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What is the most common color organization system?

Colors play an important role in our lives. We are surrounded by colors every day, whether it’s the natural colors we see outdoors or the manufactured colors used in products and designs. Color organization systems provide a methodical way to categorize, name and arrange colors for consistent communication and reproduction. But with so many color systems out there, which one is used most commonly?

RGB and Hex Codes

One of the most prevalent color organization systems is based on the RGB (red, green, blue) color model. This system represents colors by specifying levels of red, green and blue light on a scale from 0-255. RGB values can be expressed as hexadecimal codes, like #FF0000 for red or #00FF00 for green.

RGB and hex codes are commonly used in digital displays, web design, photography, video and other electronic media. This system allows colors to be reproduced consistently across different devices and applications. Millions of colors can be represented by mixing different RGB values.

While not as familiar to general consumers, RGB/hex codes are ubiquitous among anyone working in a digital color-dependent field. Their numerical nature also lends them well to automated color generation and modification.

The Pantone Matching System

Whereas RGB deals with light, the Pantone Matching System (PMS) deals with physical pigments. Developed in 1963, PMS is a proprietary standard used in both digital and print design. The Pantone system includes over 1,100 solid colors that are given numbered codes, like PMS 123 for yellow or 186 for red.

Each Pantone color is created by mixing set ratios of 14 base pigments. This allows designers to precisely match colors across different materials and mediums. Pantone swatch books and chips allow designers to see how a color will look in real life. While originally intended for textile and apparel designers, Pantone grew popular across printing, manufacturing, paints, plastics and more.

Today Pantone is used extensively in graphic design, marketing materials, product packaging and other commercial applications. The vivid Pantone colors are also recognized by consumers worldwide. However, the proprietary numbered codes make translating Pantone colors between different software platforms a challenge.

Natural Color System (NCS)

The Natural Color System (NCS) was developed in Sweden in the 1950s as a logical way to classify colors based on the way humans perceive them. The NCS divides colors into six perceptual attributes: white, black, red, yellow, green and blue. Each color has a notation that describes its visual resemblance to these attributes.

For example, an NCS code might be 2060-R80B which would indicate a color with a 20% blackness, 60% chromaticness, 80% redness and 20% blueness. By basing the system on visual perception, the NCS aims to create a color space optimized for how humans see color. This makes it popular for applications like color matching in architecture, design and psychology.

The NCS contains 1,950 precisely defined colors. While not as widespread as Pantone or RGB, the NCS is gaining recognition as a visually intuitive color system. Its ability to quantify color attributes like whiteness and blackness makes it useful for scientific and industrial applications as well.

Munsell Color System

The Munsell Color System was created by artist Albert Munsell in the early 1900s. It aims to systematically measure colors based on three attributes:

  • Hue – The pigment color (red, yellow, green, etc.)
  • Value – The lightness/darkness
  • Chroma – The colorfulness or saturation

Munsell used these three attributes to create a three-dimensional color space that could accurately define perceptual differences between any colors. Munsell colors are specified by a letter-number code, like 5R 5/10. This would indicate a color with a hue of 5R (red), value of 5 (medium lightness) and chroma of 10 (high saturation).

The Munsell system includes a set of calibrated color swatches to precisely match color samples to their corresponding codes. This makes it popular for uses like soil science, geology, archaeology and forensic science. While Munsell colors are not as visually marketed to the public, they remain an important standardized color specification system.

Here is an example of a small table showing some colors and their Munsell codes:

Color Munsell Code
Red 5R 5/10
Orange 10R 6/12
Yellow 5Y 8/10
Green 5G 5/8
Blue 5PB 5/10
Purple 5P 5/10

CIE Color Spaces

The CIE (Commission Internationale de l’Eclairage) color spaces were created based on experimental work done in the 1930s to map human color perception. The CIE created two important color models that serve as the foundation for many other color systems:

  • CIE XYZ – A model that represents human color vision using three values X, Y and Z.
  • CIE xyY – The same color information as XYZ, but mapped on a two-dimensional chromaticity diagram.

Many additional color spaces have been derived from CIE models, including:

  • CIE L*a*b* – Perceptually uniform color space useful for measuring differences between colors.
  • CIE L*u*v* – A uniform chromaticity scale for mapping colors.
  • CIE LCH – Cylindrical representation of Lab showing chroma and hue.

The CIE models form the theoretical basis for representing color digitally and relating color to human vision. They are widely used in color science, imaging, optics and other engineering fields. While not used directly by designers and artists, CIE underpins many other color systems and ensures perceptual uniformity.

Traditional Color Names

Despite the widespread use of technical color organization systems, common color names remain an important way we communicate about color in daily life. While the names may vary somewhat across cultures and languages, certain color terms are nearly universal:

Color Common Names
Red Scarlet, Crimson, Ruby, Maroon
Orange Amber, Rust, Gold, Bronze
Yellow Lemon, Maize, Saffron, Blonde
Green Emerald, Mint, Jade, Olive
Blue Navy, Azure, Cobalt, Indigo
Purple Violet, Lavender, Magenta, Lilac

These common names allow us to easily discuss colors at a basic level without using technical specifications. Some traditional color terms have also been adopted into formal color systems, like crimson and azure in the Pantone palette. While not as systematic or precise, traditional names will likely remain the most conversational way to talk about color.

Which System is Most Common?

With so many color organization systems, is any one most widely used? The answer depends on the context:

  • Digital design: RGB and hex codes dominate for on-screen applications.
  • Print design: Pantone is the leader for commercial print work.
  • Scientific research: CIE models provide the standard color space.
  • Industrial applications: Munsell and NCS offer perceptually uniform scales.
  • Everyday language: Traditional color names are the default for general communication.

So in summary:

Context Most Common Color System
Digital design RGB/hex codes
Print design Pantone
Scientific research CIE models
Industrial applications Munsell, NCS
Everyday language Traditional names

Color organization systems provide the dictionaries that allow us to systematically identify, classify and communicate about color. While RGB, CIE and Pantone dominate in their respective fields, there is no single universal color standard. The diversity of color systems reflects the complexity of human color perception and the many scientific and artistic ways of defining it.

The Importance of Color Systems

It’s easy to take color for granted, but color perception is actually an incredibly complex neuro-biological process. The experience of color is affected by the biology of our eyes and neural pathways, the spectral qualities of light and the psychology of visual processing in our brains.

Color systems aim to create objective ways of measuring and reproducing color that factor in this complexity. They allow colors to be numerically defined, scientifically measured and reliably reproduced for practical applications. Some key benefits of color organization systems include:

  • Consistent communication: Provides a standard terminology and notation to accurately convey color information.
  • Precise reproduction: Allows colors to be matched across different mediums and materials.
  • Digitization of color: Enables accurate representation of colors in digital formats.
  • Scientific measurement: Allows objective quantification of colors for research.
  • Links color to perception: Some systems model the mechanics of human color vision.
  • Classification of colors: Systematically maps relationships between colors.

Without color organization systems, we would not be able to reproduce colors with fidelity across devices and mediums. Designers, artists, manufacturers, scientists and others who work closely with color rely on these systems every day, even if unconsciously. They form the hidden backbone that underpins our ability to control, communicate and understand color.

History of Color Organization

While color systems may seem very technical today, the fascination with studying and classifying color is actually centuries old:

  • 1669 – Isaac Newton’s color wheel showed the relationship between primary colors and mixing.
  • 1802 – Thomas Young proposed a three-component theory of color vision.
  • 1810 – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published his Theory of Colours, critiquing Newton.
  • 1861 – James Clerk Maxwell demonstrated color photography, needing color standards.
  • 1905 – Albert Munsell created his color system with three attributes.
  • 1930 – Commission Internationale de l’Eclairage (CIE) developed models linking color to human vision.
  • 1963 – Pantone Inc. introduced its first standardized color matching system.
  • 1978 – Natural Color System presented a visually uniform color space.

Color science did not begin and end with these landmarks, but involved cumulative contributions by philosophers, physicists, psychologists, physiologists, artists, designers and other thinkers. While color organization accelerated with modern industrialization, the roots of understanding color stretch back millennia.

Today color systems are an active area of research in fields like vision science, imaging technology, colorimetry and applied psychology. New systems are still developed, and existing standards continue to be refined. As both a deeply human experience and an intricately technical domain, the study of color will likely never cease.

Psychology of Color Perception

Color organization systems aim to create objective, measurable ways to specify color. But human color perception is also highly subjective, with psychological factors shaping how we experience color. These elements include:

  • Learned associations: Experience links certain colors to concepts, like red for danger or green for nature.
  • Emotional effects: Colors can evoke feelings like excitement, tranquility or energy.
  • Cultural meanings: Color symbolism varies across religions, traditions and societies.
  • Context: A color can elicit different reactions based on how it is used.
  • Personal preference: Individual differences draw people to some colors over others.

So while color systems standardize the technical qualities of color, the perceptual and symbolic aspects remain distinct. Graphic designers apply principles of color psychology when selecting palette themes and combinations. Marketers consider color symbolism and associations when branding products. Studying the subjective experience of color remains vital, complementing the measurable aspects defined in color models.

Digital Color Representation

Early color specification systems were intended for physical materials and ink or pigment-based color matching. But the advent of color television, imaging and digital graphics brought new needs for device-independent color systems.

RGB color became ubiquitous for screens and devices. But reproducing colors consistently across different digital media required new color space standards. Some key solutions included:

  • sRGB: Standard RGB color space for computer displays, cameras and printers.
  • Adobe RGB: Larger RGB gamut used widely in graphic design.
  • DCI-P3: RGB standard with wider gamut for digital cinema.
  • ProPhoto RGB: Encompasses the largest range of RGB colors.

While originally modeled on CIE color spaces, these RGB standards are device-dependent, meaning colors must be converted when outputting to different screens or printers. This can make color matching challenging.

To expand the gamut beyond RGB, additional color channels were added:

  • CMYK: Cyan, magenta, yellow, black model for reflective print.
  • Hexachrome: CMYK with added orange and green channels.
  • N-Color: Up to 12 ink channels for very wide gamut.

However, no current print process can fully match the colors visible to human vision. And for digital use, RGB remains by far the dominant color model. Accurately displaying consistent color across different devices remains an active challenge.


While many color organization systems exist, the most common depend on the field and application. But all these standards aim to create objective, reliable and shared languages to precisely define, measure and reproduce color.

Color systems provide the hidden infrastructure that allows color to be used in science, art, commerce and design. They transform sensory experience into numerical descriptions. Yet color perception remains irreducibly complex, with systems seeking better ways to model human vision and psychology.

From Newton to Pantone, understanding color has an epic intellectual history. And reproducing the wonders of color accurately and consistently remains key to innovations in technology, design and visualization. Color organization systems will likely continue advancing in parallel with our means of manipulating light and perceiving the world.