Color Communication: When You Say X, Your Designer Hears This

Let me paint a picture for you. You’ve just started working with a new designer. You sat down with that person, explained all of your dreams for the design, and left the meeting feeling like you were really on the same page. Then the next time you meet with them, they present a design that is completely different than what you expected. It’s not necessarily a bad design, but it is definitely different than what you described.

Sound familiar?

This is what I like to call a “lost in translation” moment. And it’s exactly what inspired me to create this guide on translating “design talk.”

Why is there a disconnect?

Many designers received their formal education in traditional art. Yes, even the digital artists! For example, my lead designer, Frank Candamil, has degrees in Art and Digital Media. Because of his background, I know that when he says something like “hue” or “tint,” he’s talking about the classic definitions of the words. However, when a client says a term like that, it’s unclear if they are referring to the definition or a colloquialism.

Common design terms and meanings

After talking with our Brand Mangers and Designers at Rise, I compiled a list of terms that we hear our clients say all of the time and can be misinterpreted. Let’s explore the terms and what they mean to each party.

Client: Bold colors that are striking with high contrast. Not dull.
Designers: Luminous or shining.


Client: These are all words to describe the same thing – color!
Designers: A hue is the purest and brightest version of a color, a tint (often called a pastel) is a color with white added, a shade is a color with black added, and a tone is a color created by adding both white and black, thereby “greying it down.”

Client: Bright or perhaps pastel. Spring-themed palette of greens, yellows, and purple.
Designers: Contemporary, bright, or green. Kid Cudi.

Client: Don’t make me look old.
Designers: Postmodern, late modern, modern, American modernism, or post-postmodern? Maybe this client just doesn’t want to look dated…

Client: Don’t make me look too young or crazy.
Designers: Got it! You want to look like a financial institution!

Similarly words like: soothing, romantic, peaceful, trustworthy, youthful, and inviting are all very abstract and can easily be confused. Don’t worry, you aren’t the only ones who use vague words. Designers use them all the time too!

Getting on the same page

The key to a successful design, be it print, digital, or video, is to have excellent communication with your designer. I would choose designers that you feel comfortable talking to and that really listen to you. A designer that’s been in the game for a while will probably come to the table with a few questions that will help guide the conversation. I suggest taking time to find examples of things you like and things you don’t like, so you can review them with your designer. It never hurts to ask their opinion either.

COLOURlovers, what other terms should be on this list?

Rise Above,

Stephan formed Rise in 2002, when his passion for web design hit him like a laser. Today, he oversees an eight member staff and the digital marketing for some of the area’s most prestigious clients. Stephan’s experience spans nearly two decades in all areas of design and technology. He is an untiring advocate for quality and has earned a reputation for building trust and loyalty with clients who so often become repeat clients. Today, his passion is launching sites that do more than sit: they communicate, connect and continue a conversation. Stephan lives in Baldwin Park, Florida with his girlfriend, Alison, son, Ivan and dogs, Gooch and Lexi. Stephan doesn’t believe in sweating the small stuff.