Is Color Perception Holding Up Your Approvals Cycles?

Author: Shoshana Burgett, Pink Elephant Productions

Anyone in a creative role knows the importance of choosing the right color. From packaging to apparel to consumer products to marketing materials – color can make or break a design. Color can make your marketing message stand out, identify your brand, or segment your products. The wrong color can change consumer perception and quickly move products to the clearance shelf.

If color is so important, why is it so hard to get right in production?  What do creatives and their suppliers need to know about color?

per·cep·tion: noun: perception; plural noun: perceptions

the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses.

the state of being or process of becoming aware of something through the senses.

a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression.


For the last 5+ years, I have focused on helping customers overcome challenges in color production. It’s a cornerstone for colorkarma. I have talked with designers, brand owners, creatives, marketers, printers, dye-houses, suppliers and manufacturers on this issue. In this article and future articles, I want to shed light on the challenges of executing on a creative vision so that designers can improve their relationship with suppliers and bring innovative products to market faster.

When the word ‘color’ comes to question – there are many factors that impact the final product.  You need to consider how color is communicated, base materials, inks/pigments, manufacturing technology, lighting, temperature/humidity, etc.

While all these things play a role, it’s important to remember a foundational element. Color is visual – it relies on our eyes. Vision is one of our key senses and everyone perceives color differently.  How you or your supplier perceives color can be holding up your design approvals and production.

Perception is not necessarily the same as reality. This means that not everyone perceives color equally, including yourself.

I know what you are thinking… you already know this and it doesn’t apply.  You got a perfect score on the Munsell Hue Test.  Let’s be honest, when was the last time you took the Munsell Hue Test – and not the free online version that you do on an uncalibrated screen?  Maybe you took it in college or for a job interview a number of years ago.  More importantly, would you still get a perfect score today?

If you are in a role of approving color, you need to understand how your color vision changes over time. There are a number of environmental and physical factors that can impact vision and color acuity from day-to-day.


It’s no secret that the type of lighting you are in can impact your color perception. A sample or swatch might match in daylight but look totally different under LED or fluorescent lighting.  The light source you are in will alter your eye’s ability to perceive color.


Typically found in sunlight, screens, displays and LED lights (which are becoming a primary light source), blue light can cause our eyes to decay faster. Macular degeneration is irreversible, and if left unchecked can result in legal blindness. Blue filters on your screen, or if your glasses are like mine, have a special coating are available to protect your vision. When proofing for color, temporarily remove any blue filters to see the true color.


Over the last decade, teens who need glasses have doubled due to excessive screen time and digital eye strain. We are now a device driven society always looking at our phones or screen.  Eye strain, blurred vision, and shortsightedness all affect our mood and ability to make decisions, including decisions on color.


Yes, drinking, and how much you drank effects your color acuteness. Alcohol acts as a toxin, creating poorer poorer color discrimination in all areas of the color spectrum.  However, there is significantly more errors in the blue‐yellow versus the red‐green color range.


If your walls are blue, that color is projecting on you and impacting how you perceive color. It’s one of the reasons when designers visit a printer they go to a light booth. The goal is to evaluate under a neutral condition.


This is in our DNA, the fact is men and women see color differently. Research has also shown that women have a more extensive color vocabulary and describe color using terms like coral pink, periwinkle, saffron, and others. Women are more sensitive to subtle color shifts when compared to their male counterparts. Color perception also degrades as we age. A study found that 40% of those between 58 to 102 years had abnormal results, and 20% failed their color tests.

To demonstrate how people perceive or ‘see’ color differently, I did a study where I asked attendees to look at an approved color standard.  Attendees then looked at various samples and had to identify which ones met the standard or not. It was fascinating to observe all the various ways people evaluated color. Some individuals struggled to approve one item and others accepted everything. Most fell in the middle.  Hundreds of creatives went through this exercise, and everyone evaluated the color differently. Few if any, used standard processed for approving color. As individuals we perceive color differently, but if everyone’s evaluation process differs then every single person approving color will rarely, if ever, see the same color again later.

This reminds us that to error is human and we are human. Visual perception is subjective, it is also emotional.  Outside factors impact our color acuteness and color related decisions and without a process in place, you are making decisions based on assumption.

While your vision may not be perfect, it is still a critical part of the visual evaluation process. Understanding how the environment around you can impact your color vision will help you make better decisions. Here are simple things that you can do to improve your color perception.

Whatever process you decide on – document it and make it a standard process for the whole team to follow. Documenting processes and turning them into standard work practices is critical. It is the foundation to ensure the team, clients, suppliers, and others are following the same process. Once there is a standard process, everyone can consistently do the best work every time. Standard work creates

  • For years I talked about the benefits of lighting indicators. Pantone offers D50 and D65 Lighting Indicator Stickers with two color patches that match when lighting condition are ideal and mismatch when lighting is poor. It is the easiest and most affordable way to ensure that everyone is, at a minimum, viewing and signing off, under similar lighting conditions.
  • Get a basic light booth with a few lighting sources that are critical to your industry. This way you can evaluate color under a controlled lighting source.  A light booth can, with the flip of a switch, what your product will look like under LED, fluorescent, tungsten, UV and other lighting conditions.
  • Invest in a basic spectral measurement device. The simple fact is when you approve color,
    it is a point in time. There are many suppliers who are aware that creatives do not use processes or metrics to measure color. They know that too often designers go by gut and because many suppliers use technology, processes and data, they simply switch out labels and resend samples, knowing that you will eventually land on one. The only way to guarantee what you saw then and what you see now is to measure it.

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