Kromofons – representing letters with colors

Oh boy. I just read an interesting article on ZDNet/News.com. A very creative guy named Dr Lee Freedman has come up with a cute idea called “Kromofons” (but the web site seesm to be down). Assign each of the 26 letters of the English alphabet a color. Then you can communicate in sequences of colors rather than letters. It allows for multi-layered communications as you can mix color-coding in with other kinds of graphics much more easily than you can mix text and graphics. Too bad the basic idea is too flawed to get very far – even though it could be fun.


Given that Freedman is a medical doctor, he should know that roughly 15% of males and 1% of females have some form of color-blindness (and not all the same kind, either, so it’s not like you can just avoid certain color combinations).

[Edit: the numbers may be closer to 7.5% and 0.5% – looks like I may have added the stats incorrectly.]

But the bigger problem is more fundamental than that. Great, 26 colors covers English. What about all the rest of the world’s languages (as my colleague John Hudson points out)? French? German? Heaven help you if you want to do Chinese or Japanese, with their thousands of symbols needed for basic literacy. The global standard for text encoding is Unicode, and it has some 100,000 characters today. Of course, even doing a few hundred colors, if you want specific colors to have unambiguous meanings, introduces big problems in color management.

I’m particularly curious how people are supposed to do things like write a handwritten note in this new format. Do we all need pens with 26 (or 26,000) colors built in? At least with Unicode, nobody is expecting people to read the sequences of Unicode codepoints….

Dr Freedman thinks Kromofons will transform how “we” think (I guess it’s if “we” are people who write only in English, online). Oh well. It’s still a fun idea, and these sorts of things are much easier to tear apart than to come up with.

[Update the same day: I was doing some more reading, and I see that Dr Freedman is himself red-green color-blind, and has given some thought to the color-blindness issues. However, that still doesn’t deal with the cultural myopia issue. – T]

4 Responses

  1. Ken says:

    here is another example of using color for letters.”CoverNew Order ‘Power Corruption and Lies’Peter Saville’s design for the album had a colour-based code to represent the band’s name and the title of the album, but they were not actually written on the sleeve itself (they were, however, present on the North American sleeve). The decoder for the code was featured prominently on the back cover of the album and can also be used for the “Blue Monday” and “Confusion” singles. Saville also used it on Section 25’s album From the Hip, which is in many ways aligned stylistically with Power, Corruption & Lies and produced partly by New Order’s Bernard Sumner.”[Great! Doing fun codes and such is cool. Believing that eventually many or most English-speakers will change how they read to some new color-based system is, well, a little nutty. – T]

  2. The ZDnet URL you cited isn’t working for me. We here at CNET publish the same News.com content at both ZDnet and CNET News.com, so maybe try this News.com URL for the same story instead (http://news.com.com/2100-1025-6187358.html).Stephen Shankland[Thanks, Stephen, I’ll try that in the main posting. – T]

  3. Kevin Larson says:

    I think your numbers are high for color vision deficiencies. The numbers I’ve seen are closer to 8% of men and .5% of women. I don’t think that changes your argument.[I got the stats from this Wikipedia piece on color blindness. But I may have added them up incorrectly. On the other hand, as the good doctor says, if the color palette being used is limited and carefully tested, all but a tiny minority of color blind folks could distinguish them. (Mind you, it’s still a typically anglocentric concept.) – T]

  4. cabtrix says:

    Note Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama trilogy – I think the octospiders speak in colour too =)

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Thomas Phinney

Adobe type alumnus (1997–2008), now VP at FontLab, also helped create WebINK at Extensis. Lives in Portland (OR), enjoys board games, movies, and loves spicy food.

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