The Problems with Converting Hex Colors to Physical Colors

In the world of design, color plays a crucial role in conveying messages, evoking emotions, and creating visual appeal. With the advent of digital design, designers often work with hex color codes, a six-digit alphanumeric representation of colors used in web design. However, when it comes to translating these digital colors into the physical world, such as in print or product design, several challenges arise. One of the most notable issues is the conversion of hex colors to physical color systems, such as the Natural Color System (NCS).

Understanding Hex Colors and NCS Colors

Hex color codes are based on the RGB (Red, Green, Blue) color model, which is an additive color model used in digital displays. Each color is represented by a combination of red, green, and blue light, with values ranging from 0 to 255. For example, the hex code #FF0000 represents pure red, while #00FF00 represents pure green.

On the other hand, the Natural Color System (NCS) is a perceptual color model based on how humans perceive colors. It describes colors using three attributes: hue, blackness, and chromaticness. NCS colors are identified by a notation that includes a hue value (e.g., Y for yellow, R for red) and two percentage values representing blackness and chromaticness.

The Challenges of Converting Hex Colors to NCS Colors

  1. Different Color Models: Hex colors and NCS colors are based on different color models, making direct conversion challenging. Hex colors are based on the RGB color model, while NCS colors are based on human perception. This difference in the underlying models means that a one-to-one conversion is not always possible.

  2. Gamut Limitations: The range of colors that can be represented in the digital world (hex colors) is often wider than the range of colors that can be reproduced in the physical world (NCS colors). This is known as the color gamut. When converting hex colors to NCS colors, some colors may fall outside the NCS color gamut, resulting in a loss of color accuracy.

  3. Perception and Lighting: NCS colors are based on how humans perceive colors under specific lighting conditions. However, the appearance of colors can vary depending on the lighting environment. A color that looks vibrant on a digital screen may appear differently when printed or viewed under different lighting conditions. This discrepancy can make it difficult to achieve a perfect match between hex colors and NCS colors.

  4. Substrate and Printing Limitations: When converting hex colors to physical colors, the substrate (e.g., paper, fabric) and the printing process can impact the final appearance of the color. Different substrates have different color reproduction capabilities, and the printing process itself can introduce color variations. These factors further complicate the accurate conversion of hex colors to NCS colors.

Strategies for Overcoming Conversion Challenges

Despite the challenges, there are strategies designers can employ to minimize the discrepancies between hex colors and NCS colors:

  1. Color Management: Implementing a color management system can help ensure consistent color reproduction across different devices and media. This involves calibrating monitors, printers, and other output devices to a common color standard.

  2. Color Proofing: Creating physical color proofs using the intended substrate and printing process can help designers assess how the final color will appear in the physical world. This allows for adjustments to be made before finalizing the design.

  3. Collaboration with Printers: Working closely with printers and color experts can help bridge the gap between digital and physical colors. They can provide guidance on color conversion, gamut limitations, and printing techniques to achieve the best possible results.

  4. Acceptance of Limitations: Designers must acknowledge and accept the inherent limitations in color conversion. Striving for perfection may not always be feasible, and compromises may need to be made to achieve the desired visual impact.


Converting hex colors to physical colors, particularly NCS colors, presents several challenges due to the differences in color models, gamut limitations, perception, and printing processes. By understanding these challenges and employing strategies such as color management, color proofing, collaboration with experts, and accepting limitations, designers can navigate the complexities of color conversion and create visually appealing designs that effectively translate from the digital to the physical world.