Why color discussions can be so frustrating and 3 things you can do about it

You know those discussions about what the color should be for a certain something in a design? They can quickly turn into a debate about personal preferences. Once you’re on that terrain, it’s one step to the highest paid person in the room seeing that that’s a waste of time. I can’t blame them then for finding the decision can be made based on their preference.

The first time I was in such a situation I thought “Why would they hire designers if they don’t even let them pick the colors?” Later that became “Why would they hire a designer who can’t even pick colors on their own?!”

For a while I thought that just knowing more about color could help me make convincing arguments for my color choices.

Meanwhile I’ve read some books and articles about color. Sure, I already knew some color theory and knew about spaces, models and profiles. But it turned out, I didn’t know what color really is. A while ago, I wrote about what I learned: What is color? You may want to read it first. But who am I to recommend my own writing about stuff I just find fascinating?

The quick summary is that seeing is seeing color. I believe Aristotle said something like that already. We don’t see shapes directly—we see color and shadow. Our brains interpret the color signals from our eyes and make sense of it in the form of models of our environments.

As a result, designing something visible means designing with color and giving it meaning in three dimensions. To be perceptible at all, any visual in art or design imitates a real world object. But this is not going to be about flat design and skeuomorphism. You’re here for that other type frustrating discussion. Why can it be so difficult to convince somebody of the quality of your perfectly matching colors?

Taste aside, there are at least three reasons why you could look at a design and actually see something different than your coworkers and clients:

  1. Cone sensitivities differ between people
  2. Vision changes constantly
  3. Culture largely defines how we see color

How to make discussions about color more productive

Alright, so two people looking at the same design can literally see different colors. With that in mind, here are my tips on how to have better discussions about color.

1) Don’t believe your eyes …

… or your brain for that matter. Being the designer knowing about color theory doesn’t mean your truth is better than that of your coworker, boss or users.

I like to believe that working consciously with colors on a daily basis and using names like mauve, magenta and fuchsia instead of just pink can make one better at perceiving colors. But when designing for and with diverse people, being more perceptive doesn’t equal being more right.

2) Make sure you’re all looking at the same things

Next time I need to get a team to agree on important color choices, I want to be sure that everybody in the discussion is looking at the same things. That means getting everyone into the same room, looking at the same materials. When people look at the design on their own computers, there’s no way of knowing they see what was intended. Even more so via remote screen sharing!

It may also be useful to have the audience’s eyes adjusted to the lighting of the presentation material. Don’t put colors as the first topic on the agenda: give all everyone’s eyes some time to adjust to the meeting room. Make sure people haven’t been staring at their own laptops, their phone, or, well, the sun (seriously though: shut the blinds) just before looking at the proposed color palette.

3) Help others talk about colors

Help the audience with the vocabulary to explain what they see. Explain about hue, saturation and brightness. Even better: bring color swatches with alternatives and let them show what they have in mind.

Speech bubbles with well-articulated feedback on the colors of a design

If you created a parametric color system, explain how it works. That way it should become clear you’re not mixing colors willy nilly. That it may not be a good idea to change one color without changing the rest. I’m not saying you should present your design as something complicated that can’t be changed anymore. But show what parameters you can tweak to improve the color palette. Even better: if you expect pushback on a color (purple, just so you know), prepare to show alternative color combos and why you think they’re not as good (“everyone else is using blue”).

Separate opinions like “That purple doesn’t look right” from subjective facts like “I find it hard to see the difference between purple and indigo”. Then ask why they like or don’t like colors: “What do you associate it with?”

Conclusion

Color is weird. In user interface design we have all these disciplines, methods and processes, but in the end it’s mostly putting colors in patterns on displays. Colors about which everyone can have a valid opinion within a second. I hope with the background info and the tips above, you’ll find it a bit easier to design your next great color scheme and get it approved. Remember that what someone else sees may be different from what you see. Your interpretation isn’t more real or more right than the other’s!

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