Sure colour naming conventions seem trivial, but I’ve seen poor standards and consistency compound into bigger problems over time.
Iconic paint company Dulux have so many colour variations that they record them all in a comprehensive colour atlas. Every hue, tint, tone, and shade has a technical code and a human-readable name assigned to it to help customers sift through the subtle differences of over 4,800 colours. You can’t just buy a bucket of blue paint as there are over 220 codes for blue with names like aqua frost, northern sky, adventure isle, legal eagle, calm day, and silver star.
Dulux has a robust process of selecting new colours and assigning them names. After a colour is identified, the team invites colleagues across the business to join them in a naming workshop. Attendees brainstorm colour names that answer questions like–
“Does the name help you immediately see what kind of colour it is?”
“Does it help you understand the emotion or mood? Is it bright? Is it misty?”.
If the new colour variation is part of a series, the name has to work within the existing story or theme. A lot of consideration is put into making a colour name stick.
I once started as a designer for a company that hadn’t seen the value in consistent style naming conventions in either the design system or codebase. This lack of care resulted in a confusing, numbered list of 25 shades of grey from $grey-1 to $grey-25 defined individually in the app.
Rather than using a grey that existed in the already bloated palette, new team members often just added more and more new colours to the pile. Most of the greys were duplicates or minute variations of the primary shades, so there were really only eight or nine unique variations of grey. No one in the department could tell the difference between the greys by name, which made discussing design concepts a bit more difficult.
I once overheard a tester and developer politely argue over which confusing colour variables should be used in a pull request. Yep, this was now a real problem that was costing the company development time.
I helped the team clean this up and introduced a colour naming convention across the app. Firstly, I removed the duplicate shades and reassigned them to the core theme colours, then the remaining colours were given meaningful names. Each label needed to be concise, iconic, and named after well-known objects or things that exist in nature.
The brand and theme colours were named after fruits and vegetables like $carrot, $banana, $apricot, $eggplant, $grape, $lime, $ginger, $corn, tomato, and $pumpkin.
The monochrome shades became $midnight, $charcoal, $silver, $steel, $shark, $slate, $porcelain, $smoke, and $snow.
I tried to remove my colour name biases by using colour name generators, brainstorming with my team, and testing how recognisable names were with co-workers.
The design system and the codebase variables were updated simultaneously and it was amazing to see colleagues across the department follow these conventions into the future.
I’m hopeful they’ve stuck with the nomenclature and it’s helped the current team communicate design concepts better.