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Color Names Have Become Too Confusing

Why is it so hard to find 'red' and 'green' in catalogs and retail websites?

posted by Caroline Mayer, February 29, 2012 More by this author

various blue color swatches

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer


various blue color swatches
iStockphoto | Thinkstock
As I age, I've taken a vow not to long for those good old days when life was supposedly much simpler. For the most part, that’s been an easy promise to keep: I like almost everything about my current life, and besides, I don’t think it was all that simple way back when.
 
Still, I do have my Jerry Seinfeld moments — you know, the times when you shake your head and ask: “What’s the deal with … ?”

This seems to happen a lot when I’m browsing catalogs or shopping online. I can find almost anything I want, in any fancy color I desire. What I can’t find is this: something called blue or green or red or just about any other familiar rainbow color.
 
Take, for example, the Orvis catalog and website, both popular places to shop for men and women in their 50s and 60s. Here are some of the colors that Orvis products come in: charcoal, mushroom, stone, sandstone, bark, tobacco and camel. And that just covers a range of neutrals from gray to tan. You'll also find clothes and accessories in ocean, key lime, elm, aqua sea and sea mist.
 
What's up with that? What do retailers and fashion designers have against no-nonsense words, like brown or green?
 
For the answer, I turned to Leatrice Eiseman. After all, Eiseman is often called “the international color guru.” She gives palette advice to companies hoping to develop successful products, logos and brands.
 
As Eiseman sees it, slicing colors into a spectrum of subtly differentiated hues just makes sense. “If you were to use a generic brown or green, how would anyone know the shade you are referring to? she asks. There are literally hundreds of variations of those two colors. At least defining a descriptive color name gives you some idea of the specific shade.”

Eiseman maintains that most people can visualize the precise color when they read an evocative name, like pecan or honeydew. And let's face it, clever color names like these carry an emotional appeal and rich mental associations, which is likely to hook people in and lead to more purchases.
 
Of course, this name game has been going for years. Still, it seems to me that terms for colors have become even more fanciful of late.
 
Consider the color coffee, which used to be known as brown. It could be headed for the dustbin: Eiseman predicts that French roast will emerge as a popular shade this fall. In a recent Wall Street Journal article on her color forecasts, she described French roast this way: “Tasty. People understand browns so much better today than back when it was just earth tones.”
 
Maybe so. But I think slicing and dicing the palette so thinly may pose an impediment to consumers when the highly descriptive names seem to conflict with what consumers actually see. After all, what am I supposed to think when a color called slate blue looks green in a catalog or on my computer screen? On top of that, I'm not so sure these vague color names are always as evocative as merchants think they are. When they're too fanciful, they can just leave people baffled.
 
Thankfully, most catalogers and e-tailers now have customer service agents willing to describe colors on the phone or through instant-messaging chats. I’ve sought their help before and no doubt will need to in the future, as the palette gets broken down into ever whizzier names. (Keep an eye out for such shades as tangerine tango, whitecap gray and rose smoke this fall, Eiseman says.)
 
To cope with the chaos, I double-check to be certain that I can return an item if I’m not pleased with its color. This usually goes without saying, but it helps to make sure.
 
No, I’m not pining for the old days. I'm happy to have an abundance of color choices. I just want greater clarity. Is that too much to ask?