Natural Color System

by admin on November 24, 2012

The Natural Color System was devised with one primary goal: to have an exact color cataloging system that describes colors not how they operate at the base, unconscious level of the human eye, but through the way people actually interpret them in the brain. NCS provides a medium to communicate exact colors freely between human and computer in a manner not possible with other color systems.

The core of the Natural Color System is the principle of “color opponency,” first proposed by physiologist Ewald Hering around the turn of the 20th century. This theory states that the cones in human eyes interpret color using three channels: red and green, blue and yellow, and black and white (with the last being used to determine brightness or luminance rather than hue).

Taking this idea and running with it, the Scandinavian Color Institute constructed the NCS in the 1970s. As a propriety color model, its use has to be licensed and paid for from the color institute itself, which may make purchasing paint colors based on the NCS model more expensive than comparable quality paints using a more traditional color model.

This is offset by the usefulness of the system when describing a desired color: once the notation is understood, the NCS code for a color is enough for the actual appearance to be predicted without a sample in a way that is impossible for other systems. This is because color opponency describes how colors are interpreted by the brain and not how they are interpreted directly in the eye. The six elementary colors are perceived by the brain as unique: none of the six can be described using terms referencing the others, though all other colors can be described with the base colors. No color can ever be described as a “greenish red,” but orange can be called a reddish yellow.

The position of the six elementary colors as being “special” in human perception can be easily confirmed by examining organizational logos with a goal of appearing simplistic, such as the Microsoft Windows logo, the Olympic Rings, and others: without exception, these logos will employ the green, red, blue, yellow, black, and white shades regarded as elementary by the NCS, because they are easily recognized by the brain and provide an appearance of cleanliness and refinement.

On other color models such as the RBG scale, the components of a given color may not necessarily make sense on a conceptual level. Yellow, for example, is made by mixing red and green; but no one would ever describe yellow as such a mixture. On the other hand, this makes NCS unsuitable for any kind of mixtures of light or pigment. The goal with NCS is human interpretation of color, rather than the scientific reality of mixing wavelengths.
Every NCS color code is described with three primary parts: the darkness (or blackness), the chromacity (or saturation), and a percentage scale between two of red, green, blue, or yellow. The readiest example for description is the Swedish flag, officially colored using NCS designations since 1979.

The blue color used in the flag is NCS 4055-R95B: 40% dark, 55% saturated, 5% red, 95% blue. This is a relatively dark, unsaturated blue with a very slight tinge toward purple. The yellow color is NCS 0580-Y10R: 5% dark, 80% saturated, 90% yellow, 10% red. This is a relatively bright, very saturated yellow with a slight orange tint. With practice and a bit of experience, reading NCS color codes can create a near perfect image of the color in the mind’s eye.

Use of the Natural Color System has grown since its inception. Three countries – Sweden, Norway, and Spain – have adopted it as the official norm for color reference and designation. An additional 16 countries have adopted its use in some way. The International Color Authority also recognizes its potential applications, opening it to the broader interior design, textile, and color forecasting worlds.

For obvious reasons, NCS is a favorite color system for color consulting professionals. Clients often have a mental image for what paint colors they wish to employ, but without extensive design and color experience, they have a limited vocabulary with which to describe what they are looking for. Since NCS is based purely on human perception of color, this limited vocabulary is usually enough to give the color consulting agent enough of an idea to get a close approximation to the desired color, with small modifications able to be made from there. The ability to clearly communicate minor changes in color is a profound improvement over alternative color models – not to mention a quick text notification, understood across companies and industries, to recreate that color perfectly.

When dealing with mixing hues or having colors present perfectly on a screen, NCS is not the proper system to use. But by focusing entirely on the way the brain interprets light into color, it is undoubtedly the best color model for communicating with humans.

Previous post:

Next post: