Do some people see colour better than others?

Even for the seasoned designer, colour can be a tricky visual language to master. So how best to start embracing its spectrum of possibilities?

The other day, listening to a recent episode of North v South, Jonathan Elliman and Rob Turpin’s banterful design podcast, I found myself fervently nodding along to a particular subject of conversation. Turpin made an admission that sounded all too familiar:

“I don’t understand why people seem to see so much more colour than me. To me, the grass is green. Maybe two or three shades of green. But some people innately have this ability to see another spectrum of colour – they’ll paint a self-portrait and it’ll be purples and greens and deep ochres. I’ll paint a self portrait and it’ll be … pink. Can they see more colour than me? Is there something psychological that prevents me from recognising or expressing those colours?”

So it isn’t just me! I don’t think I’ve ever heard another designer address this so directly before: colour is hard. For some of us, anyway. It’s like an alien language – but it’s such a huge element of design, it feels stupid to admit that you’re not fluent in it.

Until now, I’ve successfully repressed my colourful struggles. I learnt my trade working in-house on a very tight budget, keeping printing costs down by sticking to two colours. Ever since then, black-and-another has been my default palette. It looks good, it works. Over time, I convinced myself that this is a considered stylistic decision, like I’m upholding a minimalist ideal of some kind. But if I step out of the safety of this routine and try something a bit more colourful, the truth soon becomes apparent. Colour hates me. Everything ends up looking like one of those colour-changing jumpers from the 90s that’s been put in the wrong wash.

(As a seasoned second colour picker, there is one indisputable fact I have learnt about colour: for some reason, the most satisfying ones are those that straddle two and avoid simple definition. Is it yellow? Or orange? Yellowy-orange? Gold? Rule of thumb: if you’ve chosen a colour that causes a morning’s worth of semantic confusion between you and your client, it’s a winner.)

Maybe it’s time to re-educate myself about this most basic element of my craft. I have to resist the pragmatism/complacency of my two-colour habit and recalibrate my eyes; teach myself to understand this broader spectrum that others are apparently privy to.

As with all problems in life, I’ve decided the best way to tackle this is to make a nice stack of handsomely-jacketed books on the subject. Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color is pretty much the gospel on how to use (if not spell) colour; Kassia St Clair’s The Secret Lives of Colour explores the fascinating history and meaning behind different shades and pigments (personal favourite: Mummy Brown, literally made from ground mummies); and the recently reissued Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art is a masterclass in designing with colour. These should keep me busy for a while.

Plus, I’m fortunate enough to share studio space with an expert on these matters, intent on surrounding me with an abundance of colourful things to inspire me and/or step on. He’s only four, but I think he knows what he’s doing. I asked him if he’s deliberately instigated an osmotic process that will systematically alter my brain chemistry thus ridding me of the Hypercolor fugue of chromatic nega-synesthesia that besets me, but he declined to comment.

It’s a start. One way or other, I’m going to change how I think about colour. One day I too will see if the grass really is greener or less green or several shades of green or not green.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a freelance designer based in York. See and @gray

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