The art of color naming has me really baffled, and concerned too. I recently discovered I’m color blind even though I can, in fact, distinguish all the subtle differences among the multitudinous shades of red, green and blue just fine.
Evidence of my malady arrived in the form of a catalog from a travel products company. As I curled up on a brown couch in front of a burgundy stove with snapping yellow flames dancing among red coals and blackened logs, I began to thumb through the pages seeking some new gear for my next travel adventure. My eyes rested on a nifty pair of Columbia slip-on boots that said they were the color of “bittersweet.” Confused, I paged through my Webster’s to learn that bittersweet is a vine that boasts orange or yellowish fruit in North America, or purple flowers with scarlet berries in Eurasia also known as nightshade. I also noted that bittersweet was sometimes used to refer to a dark, deep, reddish-orange color. Which might have been fine if these boots didn’t appear to be brown.
Zen is color naming gone bad
I reached for my reading glasses and, keeping my dictionary and a color wheel pinched from my daughter’s old Crayola art set handy, I resumed paging. There was a sweater in “gaucho,” a travel pant in “Zen,” an ExOfficio shirt in “Dijon” (what, no Grey Poupon?), and a pullover in “storm.” Sweat beaded on my forehead as I wrestled with the color wheel and dictionary, trying to make sense of color names a designer somewhere must have assumed any commoner should know. Zen? What the heck kind of color is Zen—because trying to figure it out sure wasn’t putting me into that peaceful state of mind the color name was most likely meant to inspire. “Zen” as a color, my friends, is just plain weird.
When did food groups become colors?
It wasn’t long before I entered the food group pages, with colors such as “paprika,” “cayenne,” “parsley,” “sage,” “rosemary” and “thyme.” I had to bang my head several times against the red brick mantel to chase away wandering melodies from days of Peter, Paul and Mary gone by. “Raspberry,” “tangerine,” “avocado,” “pear,” “fried rice,” “butter,” “aubergine” (it’s a fancy name for eggplant don’t you know) and “toast,” only served to make me hungry and left me wondering, was the toast white, rye or pumpernickel, because that would affect the color wave for sure.
There was “stinger” (yellow) and “white cap” (blue, go figure) and “celadon” (which can be either pale green or pale blue, your pick) and “peri” (which looks to be purple, but the dictionary definition has nothing whatsoever to do with color, so I give up!).
Why is curb a color name?
The moment I knew that I was color blind arrived when my eyes rested on a travel jacket in, and I’m not kidding here, the color “curb.” Maybe I’m swimming in “deep water” (yes, another color), but I’m betting even the designer didn’t have a clue what color “curb” was when he or she looked it up in some color naming guide.
Now I don’t have a problem with creativity and realize that using simple terms such as “blue,” “light blue” and “even lighter blue,” isn’t going to float the boat of visual imagination. What puzzles me in all of this is when did designers suddenly decide for the rest of the world that color itself is redundant to a description?
Shouldn’t “chili” in fact be “chili red?” At least then my mind has a frame of reference. If you leave me with just “chili,” I begin to wonder if it’s like my best friend’s famous chili, which is in fact brown, but will turn your face red within seconds of consumption, or a chili that is a pepper, which could be green, yellow, orange or red. Cornflower blue is just “cornflower” now, as if we’re supposed to know from past reference.
Since most of the population does not read minds and couldn’t possibly be expected to have a clue what a designer was imagining when pondering a color such as “reflex,” I have a proposal. Return a color reference to the whimsical wanderings or color naming. While it’s unlikely we’ll ever really know what “blue reflex” means, we can seek comfort in the fact it is “some damn shade of blue.” That, at least, will be progress.