Maps for the colour blind now a reality

You might remember that last year I wrote a post about the work Ordnance Survey was doing looking into maps for people with colour blindness, or Colour Vision Deficiency (CVD) as it’s more accurately known.

Rather than creating separate colour schemes for those with various forms of CVD and those without, we were working on a colour palette that would work for everyone. Well a year later and we think we’ve cracked it and are now close to releasing a colour scheme for use with OS VectorMap Local, our customisable digital mapping product.

CVD basically means an inability to see certain colours; often red and green, but also other colours too. It affects approximately one in 12 men and one in 100 women in the UK and can make the colours that have traditionally used for maps virtually indistinguishable.  That’s a sizable minority of the population, all with a problem that is often forgotten or overlooked.

With the default style.

With the default style.

With the CVD style applied.

And with the CVD style applied.

Being able to clearly interpret maps is something we often take for granted, but it is an essential skill required in numerous jobs and day to day tasks – whether it’s a property developer planning a new development or someone simply plotting the quickest route to their next meeting.

The fact that we’ve got to this stage is thanks to Simon Duquénoy, one of our Senior Technical Product Managers. He began to be interested in the idea of a map for those with CVD when his son had trouble with his geography school work. Simon told me: “It was very unlike him to get his geography homework wrong and it turned out he was getting confused between the colours of certain map features, so I began to wonder whether it was something Ordnance Survey could help address.”

Simon started by raising awareness of the impairment using software to show how our mapping and map covers appear to those with the extreme forms of CVD. As an example, our famous pink covered OS Landranger Maps actually appear to be blue to 1% of men.

He was then able to set up a user group made up of Ordnance Survey staff with various degrees of CVD, and working with our Cartographic Design team, came up with different prototypes for them to test under exam conditions.

The most significant feedback from the user group was the importance of familiarity. CVD users were familiar with certain feature depictions, such as road classification colours, and so were thrown by colours chosen based purely on the science of CVD. The group was actually the most positive about the pallet with specially optimised versions of familiar feature colours.

Now after 2 years of research and development, Simon thinks we’ve got a colour palette that works.

Another example of the default style.

Another example of the default style.

And how it looks with the CVD friendly style.

And how it looks with the CVD friendly style.

“We’re very proud of the progress we have made towards developing a single colour palette, which has required painstaking research and a real understanding of user needs. It will help make our maps more accessible and mean that a skill as simple yet crucial as map reading will soon be within everyone’s reach.  We also hope that it will inspire other people to think about CVD in their designs.”

What do you think of the new designs? We’re keen to know what you think, both if you’re someone with CVD or not.

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33 Responses

  1. I am supposed to be CVD (I always fail the Ishihara test) but has no problems with maps or any other real life situation.

    I find the default palette much better than the CVD version.

    The colours used for woodland and buildings seem much closer in the CVD version and could be misinterpreted.

    It’s a difficult area to address and I wish you well with your work.

    Steve Edge
    (semi-retired cartographer)

    1. Stevie

      Dear all,

      I am CVD, and every once in a while, especially under bad light conditions, I have undeniable difficulties in distinguishing, for example, brown from green colouring in maps (as well as in real life). In addition, if, say, if there is a scale of 10 shades of one colour, which means neighbouring shades are pretty close to each other, I may have bigger problems than others in ascribing the shades.
      I second Steve’s observations in that I almost confused woodland and buildings. I do not have any problems with the colours in the default maps, but the basically stronger colours in the CVD maps are at least no worse (apart from the proximity of the colours for woodland and building, see above).

      The best of success with your work.

    2. dan Swift

      The new CVD maps are much easier to read than the old ones. I am badly colour-blind and have lots of problems reading maps of all sorts, so this is a major and significant improvement as far as I’m concerned. I think often there is a tendency to make maps as illustratively appealing as possible whereas they should be visible tools for all. Thanks!

  2. I have Deuteranopia. I’ve rarely had issue with base maps, but often with the ‘overlays’ added on top, that dont work with the base map.

    The new bolder styling looks nicer to me, its easier to see things, works as a standalone map. I can see the woodland in the default, but only just, whereas the new one is clear.

    I can see what Steve Edge means with woodland and buildings are now similar, but just different enough that can see it.

    Would be interested in seeing it on larger areas.

    One thing noticed, OS VectorMap Local seems intended as a backdrop for other data. With the bolder colour scheme, it seems it will be even harder to add effective overlays/layers.

  3. Hi Barry, Glad you like the new designs. As I understand it, the CVD friendly colour scheme could extend to any data being overlaid to ensure it remained clearly visible. Should mean it doesn’t become an issue.

  4. jane

    I must be one of the “1 in a 100” colourblind women. I too had problems with maps but got round it. Seeing the enhanced version is useful. More detail distinguished,still passed my A level.

  5. Lisa Cornish

    I woork for the Australian Government and am currently doing work on making maps accessible for the web. Any work you guys are doing can help! Which organisations have you consulted with to find out whether this palette is appropriate? And is there any other work you are doing on accessibility for web maps I can leverage off?!

    1. Hi Lisa, greetings from Britain! We’d be very happy to help I’m sure. I will pass your details onto Simon and he’ll get in touch with you.

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  8. Jim

    I am interested in this, as I am slightly red-green colourblind. My issue is with parish boundaries, which i see as an unneccessary intrusion on my 1:50000 and 1:25000 maps. The public rights of way on the 1:50000 maps are red, and for me in poor light look the same colour as the boundaries, and as the non-PROW footpaths. I’d really like a different colour for the footpaths, and ideally get rid of the boundaries as well.

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  10. Martin Stein

    Having CVD, I’ll agree with Steve Edge on his experience.

    I’m honestly having real trouble distinguishing buildings from forest. In fact, I assumed that the forest WAS a building until the third time poring over the map.

    Overall, this is a great improvement. I can now see the “beige” that I had a hard time seeing in the old color scheme.

    Could you clarify, in the default view of the first map, is there a difference in the tones between the road leading into the traffic circle from the NE, and the traffic circle? Suddenly it’s green in the CVD version. The traffic circle looked all the same shade of pink in the default.

    Great work! Hope you’ll share this with USGS!

    Martin from California

  11. Hi Martin, greetings from Britain! Yes, there is a difference between the tones on those roads to help differentiate them.

    I’m glad you found the maps useful. I’ll ask the product team to contact USGS as you suggest.

    Best wishes,


  12. I have normal vision (as far as I am aware) yet the CVD versions of the maps are for me so much clearer. Even the text, the road names, etc. is easier to read. For me it is a big step forward.

  13. What an amazing project! I would have loved to be able to work on something that combines both my interest in colour vision and my enjoyment of maps.
    My ‘Safe Web Colours for Colour Deficient Vision is quite old now, but can help to visualise which colours are most often confused by dichromats.

  14. David

    Hi this might be a silly question, but how do CVD people colour correct their monitors? The colour setting of the monitor itself can vastly change colours on screen, so what we are each seeing could be vastly different already.

  15. Dave Peachey

    Interesting work being done here – not something of which I was aware – I’m primarily red/green/brown “confused” myself.

    From the comments, it seems to me that these changes are not going to be a universal panacea – indeed, I have my own problems with the new CVD versions notably:
    – distinguishing the “building” colour from the “woodland” colour (as some people have mentioned)
    – seeing the contour lines through the “woodland colour” in the lower-middle part of the second example set (which no-one else seems to have mentioned)

    Generally speaking, I tend to use maps based in a more interpretative way and not purely based on the use of colour – perhaps it’s down to being introduced to maps at a very early age with the old pre-metric versions (which, I seem to recollect, were more B&W than colour!) – so I can “get by” with the current colour scheme anyway.

    If I may ask, what plans are there (if any) to introduce the new colour scheme for paper and electronic maps?


  16. Francis Dhee

    As Lisa, I am working on the map for CVD but in France (that explain my english). I’ll be interrested too on some details about that work.
    Francis Dhee
    Ecole Nationale des Sciences Geographiques

    1. Bonjour Francis! Thank you for your comment. I’ve asked Simon to get in touch with you so expect an email from him very soon. Paul

  17. Scott McAfee

    Looks very promising. I didn’t see reference to any paper. Are there plans to publish this work? I’m interested in it for mapping hazards in the US. Thanks, Scott.

  18. Hello from Greece,

    I am currently working on our local municipality map, and concidering of using colour schemes and palettes that will be distinguishable to colour-blind people. Any feedback would be appreciated!

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  20. Leanne

    Can these maps be bought yet? I have a friend with severe CVD and would love to get them a custom map with this style.

    1. Hi Leanne

      Thanks for the interest, but I’m afraid they’re not available for sale at this time. We’ll let you know if that changes.

      Thanks, Gemma

  21. Elaine Oram

    My daughter has cvd and struggles reading a 1:25 when we are out walking, she would love to try your new maps. Her biggest area of difficulty is blue/yellow and surrounding tones/colours. She found the above examples more readable than the standard.

  22. Cut the Colour

    Wow these maps look fascinating! What a great development to support colour blind vision. I know for a fact that maps and designs are frequently inaccessible for those with colour blindness and it creates a whole stack of unecessary difficulties. Sydney in particular has a system i’m familiar with and it’s an absolute nightmare.

    What we need is awareness, and to push positive ideas like this.

  23. Ryan

    The problem with these sorts of colors isn’t just whether the CVD version is interpretable visually by those who are color blind, but also the color contrast variation.
    Most of these colors you’ve shown don’t variate between each other very well in contrast, so CVD or non-CVD both end up being a problem if a designer has no understanding of the correct color contrast ratios for distinguishing shapes and colors that are meant to compliment each other.

    No amount of color palettes will help if one doesn’t do the research into color theory :)

  24. Jim H

    I have red–green blindness. I find there are too many colours on maps, whatever colours are used. Here’s a problem: there are two colours in the colour key, A and B. I can see they differ. But I may still be unable to tell whether an area on the adjacent map is coloured A or B. This is because A and B to me are not so much different colours as different shades. I think various kinds of hatching combined with a few strong colours would be useful.

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