Design Geek: Describing Color

Working with color everyday, I sometimes forget that everyone isn’t as familiar, or comfortable, with color as designers tend to be. Specifically, with describing color accurately. Even between designers, I’ve noticed that there can be a frustrating barrier when someone requests a “lighter” color, when what they actually want is a “brighter” color. Admittedly, it can be confusing, so let me help out with my own little break-down of the 3 (and only three) ways to describe color. Just so we’re all on the same page.

1. Light or Dark
2. Cool or Warm
3. Bright or Dull

Cool and warm are pretty easy for most people. The more blue-toned, the cooler the color, the more red, the warmer. The problem that most people have with identifying differences in color, comes with the difference between 1 and 3 on that list. Light and dark seems pretty self-explanatory, but it can get muddy when someone requests a “light” blue and is appalled at the baby blue they get, when what they really had in mind all along was a “bright” electric blue.

Side note here: Bright or Dull scale goes by many other names. I refer to it as this because this is how I learned it, and it makes the most sense to me this way, but I’ve also heard it called Clean or Dirty, Clear or Muddy, etc.. All are correct, it just depends on which works for you.

Back on track now. I’ve put together this handy little chart to help clear up some of the confusion between bright and light , dark and dull in the color arena.

Visually, you can see the difference easily as the starting purple color gets brighter, lighter, darker and duller, with completely different results for each descriptive term. The four corners show the results if you are looking for a “light but dull” option, etc.

This insight into the color spectrum can come in handy, whether it’s communicating with a designer you know, with picking paint for your home (that nursery might not look quite as relaxing as you’d hoped if you ask for “bright” pink walls) or just with your general vocab skills. Hope it helps!

dawn sig


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