Many times in using general color names in communication, i.e. Red and Green, users are confused when the color is a non-pure form of the color.

For Example, in referring to the Red-ish color of the error box on Ask Ubuntu:

enter image description here

There is much debate as to what to classify the color as, Here are some transcripts of conversations had about these colors of user interaction:



In the second this was even a problem for communicating the location of a feature.

What are some ways to overcome this limitation of using abstract and descriptive colors.

I know we can refer to the color as a value ex C04848 as a hex value to be specific, but value systems seem not to immediately convey the color to the user.

  • 5
    Colors have specific names. But in the context of an alert, I don't see why 'red' would be ambiguous even when it spans a spectrum of variances (pinkish, orangish, etc.)
    – DA01
    Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 1:07
  • 8
    Well, Name that Color says that C04848 is Crail.
    – Dan D.
    Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 1:22
  • 4
    If "the red error box" doesn't suffice in this situation, you have too many red boxes. The problem is more in limiting the overlapping of primary/secondary colors more than explicitly naming each shade.
    – Ben Brocka
    Commented Feb 28, 2013 at 20:14
  • I posted the hex value of your example into the color converter here. The nearest web color is IndianRed which in my opinion is a quite useful result for communication purposes.
    – user30533
    Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 11:27

4 Answers 4


Color naming is an active field of research and has been for decades. See this example of work by the US National Bureau of Standards (NBS) from 1965. I include this reference only because it shows the length of time people have been thinking about this and that technology keeps making the problem fresh - notice the reference to reproducing the colors in glossy paint (instead of on a computer monitor).

That publication is an extension of earlier work by the NBS and the Inter-Society Color Council (ISCC) created a method for naming colors.

Since that time, the color naming system has been applied to naming lights, medicines, and dental porcelains, among other things.

The ISCC-NBS color naming system is not the only system. Munsell is the most popular commercial system in the US. It has been used for naming colors in a variety of situation, e.g., soil colors. Crayola has their own color naming system. As mentioned in another answer, the W3C has come up with their own naming system for web colors. I guarantee you will find the same color with 4 different names in those 4 systems. This has not gone unnoticed by others.

One problem with finding a universal set of names, as was attempted by the ISCC-NBS, is that color names may depend on culture and language. This paper summarizes the research on this topic.

"(i) the best examples of basic color categories are the same within small tolerances of speakers, in any language, that has the equivalent of the basic color terms in question;

(ii) there is a hierarchy of languages with respect to how many and which basic color terms they possess (i.e., a language that has i+ 1 basic color terms features all the basic terms of any language with i color terms, and any language with i basic color terms has the same ones);

(iii) basic color categories are characterized by graded membership functions. "

I recommend (1) restricting the size of the problem by restricting the number of colors - use only those colors that are closest to the universal set of colors. This set of 267 colors would be a good starting point to pick a much smaller set of colors. (2) If you have to provide color names to people, use a naming system based on perceptual attributes of the color (here is an example from IBM) rather than names based on cultural references (e.g., indianred) or obscure facts (e.g., burlywood).

Extra Bonus Fact

You can contribute to this research by providing color names of your own.

  • +1 for finding the raw data research, and the recommendation based on that.
    – Mateo
    Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 2:33
  • While I do recommend limiting colors, I'd definitely recommend playing with your colors a bit to get the shade right, rather than exclusively using pre-boxed colors. The names are close enough unless you're putting far too much meaning into far too similar colors.
    – Ben Brocka
    Commented Feb 28, 2013 at 20:15
  • What about Pantone?
    – badp
    Commented Oct 21, 2014 at 21:18

I think you are quite safe using the 147 html and css color names to communicate the correct color to users. It should be more than enough, but still colors based on W3C's standard.

enter image description here

  • 1
    Many of these are deeply culturally specific or abstract. I'd have no idea what colour "Cornsilk" or "Gainsboro" or "Peru" are. Not saying it might not be the best solution to a tricky problem, but there are certainly issues to be aware of with it.
    – edeverett
    Commented Aug 1, 2014 at 9:30

XKCD have done an online survey asking users to name 5 million colours (across 222,500 user sessions).

If you need to know what a huge sample of internet users think a colour is called, see:



Both previous answers (by Benny Skogberg and user1757436) are good ones but I suggest something specified by a definitive link in the domain of w3c.org.



I think w3c.org has enough gravitas for anyone involved in the UX/UI/software design fields and the links will likely have permanence. You want to be able to point to a link and say "this is the naming system we use", the link being unambiguous, permanent and authoritative.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.