Color Attainability

[Author: Text & Illustration: Bill Fischer]


Production methods, environmental influences, proximity to other colors, and human sensory variation all affect how we perceive color. Universal design principles call for color choices that provide the maximum attainable quality across all of these factors.

Production Limitations

There are several ways that color is produced and reproduced. And, each has its own capabilities and limitations. Primary color systems are human constructs and have no foundation in the laws of physics or biology. However, the achievable range of color for any construct is affected by how physical light creates color coupled with the biological limitations of the human eye.

RGB Color System

red, blue, and green color circles

RGB (red, green, blue) are the light-emitting, additive primaries utilized by digital devices to create colors. This system has the broadest color gamut (number of produce-able colors that can be sensed by the human eye) and can produce the most intense colors. Red, green, and blue are also the colors of the light sensing cones in the human eye.

CMYK Color System

cyan, magenta and yellow color circles

CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) are the light-reflecting, subtractive primaries used by common off-set and many digital printing processes. Cyan, magenta, and yellow are used because they are lighter colors than red, green, and blue. This provides a larger color gamut in a reflective system. However, the color gamut is narrower than the RGB additive system.

RYB Color System

red, yellow, and blue color circles

RYB (red, yellow, blue) are the light-reflecting, subtractive primaries initially defined by fine art painters prior to the development of modern pigments. Though it offers the narrowest color gamut, it persists in educational environments. Students would be able to achieve better color mixing results with any physical media using CMYK colors.

Custom Color

several brightly colored colored circles

There is a vast array of custom color applications that include ink, powder coat, paint, anodization, and a variety of other chemically induced surface treatments. Since the goal of these colors is, typically, to stand-alone, without the burden of being part of a color system, they are limited only by their individual production methods.

Situational Limitations

Color does not exist in a vacuum. It's profoundly affected by the environment in which it finds itself. Color combinations that hold up in a variety of conditions utilize high contrast to each other and their surroundings.

Substrate Variation

High C = high contrast

A graphic printed on gloss and matte paper. The gloss paper version is much more saturatedd

In the case of printing ink on paper, the type of paper can profoundly influence the color. On the left, in the image above, vibrant colors are obtained using high-gloss paper. On the right, colors are subdued dramatically when applied to matte paper such as newsprint.

Light Variation

Low C = low contrast

A graphic shown on a smart phone screen. one screen is very dim the other has a strip of light glare obscuring it.

The digital display on the left demonstrates the color dulling effect of a low-light-energy-saving mode. On the right, glare from direct sunlight can wash out the brightest digital display.

Environmental Homogeneity

a yellow chair in a yellow room

A yellow chair in a yellow room could be a difficult object to find, let alone sit-upon for a sight impaired person.

Environmental Contrast

a yellow chair in a blue room

Objects that are complimentary (opposite) in color to their surroundings will allow them to be seen and therefore easily accessed.