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Munsell Colour System
Creating Colour Harmonies

Colours from opposing sides of the colour space are known as complementary colours. The high-contrast between colours in a complementary colour scheme creates dynamic, vibrant spaces.

Colours adjacent to each other on the colour wheel are known as analogous colours. The low-contrast between analogous colours can be used to create relaxed, comforting spaces.

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Showcase 30 Nov 2014

Quantifying Colour

The complex field of spatial design encompasses everything from broad, abstract theories to specific, concrete minutiae. It is both a way of thinking about physical spaces and a holistic approach to design, one that seeks to incorporate traditional design elements like furnishings and decoration with disciplines such as landscaping, performance, and art.

While it may sound complex and convoluted, in fact spatial design is simple in its goal of achieving harmony in our spaces, both public and private. Whether you’re talking about politics or paint chips, though, harmony can be elusive. Spatial designers have an arsenal of approaches, perspectives, theories, and tools that they employ in the pursuit of harmony in design, and one of the most interesting and important tools is the use of colour. Colour is simultaneously accessible to everyone and inherently difficult to describe, sometimes even for professionals.  It stubbornly defies our attempts to convey  it to others, and resists precise duplication. For something so universal and fundamental, colour can be hard to pin down, a challenge to collaborate on.

Munsell Colour System

Albert Munsell (1858–1918) set out to develop a method for scientifically approaching our need to be able to describe and reproduce colours precisely. He created a system that relies on three properties, the combination of which can accurately, reliably describe any colour: hue, value, and chroma. Munsell Colour Theory relies on a three dimensional model with numerical values that makes it easy to understand the relationships among hue, value, and chroma, as well as between and among different colours. Put simply, Munsell Colour Notation is a lingua franca for colour, a way for all of us to understand and communicate something that we would otherwise struggle to express.

Munsell Colour System

Designing Spaces Using the Munsell Colour System

So what does Munsell Colour have to do with spatial design? Since the primary goal of spatial design is harmonising spaces, taking into account the ways in which people interact with their environments, and ensuring that both the interior and the exterior of built spaces are integrated in a way that is both functional and comfortable, it makes sense that a better way to work with colour would be a powerful tool. In short, a designer who can accurately understand one colour’s relationship with another colour is better able to employ those colours effectively. 

Let’s look at an example of how Munsell Colour can help solve a problem that a spatial designer would face in the course of a project. While spatial designers would incorporate many different factors into designing an interior space, sooner or later, they still have  to decide what colour to paint the walls. If your goal is to use a harmonious set of colours that flows effortlessly from one room to the next, perfectly coordinated, there is a need for a precise way to discuss colour and precisely, mathematically understand all of a colour’s attributes and relationships to other colours… cue Albert Munsell. 

Colour Accuracy Across Materials and Processes

Precise use of colour is not limited to physical spaces, and Munsell Colour also plays a pivotal role in a wide range of applications. Colour is used to convey a brand image in marketing campaigns. It is used to influence emotions in the graphics of video games and in the paint on the walls of police stations. Whether you are trying to match the precise shade of blue that you saw from your window on your vacation in the Caribbean, or whether you are trying to differentiate a company from its competitor by choosing a colour that accurately conveys that company’s unique message, the ability to pick a colour whose precise numerical value lets printers, textile manufacturers, and paint companies produce and reproduce that colour every time without fail is a huge advantage. 

A client who wants a logo that will appear on everything from business cards to caps won’t be pleased if the forest green on the cards is the colour of a blue spruce, while the hats are the colour of a maple leaf. Once a client decides on a colour, you can dispense with paint chips and fabric swatches when you’re putting orders in with printers and painters. All they need is the Munsell number, and they’re equipped with all of  the information necessary to get the exact right colour—mass tone, undertone, and all. Colour precision, like that provided by Munsell Colour, doesn’t obviate the need for a designer. The scope of spatial design is so large, so comprehensive, that colour is but a single aspect of design, albeit an integral one. Having a colour language that lets a designer accurately achieve a client’s vision gives the designer an edge, a selling point that differentiates one designer from the next.

Creating Colour Harmonies

  • Colours from opposing sides of the colour space are known as complementary colours. The high-contrast between colours in a complementary colour scheme creates dynamic, vibrant spaces.
  • Colours adjacent to each other on the colour wheel are known as analogous colours. The low-contrast between analogous colours can be used to create relaxed, comforting spaces.

Consistent Colour Across Materials and Production Techniques

A colour is fully speci?ed by listing the three numbers for hue, value, and chroma in that order. For instance, a red of medium lightness and medium saturation would be 5R 5/10 with 5R meaning the colour in the middle of the red hue band, 5 meaning medium value or ‘lightness’, and a chroma, or ‘intensity’, of 10. 

A clear, consistent system of colour notation ensures accurate reproduction, regardless of the ink, printing substrate, or production method used. Knowledge of the Munsell Notation and how to use it can be a valuable tool for a designer, enabling him or her to deliver consistent colour results that meet the client’s expectations.

President and Chief Color Maven of Sensational Color, Kate Smith is an internationally renowned colour expert, sought out for her ability to guide businesses on how to use colour to gain recognition and generate revenue. www.sensationalcolor.com