How to talk to your designer about color

One of the challenges of graphic design is that it can be very difficult to express visual concepts precisely in words. It’s hard enough for designers to talk to each other, when they already have a shared background of terminology and concepts – for designers and non-designers, trying to communicate can be incredibly frustrating.

Number one tip: Use a standard color reference

I have a confession to make: I love color swatch collections.

Whether it’s paint chips, fabric samples, Pantone color match books, cosmetic guides, or boxes of Crayola crayons, I get a kick out of seeing a lot of different colors all grouped together and organized by type. I’m not the only one who loves these things. They’re intended to be attractive and enticing.

Because of this, colors are often given names which are intended to not only be descriptive, but also to evoke an emotional response. So, when the Sherwin-Williams web site offers dozens of almost-white colors, it makes sense to call them things like “Nacre,” “Nonchalant White,” “Frosty White,” “Opaline,” “Topsail,” and “Quicksilver.” But, unless you have established the Sherwin-Williams site as a reference, it is nearly impossible for your designer to know that “Nacre” is a pale ivory color (especially when, in nature, “nacre” is the term for mother-of-pearl, which isn’t ivory at all).

Similarly, very common color words can be easy to misunderstand. Turquoise, aquamarine and teal all refer to a bluish-green (or a greenish blue!), but one person’s “teal” might be another person’s “pine.”
The Pantone system, which is intended for use by designers, identifies colors by number. That’s it.
(Of course, after working in the industry for years, many designers might know that Pantone 306 C is a pretty sky blue, or that 382 C is a bright lime green.)

When designing for print, the Pantone system is your best choice for avoiding color ambiguity.

When designing for the web, try to use either an RGB specification (RGB 168, 144, 108) or a hexadecimal specification (#a8906c). If you don’t have a picture editor such as Photoshop to use for selecting colors, there are many web resources that exist to help you select the hexadecimal notation for the color you want.