Color is one of the most highly subjective aspects of design. The human eye can distinguish the light waves of varying wavelengths vibrating at different speeds that produce the sensation of color in our brains. But who knows if what one person sees is exactly what another does? Sure, it’s in the ballpark; “blue” will look blue to most of us—but do we all perceive precisely the same blue?
Talking about color in identity design will always be a challenge. (It is one of the most requested topics at the HOW Design Conference.) Beyond the physiological issues of color perception, colors have associations with emotional states, symbolism, and cultural meanings. Add to these factors the whole aspect of aesthetic preference. Color is a loaded subject, deeply personal and experientially specific to the viewer. Yet color universally accepted as a critically important aspect of any design. Why? Because color attracts and holds attention, conveys information on conscious and subconscious levels, and assists in mnemonics (or memorability).
Ultimately, it’s the designer’s job to clearly communicate with clients and colleagues, and to facilitate a common understanding about color—and its role in a brand’s visual expression.
Color names are simply linguistic labels that people attach to hues. Hues are determined by the physics of light reflection. The most dominant visible wavelength of light determines its name. Despite the complex systems that determine a color, most colors are named by association—either its relative position on the color wheel, as in blue-green, or by reference to some natural object of that hue, such as turquoise. Both terms can be used to describe the same hue. Changes in saturation can be expressed by adding a modifying label to the name, as in vivid turquoise. To describe changes in value, a reference to intensity is added, e.g. dark blue-green. Special kinds of reflection provide additional modification, like sparkling turquoise or opalescent aqua.
How We Talk About Color
Using standardized color systems, like Pantone PMS numbers, provides technical nomenclature and a shared language, especially for production conversations. But a number isn’t exactly the most evocative or convincing way to express a color’s resonance and appropriateness for a brand, particularly when you’re talking with a client. Further in the design process, once the client has agreed to a particular color scheme, using technical names or system numbers makes excellent sense.
How to Present Color to Clients
With all these variations in the language of color, perhaps a designer’s best strategy for discussing color, and getting it approved, is to show it in context. Talk the client through a color palette using names that link the choices back to their desired objectives—for example: “This handsome deep blue was chosen because it conveys a sense of tradition and strength, which is right for a financial services company.”
Too, designers should present their color choices as a well-considered system. Show the client your entire proposed color palette by applying it to various types of materials; this shows the client how the colors interact and provides confirmation that you’ve thought holistically about the color system. Always speak about how your color choices meet the creative brief and therefore, the client’s goals. If the client’s direction is that the brand should appear “young and modern,” explain that the proposed color scheme is just that.
If a client objects to a color, try to get them to address the problem exactly. If color is an overarching issue—for example, the client hates blue and blue is the cornerstone of the branding—you need to know why. Is it personal preference, or does the client actually believe that blue simply sends the wrong message? Do they agree that blue should be the dominant color, but they just don’t like that particular blue? Tease out the parameters of the client’s objection so you can either defend your choice or select another color.
Bottom line: Designers choose colors for a reason. You need to effectively communicate your color selections to your client, and using an accurate and expressive color name will support that effort. If you can use the project brief to support your color choices, they’ll seem less arbitrary to the client—and they’ll be more likely to meet with the client’s approval.