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Michael Huda


How to Talk Color With Customers and Suppliers

Limiting the variables of environment and vision acuity

Published: Wednesday, July 27, 2016 - 11:10

Speaking the language of color isn’t like telling someone your name and expecting him to remember it. Our minds just don’t process color like that.

While vague color descriptions are sufficient for many people—“Turn left at the blue house” or “Choose the reddest strawberries”—if you work in an industry where color is important, you need to know how to speak a much more specific color language.

How do you create a color that “pops” or “radiates?” What color is “sunshine?” Is “raspberry” red, blue, or purple? And what do you do when your customer asks for such a color?

Unfortunately this is how people communicate in the color industry all the time. When it comes to vague nuances, the chances of getting color right using verbal communication alone are very low, which leads to rework when the color isn’t right.

Don’t just shake your head and try again. Color communication doesn’t have to be so difficult. Let’s look at the main reasons color communication goes wrong as well as some simple ways to fix it.

There are many reasons color communication goes wrong. Luckily, they’re all pretty easy to control.

Which of these swatches would you call bright red?

The environment

First, you need to understand that it’s the lighting conditions that really determine the color our eyes perceive. Think about how the objects in your yard seem to change color as the sun moves across the sky. Everything has a yellowish-orange cast when the sun rises. At noon on a sunny day, everything appears cooler, bluer. And once the sun sets, your yard disappears in darkness. Of course, those objects aren’t actually changing color. It’s the light reflecting off of them that makes it seem that way.

As the temperature of light changes, so does our perception of color.

You must also recognize the tricks our environment can play on our eyes. Our surroundings can actually make a color look different. We posted some cool activities on our blog last year that demonstrate what I mean.

To overcome the effect of your environment, you need to work under controlled conditions when describing and evaluating color. A light booth can simulate how color will look under any number of lighting conditions, including the showroom, outdoors, and the incandescent tungsten, warm-white fluorescent, and LED bulbs found in homes.

In manufacturing, color matching is crucial, especially when products are produced at multiple sites and assembled at the end. Light booths allow you to place parts next to each other and change the illuminant to make sure the colors look right and still match without the tricks of the environment.

Human limitations

Although the human eye is an amazing organ, it is subject to many limitations that most of us aren’t even aware of. Color deficiency occurs in about one in every 13 men and one in every 300 women. Even if you have perfect color vision, your eyes are still subject to fatigue, stress, disease, and the aging process, all of which impact how you perceive color.

If your color vision will affect fiscal outcomes, you really should take a physical test to see where you fall on the spectrum of color vision. Based on the Farnsworth-Munsell 100 Hue Color Vision Test, this online version will give you an idea of how well you see color, but it shouldn’t be considered a substitute for the full test.

Image 3: The Farnsworth Munsell 100 Hue Color Vision Test


Physical considerations aside, we all communicate and interpret color based on our personal experiences. This makes it difficult to objectively communicate color. Phrases like, “It’s too dull” or, “Make it pop” don’t work because they mean something different to everyone. What looks bright to you might seem average to me.

Both Pantone and Munsell create physical standards that can be presented to suppliers or anyone else who needs to match a color. A physical standard not only provides a clear idea of what color is expected, it also allows you to compare the color that is produced to see how close you are.

Sometimes, visual evaluation isn’t enough, especially for brand colors and parts that will be assembled and must match. The most accurate way to communicate and evaluate color in these instances is to use a color measurement device. Instruments like colorimeters and spectrophotometers measure reflected or transmitted light across the visible spectrum, and create a “fingerprint” that perfectly describes that color. The resulting numeric value can only be interpreted as that color.

From small handheld devices that can be carried anywhere, to large, robust benchtop units for industrial applications, there are many types of spectrophotometers. They don’t have to be a huge investment, and the payoff quickly comes with being able to deliver accurate color.

Image 4: Ci7x00 benchtop spectrophotometer measuring a Pantone textile swatch

Making the shift to clear color communication

There are three things to do to ensure that everyone is speaking the same, accurate color language:
• Use physical standards or spectral data
• Insist that everyone is tested for color vision acuity
• Evaluate color under the same lighting conditions every time

This is just a brief introduction to the topic. If color accuracy plays a role in your bottom line, it makes sense to know all you can. For more information, consider taking X-Rite’s “Fundamentals of Color and Appearance” seminar to learn more. You can even take the full version of the Farnsworth-Munsell 100 Hue Color Vision Test.


About The Author

Michael Huda’s picture

Michael Huda

Michael Huda is an applications engineer at X-Rite. He has more than 15 years’ experience working in the coatings and color industry. Huda works directly with customers to help them achieve consistent color in manufacturing and improve color quality control processes.