Enter the maze

Vulgar Coloured Pens

by Jane Waite, Queen Mary University of London

A circle of coloured pens: copyright www.istockphoto.com 13518822

Ada tutored students in maths using what seemed to be rather unorthodox means at the time. She suggested they used coloured pens which were thought of as 'vulgar' at the time. Using colour to help us better understand a concept or how to use something is now a common technique used when designing user interfaces.

Colour Theory looks at how designs can be improved through various aspects of colour such as complementation, contrast and vibrancy. Simply put complementation is how colours balance, contrast is how colours differ and vibrancy is how colours make us feel. User Interface designers spend time thinking about things like how to direct attention to the right place, focus the eye without straining it, and how to create an experience that is appropriate to the context. They might decide to use, for example, a bright red warning sign in stark narrow letters, simple sweeping dark lettering on a light complementary background for a poem. The screen might turn red to attract attention if you've made a mistake entering data, only returning to green when the data is valid. Different colours might be used to show that you are in an editing mode rather than viewing mode of a document editor. A website might use colour coding of the pages to show the different grouped areas a visitor is viewing.

Ada seems to have been a natural as a user interface designer as well as a programmer and computational thinking wizard.

Charles Babbage also understood the importance of colour when presenting results, if obsessively. When planning how his machine the Difference Engine would print results, he ran an exhaustive experiment. He printed the same information over and over using every combination of ink and paper colour he could get hold of to see which would be best for the eye. He put the resulting sheets into 21 books of examples. It really was obsessive: it even included black on black. Computer scientists tend to think every last detail matters.