How to See Color Like a Designer
When you walk into the paint section of a hardware store, you usually find yourself staring at a wall of colors; a rainbow composed from thousands of tiny paint swatches, each one with a unique name. The colors have labels that read like flavors and flowers: Tangerine, Lavender, Marigold, Grapefruit, Dewberry! You probably had no idea dewberries were purple, but you do now because the purple swatch in your hand clearly reads: “Dewberry.”
Looking at it I would agree that color is purple. But I would also say it’s a darker shade of purple, not pure purple, and it has more blue in it than red, and it looks slightly desaturated, or lightly toned.
I know, that’s a lot of different ways to describe “purple,” but that’s how I see it—an amalgamation of red and blue and white and black. As a designer, I have to think about how colors are made, how they feel — not just how they look.
Here’s some basic terminology that helps designers better understand color:
- Tint: A tint is simply any color with white added.
- Shade: A shade is any color with black added.
- Tone: A tone is created by adding both white and black, which is grey.
Earlier I said Dewberry is a darker shade of purple, not pure purple, and it has more blue in it than red, and it looks slightly desaturated, or lightly toned.
What does all that mean?
Well, let’s bring up a tool we designers use a lot: the color picker. Let’s go find a good old-fashioned purple.
Okay, now, let’s move our slider more toward the blue part of spectrum.
Great. Now let’s find a darker shade of that color.
And finally, let’s tone or desaturate our shade, and voila! Dewberry.
Do artists and designers always see colors like this — even outside of work? I’m not sure, but I can say I’ve found myself thinking about how much blue is in my spinach, or how much red is actually in the ultra dark beer I’m drinking.
Here’s my challenge to you:
The next time you see a color you like, spend a little time thinking about how it may have been made.
Does the blue paint on a building look a shade darker than normal because it’s been toned down? Or does that red lipstick have a little bit more yellow in it, which is why it looks “orangish red”? Now you’re looking at color like an artist!
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