Ornithology and Graphic Design: what’s the connection?

If you watch birds for long enough (and even a few minutes every other day counts), you will quickly learn to tell them apart by their size and shape—and even more easily so by the colours they sport.

Today, as we dive deeper and deeper into the digital world, we associate colours with their CMYK or RGB values. But anybody—even those who work closely with digital colour—will tell you that that’s not the most engaging way to talk about colour—or get people to visualise hues.


The title font right now is more of a Sunbird Yellow
Could you tweak that around a bit and make it darker—more of a Myna Yellow, please?
Left: Common Myna photographed by TR Shankar Raman
Right: Plate XVI from Robert Ridgeway’s Color Standards and Color Nomenclature.


Robert Ridgway popularised this nature-inspired system of naming colours way back in the late 1800s and early 1900s—and he took his inspiration from birds and the natural world.

A passionate and meticulous ornithologist, he was rather irked by how colours were named back then—he thought they were of little practical or scientific use.

Take a minute and try to picture a colour for these two names:
‘elephant’s breath’ and ‘ashes of roses’

You and I would have pictured rather different colours for the same two names! And that was precisely Ridgway’s concern (these were two of the names that colours were marketed by in his time).

Although colours can be subjective, having a common dictionary of colour helps in communicating effectively. Ridgway wasn’t the first person to try and standardise colours, but he was “the first to provide such a finely divided color categorization that also used words from natural language, which, he argued, despite their imprecision, were more useful to naturalists.

In his book Color Standards and Color Nomenclature (published in 1912), there is sample for each of the 1,115 colors that Ridgway named,  mixed by hand. His beautiful body of work was not just used by ornithologists—stamp-collectors used it, fungi-researchers used it and other naturalists used it as well.


Which pink from Ridgway’s book do think is closest to a Greater Flamingo’s beak?
Left: Greater Flamingo photographed by Mike Prince
Right: Plate XXVI from Robert Ridgeway’s Color Standards and Color Nomenclature.


And today, graphic designers and paint companies are using it as well (remember those Asian Paints shade cards?). Well, not his book exactly, but the Pantone color chart that’s widely used by a variety of professionals today is what Ridway’s system has evolved into.

It’s fascinating to know that the study of birds has made such a significant contribution to how we talk about colour today. And just how lovely would it be to take a leaf out of Ridgway’s book and strengthen these connections between the natural and digital worlds!



If you’re interested in getting into birdwatching, and would like add to the information available for research and conservation by sharing what you see and learn, have a look at BirdCount India.

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