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How to Talk Color with Customers and Suppliers

Posted March 24, 2016 by Mike Huda

Which of these swatches would you call bright red?
Pantone stickers


Speaking the language of color isn’t like giving someone your phone number and expecting they’ll 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. Today we’ll look at the main reasons color communication goes wrong, and some simple ways to fix it.

Why is there so much color miscommunication?

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

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. 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.

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 impact 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 they’re 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 has fiscal ramifications, 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 Test, the online version will give you an idea of how well you see color, but should not be considered a substitute for the full test.

The Farnsworth Munsell 100 Hue Test

The Farnsworth Munsell 100 Hue Test


Physical considerations aside, we all communicate and interpret color based on our personal experiences. This makes it very difficult to objectively communicate color. Phrases like “it’s too dull” or “make it pop” to describe color 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 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 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 benchtops for industrial applications, there are many types of spectrophotometers, and they don’t have to be a huge investment. The payoff comes in accurate color, and it happens very quickly.

Ci7x00 benchtop spectrophotometer measuring a Pantone Textile Swatch

Ci7x00 benchtop spectrophotometer measuring a Pantone Textile Swatch

Making the shift to clear color communication

Describing color using physical standards or spectral data and insisting everyone is tested for color vision acuity and evaluates under the same lighting conditions are the most accurate ways to speak the same color language.

Of course, this is just a brief introduction to the topic. There’s so much more to learn. If color accuracy plays a role in your bottom line, it just makes sense to know all you can. Consider our Fundamentals of Color and Appearance seminar to learn more. You can even take the full version of the FM 100 hue test!

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