Color Matters: Design: True Colors & Metamerism

Color is not only the most plastic of all design elements, it is also the most chameleon-like. Nothing can be more frustrating than discovering that the color of your newly installed carpet doesn’t match the walls, or that the glaze on your newly fired pottery is not ox-blood red, or that the colors of your web site are not what they are supposed to be on your client’s computer.

True Colors & Metamerism

First of all, potters expect and frequently delight in color mutations. The very act of submitting wares to a trial by fire (at temperatures that frequently exceed 2100 degrees Fahrenheit/1150 degrees Celsius) is a surrender of complete control. Those who use gas kilns and raku processes frequently marvel at the results. In many eastern cultures, this process is associated with other values and spiritual beliefs.

On the other hand, web sites and carpets represent substantial investments of money and time and exist in the today’s fast-paced world. Our sanity demands at least a semblance of control or a logic for the things we can’t control.

True Web Color

Some people say that as long as the grass is green and the sky is blue, Grandma and little Billy don’t give a hoot about the colors they see on the web. That may very well be true for some, but when a corporate logo turns out green instead of teal, when the tee shirts are returned because they’re not cherry red, the attitude is quite different. Web color mutations can be explained by understanding what it takes to create accurate color.

The pivotal player in true web color goes by the name of "profile." Politically incorrect profiles can invade your privacy (and even your legal rights in many countries) by painting a picture of your race, your health, or even your shopping patterns on the web. Computer color profiles specifically define how your computer sees color. In other words, it describes the color vision your computer is capable of generating. If your computer had a profile attached to it right now, and if I wanted you to read these words in a very specific shade of banana yellow on dark brown (as illustrated below) -

banana yellow on a dark chocolate brown

- the first thing I would do is EMBED a color profile into this graphic image. This profile would define the yellow and browns that I have created in my computer based the color profile that was used to create them. Now we have two players, you and your computer’s color profile and me and my colored text’s color profile. All that is needed is the messenger to deliver them. The web browser must be able to carry these profiles to you. Easy! But not available at this time. In spite of the fact that most designers have color management systems on their machines (and especially those that are built into the Mac systems), in spite of the fact that graphic software such as Photoshop can embed color profiles in web graphics, the web visitor’s profile is still an unknown and all bets are off. Furthermore, aside from plug-ins and file formats that are not fully supported, web browsers have limited capabilities to deliver the information. There are other complex and costly solutions. For example, if customers are truly dedicated to an online store, they might take the time to download the software for color accuracy at that one site, but that’s not realistic for most situations.

One of the best temporary solutions is to design all web graphics on computers that generate the best colors (as a result of fully corrected gamma and other standards). You can test your computer’s color vision at the following url:

True Product Color #1

Consider the following scenario:

After months of shopping for carpet for the new office, you’ve finally selected a subtle beige, a warm tan, not quite camel, not honey, but a very nice quiet tan tone that will coordinate nicely with the wooden tones of the office furniture. A week later, as the carpet is being installed, you’re shocked to see a pasty gray hue on the floor.


Welcome to the world of metamerism!

Metamerism is a phenomenon that occurs when colors change when viewed in different light sources. In the case of the carpet, the flooring was displayed in a showroom lit by warm incandescent lighting and installed in an office with cool fluorescent lighting. This cooler lighting is famous for sucking the life out of beige.

These surprises can be prevented by examining interior products under the same lighting of the intended space or by obtaining samples and viewing them in the lighting conditions of the space. The time of the day (morning, noon, late afternoon), the direction of natural light (north, south, etc.) as well as weather and seasonal conditions (overcast, rainy, sunny, winter, summer) also affect color. Reflected light from large colored surfaces such as walls and ceilings may also cause color mutations. When selecting paint, color surprises can be avoided by applying brush-outs to large areas on walls. This is the only way to truly preview interior and exterior paint colors.

True Product Color - #2

Taking the phenomenon of metamerism to a more complicated level, consider the following shopping experience:

You’re shopping at your favorite sporting goods store and find a pair of shorts in a great shade of bluish gray. While you’re wandering around, you find a shirt in same shade and hat to match. What a find! But wait ... outside the shorts, shirt and hat are not at all the same color! The shorts and shirt are made of the same material, manufactured by the same factory, and dyed by the same dye-house using the same colorants and additives. The hat is made from different materials, at different facilities, with a different choice of colorants and a different colorant process.

True Product Color
Color Inside Store Under Fluorescent Lightning vs. Color Outside Under Sunlight

Welcome again to the world of metamerism!

In this situation, metamerism is a more complicated phenomenon that occurs when colored objects match in one light source but not in another. Several factors compound this problem, including colorant class, coloration processes, and color-matching between manufacturers.

Metamerism is almost inevitable with some colors and less of a problem with others. The colors that are most likely to have metameric problems include taupe, mauve, lilac, tan, celadon, gray/blues, and grays.

The full article, "Color in the Retail Environment" by Ian Barclay, Director of Color Operations for Colortec/Dyeables can be found at