Getting a grip on colours

Armin Scharf

The human eye is capable of perceiving several millions of different colours. However, we don’t have the words to describe this enormous variety. This is where colour systems help. They categorise colours and serve as communication aid as well as providing an essential tool for designers.

Colour is a visual sensory impression and therefore hard to put into words. Especially when it comes to the finer nuances – which are so important, not just in architectural design. So, how can we describe colours without standing in front of the real thing or at least having access to a sample? The solution are colour models and colour matching systems that assign each colour a unique code so it can be reproduced anywhere in the world with absolute accuracy. The most widely known and used systems in Europe are RAL and NCS. These systems have little in common with colour theories like the ones devised by Goethe or Itten, apart from their underlying motive: they all are an attempt to find a systematic order for the infinite wealth of colours. However, while the old masters took an empirical approach, guided mainly by aesthetic considerations, the modern systems take a scientific approach – and also serve a different purpose. Their main objective is not to explain the phenomenon of colour as such, but to function as a tool for the practical application of colour in design, construction and manufacturing.

RAL DESIGN and NCS have been devised in order to capture the entire colour space within a clearly defined system – regardless of the material representing the colour and also irrespective of the manufacturer of the coloured material. This allows colour designs to be recreated universally. The colour code is the ultimate guide, independent of material and location.

RAL DESIGN was developed in 1993. It consists of 1,688 individual colours, comprising lighter and darker shades of 39 hues. The entire system is based on the primary colours red, blue and yellow and each colour is defined by seven digits, representing hue, lightness and chroma.
The Natural Color System, NCS for short, was developed in Scandinavia where it is now the industry standard. First introduced in 1969, it is based on six elementary colours: white, black, yellow, red, blue and green. The 1,750 colours in the system are based on 40 hues (which themselves are made up of combinations of the elementary colours). Each individual colour is identified by a numerical code specifying the level of blackness, saturation and a percentage value of the elementary colours it consists of.
The NCS system in particular has become the internationally accepted standard and is used in many different fields of industry and design – including for global brand identity and corporate design – specifically corporate colours. Colour design, these days, is no longer restricted to the construction sector. The food and cosmetics industries, for example, now also place great importance on consistent use of brand colours.
The colour models mentioned so far are not to be confused with colour matching systems, such as Pantone or RAL CLASSIC, which merely select individual colours from the wealth of colours available and define them by assigning them a unique code. Here, the individual colours are not mapped in relation to each other according to brightness, greyness and saturation. These are proprietary colour spaces prepared by individual manufacturers and, although they may be based on an underlying colour system, they are merely collections of individual, unrelated colours assembled in charts or swatches.