This proposal was submitted as part of Unit 2 of my Masters, Unit 2.4 Major Project Proposal. It outlines my research proposal for Unit 3 of the course through structured sections such as the Research Question, Context, Aims & Objectives and Action Plan.

Background for the Major Project Proposal

Brief for the Major Project Proposal

The project is entitled Colourful language and proposes to investigate the relationship between colour and language. This essentially entails examining how we name colours.

The following text provides the background and context of the proposal, which can be read in full here: Major Project Proposal


Research Question:

How We Talk about Colour:
Observing the way we use language to describe colours.

Aims & Objectives

The fundamental aim of this research project is to contribute to the understanding of how language is used to express colour, through observations, quantitative research, analysis and visual representation.

My initial motivations for choosing this subject were predominantly personal. My interest in how people talk about colour stems from a range of sources; discussions about re-branding at my previous employer, the way colours are described in fashion trend reporting and the fact that people have endless disagreements over the colour of some objects due to our subjective experiences of colour.

The relationship between colour and language and the problems of using language to describe colour are well documented. Colour stretches the limits of our descriptive abilities and consequently our language.

While there is evidently a problem this project does not propose to solve it. Several thousand years of philosophy have failed to produce an adequate theory or model of colour and some aspects of the problematic relationship of colour to language are beyond the realms of plausible solutions, due to the nature of verbal language itself.

The discourse on colour and language, through philosophy, linguistics and even fine art exists largely as text, resulting in the discussion of a subject, entrenched in our visual culture, using a system of communication widely acknowledged as utterly deficient in describing it.

Therefore, what this project does aim to achieve is a contribution to the understanding of the problem through visual documentation and representation, to use graphic design to show what the relationships between colours and their names look like.


The subject of this research project lies where two different fields of study coincide: colour theory and linguistics. Both these areas of research have a long history and include many concepts and theories. Colour theory alone bridges a wide range of disciplines from; physics and optics, to the visual arts, to biology and neuroscience. To further define the project I will be narrowing my research to the general areas of colour perception, semiotics and naming, with the particular focus of my proposal being the names of colours, as indicated by the Research Question.

Both fields of study already have well-established bodies of knowledge and research. General research into colour will provide background information for my investigation, as will research into how we see colour and colour reproduction. Issues in these areas will influence my visual research and methods of collecting quantitative data so need to be acknowledged.

Linguistics is also a substantial field of study. To contain the scope of the background research I will only include linguistic concepts, such as semiotics when relevant to the research question. The Proposed Reading List, at the end of this document, will help me to identify other linguistic theories, which may support my investigation.

There has been much written about colour in philosophy, notably by Pythagoras (570-c. 495 BC) on colour harmony, Plato (427 – 347 BC) on colour perception, and Aristotle (384-322 BC) on colour mixing. Other theories of colour were later developed, through painting by Leonardo da Vinci (Treatise on Painting) and scientific methods, by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666. More recent philosophical works have included writing on the complex relationship between colour and language, in particular Goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810), Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour (1977) and Hardin’s Colour for Philosophers (1988).

There also exists a sizeable body of research specifically on colour naming. A significant amount has been carried out by Paul Kay (co-author of the Berlin-Kay hypothesis) with others, since the late 1960s, including the World Colour Survey. There are also currently a number of online colour naming projects including colour naming experiments by Nathan Moroney, for Hewlett-Packard, cumulating in The Colour Thesaurus and An Online Colour Naming Model by LCC MSc. Digital Colour Imaging student Dimitris Mylonas.

Much of this research has a significant cross-cultural component and although colour naming across different language systems is a rich area of study, it is a whole subject in itself and too extensive to include in any detail as it raises problems of translation and cultural sensitivity. Therefore I intend to confine my research to colour naming in the English language, and only refer to cultural differences when particularly significant.

The current research in the areas of colour naming and colour perception revolves around a number of debates, including, in colour naming: Linguistic Relativity versus Universalism. Does language condition how we see colour or is it a purely biological mechanism? In colour perception: Objectivism versus Subjectivism. Is colour subjective or objective? Does it appear in the perceived object or in the subject’s eye?

These debates, and others, are very much unresolved and are unlikely to be settled without a great deal more research, if at all. This is one of the reasons that I have specified from the outset of this proposal that this project is not an attempt to solve the problems involved in using language to describe colour. From the research already undertaken I have been able to identify some of the key aspects of this problem, which will facilitate my visual investigations into the subject:

1 The names of colour have no chromatic content so there is no consensus on what exact hue a particular name refers to. If an author writes the word ‘blue’ in a text, they will never know if the reader fully understood what hue they meant by that colour term.
2 Language is inadequate in describing the range of colours we are able to optically identify because there simply aren’t enough words in the English language.
3 We lack the ability to use language to identify the vast range of hues in the world around us precisely and often resort to pointing to a similar colour or improvising using descriptions of other objects such as “milky tea coloured”
4 The way we see colour is subjective but we cannot convey that with language. We all see slightly differently but we must use the same words to communicate that experience otherwise we cannot be understood.
5 Although language is limited in describing colour there are still several thousand colour names, yet we predominantly use a small collection of basic terms to describe a vast range of experiences. In English there are eleven basic colour terms.
6 There is often a lack of understanding of what hue less common colour names refer to, for example puce, taupe and mauve.
7 By using language to define and describe colours we attach a whole host of connotations and cultural meanings to a hue, so it is incredibly difficult to talk about a colour objectively as pure chroma, detached from meaning.
8 There is no way of explaining colours or a particular colour to someone who has never seen it.

Some of the problems listed above have already been addressed in some way, either through philosophical writing such as those by Wittgenstein and Hardin or the development of an alternative system to language. The imprecision of colour terms has been tackled by Albert Munsell creator of the Munsell Colour System, who described colour names as ‘’foolish and misleading” (1905, pp.9) and the Pantone Matching System, both of which employ numeric methods to define colours. However, these systems are only applicable in certain contexts and are impractical for everyday conversation. They fail to capture the extent to which we experience colour.

Although the focus of my research is not directly related to graphic design itself, both colour and language are key aspects of graphic design and vital tools for a graphic designer. They are entrenched in our design practice and hugely influential on our communications. The difficulty with colour naming is, ultimately, a communication problem, albeit a potentially unsolvable one.

A small minority of colour naming experiments have a visual component as part of their output. The visual outcome of research by Nathan Moroney, the Colour Thesaurus, is one example of this, however it is limited in its use of graphic design and data visualisation methods. From my research only a project by Crowd Flower (formally Dolres Labs), which resulted in an interactive colour label explorer, utilises information design techniques in a way that enhances the understanding of the data. This was particularly evident in the visualisations posted on their blog ( after the data was released into the online community.

As described in Aims and Objectives, a disproportionate amount of the research that exists on colour naming is written discourse not visual representation. Therefore, the relationship of this project to graphic design is in the usage of design methods to visually represent research in an area where two fields closely related to graphic design coincide.

Major Project Structure

Major Project Schedule of Works

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