Color tools for map makers

By Aileen Buckley, Mapping Center Lead

Color thumbnail

My friend and one of my mentors, Dr. Duane Marble, recently shared this story with me:

Years ago I met a consultant in Sydney who related a story of being fired half way thru a client presentation since the CEO claimed he was trying to make a fool out of him by pointing to things (suggested store locations) that were not shown on the map. He found out later that the CEO had a rare form of color blindness.

Duane then suggested we post on Mapping Center some tools that map makers can use to be a bit more careful in their color selection. I’m sharing with you five of my favorites. If you know of others, please let us know so that we can all learn about them!

Kuler logo

Kuler is a free Web-hosted application to explore, create and share color themes. What I love about this application is that it lets me find a set of colors that work together to support the affective objective of my map – that is, the “affect” or “look and feel” of the map.


I found it very helpful to watch the demo for this application – the link is at the bottom right of the screen under “Welcome to Kuler”.

Visolve logo

Visolve is a software application (free for personal use) that transforms colors of the computer display into the discriminable colors for people with color vision deficiency, commonly called color blindness. This is a great tool to use to double check what a person with color deficiency will see when they look at your map.


You can also try it out on the web if you don’t want to install it on your computer.

Visolve web

ColorPic logo

ColorPic is a color picker with a magnifier attached. It grabs palettes of up to 16 colors at once and uses four advanced color mixers to show you multiple specifications for each color.


Ray Carnes wrote about this in an article titled Match Colors Perfectly with ArcGIS in the July 2010 issue of ArcWatch.

eyePilot logo

eyePilot is another application that’s devoted to helping you design for color deficient readers. This is an application you can purchase that’s designed as a “floating window” that you can easily drag and drop over a Web page, document, or computer application, and allows you to quickly and more accurately view color-coded information.


The demo gives you a good overview of the tools and functions that this application offers. An overview is provided on this slide from the demo:

eyePilot slide

ColorBrewer logo

ColorBrewer is a long-time favorite of many map makers and it’s out now in its second version. This Web tool helps you select color schemes for thematic maps, most usually for choropleth maps.
You can select color for both qualitative and quantitative data, and the quantitative be distributed from high to low (sequential) or around a central value (diverging).


This software, like Kuler and ColorPic is designed to list color specifications for a scheme you find useful so you are able to create these colors in ArcMap.

Color specifications

So what do you do next?

Once you’ve determined what the specifications of the colors you like are, you can use them in ArcMap. There are many ways you can apply colors to various elements on your map (the data, the map elements such as legends and scale bars, the page elements such as frame borders and backgrounds, other graphic elements such as logos and text boxes), but they will almost all allow you to access the Color Palette:

Color Palette

From here, if you click More Colors at the bottom, you access the Color Selector:

Color Models

Note that there’s a color model displayed at the upper right. The options include RGB, CMYK and HSV. Choose the model that relates to the color specifications of the colors you defined using the tools above.

Color Selector - All 3

Once you’ve defined the color, you have the option of saving it as a symbol, which you may want to do if you want to use it again.

Save Color

You can also work at a more advanced level with each of the models — just click the arrow next to the color model in the Color Selector to access the Advanced Selection settings.

Color Advacnes Settings - All 3

If you have a lot of colors to define and you want them to appear in the color selector, use Style Manager to add them to a style and then when you reference that style, they will be displayed in the Color Selector.

Custom colors

As I mentioned earlier, if you have a color tool that you would like to share with others, add a comment to this blog, or you can contact us privately and we can post the information for you!

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Leave a Reply


  1. gnoellea says:

    Great post on color-deficiency simulation and color-picking tools! I thought the story was very interesting. (Although I couldn’t help but think that the CEO ought to have been self-aware enough to realize his color blindness was to blame. Oh well.)

    Additionally, there is a tool called Vischeck that I use quite a bit. You submit a PNG or JPEG to the site and it outputs an image simulating what it would look like to someone with one of the three types of color blindness.

    I used Vischeck to produce all the color-deficiency simulations in my booklet Colors For Maps. I think that Visolve, as you mention in this post, may be a more seamless way to do the same thing though so I’m going to check that out.

  2. cartographics says:

    Great post on color. I use the National Cancer Institute’s ColorTool plugin for ArcGIS to effectively access ColorBrewer ramps.

    For color-blind I use ColorOracle. It was specifically designed for cartography (by a cartographer) and displays your maps to test for Deuteranopia, Protanopia and Tritanopia.

    Both are free.

  3. abuckley says:

    Gretchen also pointed out a tool called Vischeck which shows you “what things look like to someone who is color blind. You can try Vischeck online- either run Vischeck on your own image files or run Vischeck on a web page. You can also download programs to let you run it on your own computer”. Here is the link to the site — I will also include this on our Cartographer’s Favorites page:

  4. Hey I am for the first time here. I found this board and I find It truly useful & it helped me out a lot. I hope to give something back and aid others like you aided me.

  5. abuckley says:

    Glad you found us, and I hope you find lots of useful information here!

  6. mattlove says:

    As a follow up to this article it would be great to have a description of the process of preserving colors defined with the various color models and working with different file formats. I am struggling with this now. CMYK and RGB, importing rasters to file geodatabases, exporting rasters to different file formats seem to be effecting color values differently and I don’t know why.

  7. abuckley says:

    If you choose a file format with lossy compression, such as JPEG, while importing and exporting, this can change the pixel values, hence the color distortion.

    Any color model conversion in ArcMap should not have much effect. That is, changing the color model you are using (e.g., from RGB to CMYK) will only result in minor, and usually not apparent, changes. Here is an excerpt from a presentation we gave a few years back at the 2007 Esri International User Conference:

    “You can convert between the color models – if you convert safely from one to another (and not another one after that) because we use third party
    algorithms that are lossless. However, that only holds for the first conversion. You may notice that when you convert from RGB to CMYK and back to RGB, the conversion is lossy in terms of precision. The reason the conversion is lossy is because we store CMYK channel as integers between 0 and 100. We store RGB channels as integers between 0 and 255. Thus, RGB has more increments, and those are lost when you convert RGB to CMYK. CMYK to RGB to CMYK will maintain precision, but the K channel comes out as zero because we can’t reliably reconstruct the K channel from RGB numbers.”

    You can download the complete presentation, with the bottom notes, from Mapping Center’s Other Resources > Presentations page []. This presentation is from 2008, so click the hyperlink at the top that says “2008 and Older” and on the new page scroll down to the “Getting to Know Symbols and Styles in ArcGIS“ (download PDF – 1.2MB) presentation that we gave June 18-22, 2007 at the 27th ESRI UC.

  8. kevinadams says:

    I find it absurd one has to result to 3rd party “color pickers” which really to nothing but provide you with the values to manually input into Arcmap. ESRI’s entire interface resembles the web circa 1995. Color is an integral aspect of cartography and at the very least the color selection tool in Arcmap should have a picker built in to enable one to sample and save swatches within the program itself. I swear I could dust off a Commodore VIC-20 and have an easier time selecting a color swatch (albeit only 16 of them) :)