Color Thesaurus ? What’s the value to identity and graphic design?


Recently found on Twitter, a writer and children’s book illustrator Ingrid Sundberg has created a “Color Thesaurus” of the “correct” names of the colors. I applaud the effort but I question the method. On her blog you can find 12 charts of named colors based on their RGB?? values. If Ms. Sundberg wants to set a ‘standard’, she has to reference a standard, and RGB is relative to the screen.

In design, the authority is PANTONE, and though there are other ink companies out there, the PANTONE inks and swatch books are so universal, it would do us all a service to name colors from chips (as PANTONE often does). Why? The chips are consistent. They may seem to change relative to the light or the other colors around them (insert color theory quote here), but they have a set ‘recipe’ that vendors can reliably reproduce.


Take ‘canary’ here – I think that’s PMS #123 – and while it’s not quite #123 on-screen, I can still envision how this color will behave on a wall or on paper, because I can rely on the PANTONE standard. And ‘wine’ – that’s a little to arbitrary, wines of many varietals may hit any number of colors in the red chart.

This begs the question of ‘naming’ the colors at all? Aren’t they just being cute? Well, we can benefit from a name standard. There are two things to consider:

1. Clients: they don’t get “PMS#123” but they do get ‘canary’, and they make associations with the word/color, for better or worse. In past conversations with clients about the usage of color in their identity toolkit, I have named their colors to help them become familiar with their new palette and own it. I’ve even named colors for clients to help them adopt a risky color, (no, that’s not deep pink, that’s ACME Maroon, sir).

2. Retail: one of the top reasons consumers return a product is the color. Whether in a print catalogue or on-screen, the expectation was not set. You may be able to mitigate this with color correction to some extent, but nothing beats establishing a named palette and producing it consistently. This is why JCrew’s colors are so boring – they rely on the predictability of their product to sell volume with minimal return. When you see ‘heather grey’ in a JCrew catalogue, you know what you are going to get (usually).

So I am all for naming colors – but there needs to be a gold standard.

Do you have a client / color story? Tell us…

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