing with color, as designers and artists do, it does make a difference in how you see things.

Jad and Robert conduct a test where they show a subject a series of three apparently identical brown fabric swatches and ask her to tell which one’s different. Theoretically, only people with an extra color sensor — in this case, a yellow cone cell — should be able to reliably identify the different color.

I’ve noticed that a few of our clients are extremely sensitive to subtle differences in color. It’s hard for them to ignore variations between how things look onscreen and how they appear when they’re printed out, and simply respond to a concept. The color issues seem to dominate their perception. Because of the nature of their business, they spend most of every day dealing with fabrics and finishes, so those subtleties mean a lot to them. They can perceive, and are emotionally affected by, very small differences in color.

Do they have a fourth cone? I don’t think so. But it sure is interesting to notice how we see, to understand how our perceptions affect our judgment, and to discover how they can be so finely developed over time.

The Radiolab podcast can be found on iTunes or here.

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