Are there any guidelines or standards when referring to colors?

I am not asking about objective systems like RAL, Pantone, HTML or simply referring to a colors wavelength, but rather terms like blue, red or even terms like violet and petrol.

Lets say I am writing an article (a scientific one in my case, but I guess that should also apply to a news article or an advertisement) where I have to refer to a figure in a text.

Lets say I chose the popular seaborn color scheme to produce a few simple bar plots, like the following, from their examples: seaborn sample image

You could think of various reasons to refer to the different bars: "Our product I ist much better than all our competitors!", "At point E there was a clear shift in attitudes", "Sample B exhibits a clear increase over sample A"…

But sometimes, it makes more sense to refer to a color, instead of an identifier, even though that can cause issues for people with color blindness and with the reproduction of said color.

But what kind of terms can I expect to be known by a general audience? What terms should I use for certain audiences? In a fashion context, there probably is a perfectly fitting name for each color in the sequential row (probably stuff like Ocean, Petrol, Jade and Obsidian), but for me, those are all green_ish_, which probably also brings in the guy vs girl issue. So sequential colors are probably a bad idea in a context where I have to refer to a single one, which probably also applies to diverging.

Qualitative seems like a much easier pick, especially when using colors that are agreed on, like red, blue, yellow or black, but after a certain amount of colors, I am running out of easy ones. And how do I address, lets say C then?

Purple? Violet? Greyish-pink? Amethyst? Eggplant? Purple-blue?

What guidelines or rules are there, for picking and addressing colors in such a situation?

  • 1
    Not a duplicate as such, but there is some relevant discussion in the answers to this question: graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/questions/83835/…
    – Westside
    Jan 31, 2017 at 15:36
  • I'm an amateur so hate to leave a bona-fide answer. During some (volunteer) web site work, the client asked me to use "less primary yellow and more Naples yellow." I had to look up Naples yellow, but found that Wikipedia has some very nice "Shades of XXX" pages (e.g., Shades of Yellow) with color names and expandable swatches near the bottom of the page. I know there will be some variation due to monitors. But since Cai confirms there is no real standard, providing a Wikipedia link may help. For example: "Please use more Naples Yellow: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shades_of_yellow. Feb 2, 2017 at 18:23

1 Answer 1


Are there any guidelines or standards when referring to colors?


To take your 'guy vs girl' issue a bit further, take a look at this XKCD color survey, which is pretty interesting, amusing and very relevant.

...what kind of terms can I expect to be known by a general audience?

Short answer: very few.

There is no universally agreed upon naming system for colors so unless you're aiming at a specific audience that you know will understand some specific naming convention or system then you're better off not using colors as reference terms.

Most will understand the difference between "blue", "red", "black", "white" and basic color names, but as soon as you're straying from the colors you learn as a child then you're throwing in a load of uncertainty and ambiguity. If there is enough contrast in your colors then you'll have more luck; most people will be able do understand the difference between "magenta" and "teal" for example, but if you have "magenta", "fuchsia", "salmon", "teal", "turquoise" and "aqua" you'll start to have a problem. Throw in some color-blindness and you're definitely fighting a losing battle.

With any significant number of colors and no agreed upon system of color names all you can do is resort to describing the color with something like "greyish-light-purpley-blue" ...which (is probably a slight exaggeration, but) sounds ridiculous and is considerably more cumbersome and ambiguous than "sample C", "data point 3" or "the third bar" or whatever.

  • Its a bit self evident since OP is normal and does not know.
    – joojaa
    Jan 31, 2017 at 16:41
  • @joojaa impeccable logic
    – Cai
    Jan 31, 2017 at 17:07
  • I agree that referring to stuff by it's color isn't the best idea, but sometimes that is beyond my decision. Good point on having enough contrast! Your point "Most will understand the difference between "blue", "red", "black", "white" and basic color names" is certainly true. I guess I am looking for a study or something where a few more details on those "very few" colors are given. E.g. I have an idea about "magenta" and "salmon", but I cant come up with an image for "teal". Maybe I have to take a deeper look into the xkcd data.
    – JC_CL
    Feb 1, 2017 at 12:38

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