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EMBO Practical Course: Bioinformatics and Genome Analysis, 5–17 June 2017.

visualization + design

Brewer Palettes

Brewer Palettes at a Glance

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
All the Brewer palettes: qualitative, sequential and diverging. For each palette (e.g. spectral) the source colors are shown as well as all its n-color subsets. (zoom)

Presentation About Color and Brewer Palettes

If you're new to Brewer palettes, or color, catch up with this presentation. Color palettes matter - Brewer palettes and perceptual uniformity - Martin Krzywinski


I maintain a comprehensive database of named colors (3,116 colors), compiled from a variety of color name lists.

Visualization and Perception

Why Should Engineers and Scientists Be Worried About Color? by Bernice E. Rogowitz and Lloyd A. Treinish (IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, NY).

Perception in Visualization by Christopher G. Healey (Department of Computer Science, North Carolina State University)

LAB and LCH gradient picker

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Interactively create LAB and LCH color gradients interpolated across any number of colors.

Lch and Lab colour and gradient picker is a great tool by David Johnstone. It's a great way to generate color ramps—go ahead, go crazy!—and compare how the ramps look in different color spaces. Shame on you, HSV!

PaletteView — create continuous Brewer palettes

PaletteView is an exceptional tool by Magnaview to create continuous Brewer palettes. This tool is described in [1] and operationalizes Cyntha Brewer's color selection method into an algorithm that selects customizable color palettes from LCH space.

[1] Wijffelaars M, Vliegen R, Van Wijk JJ et al. 2008 Generating Color Palettes using Intuitive Parameters Computer Graphics Forum 27:743-750.

Brewer Palette Adobe Swatch Files

You can import Brewer palettes into Adobe applications such as Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign using either the .ase or .ai swatch files.


Brewer palette ase swatch file for Adobe Illustrator Brewer palette ai swatch file for Adobe Illustrator Brewer palette pdf color file Brewer palette txt color file


In Illustrator, load the swatches from the swatch window menu. The swatch window can be accessed using Window > Swatches.

Select Open swatch library

then choose Other library...

and load either the .ase or .ai file — both contain the same content.

Brewer palettes are color combinations selected for their special properties for use in data visualization and information design.

The challenge

Selecting effective colors for bar plots, pie charts, and heat maps is made more difficult by the fact that the way we select color in software does not reflect how we perceive the color.

There are many examples of poor color combinations in published figures. For example, if categories are encoded with a combination of bright and dark colors, the bright colors will dominate the reader's attention. On the other hand, if two colors appear similar, the reader will instinctively perceive them as belonging to a group and infer that the underlying variables are related.

Colors with poor contrast (colors with similar perceived brightness) or simultaneous contrast (pure colors) also interfere with interpreting figures.

Selecting Colors in RGB and HSV

Most people select colors using RGB sliders, which is just about the worst way to pick a color! Consider the fact that when we look at a color, we cannot easily decompose it into its red, green and blue components. This limits usefulness of RGB for color selection.

HSV is a better color space, which defines a color based on hue, saturation and value. These are three properties that we intuitively assess when we see a color. We think of a "dark rich blue" and "light faded red", making HSV a reasonably useful model for color selection. Unfortunately, HSV has a nagging problem — although it is based on intuitive parameters, it is not perceptually uniform.

Perceptual Uniformity

A color space that is perceptually uniform defines colors based on how we perceive them. Distances between colors in the space are proportional to their perceived difference.

Above, we saw that HSV was not perceptually uniform. Moving the hue slider by 60 can have a small or large effect on a color, depending on where the slider is positioned.

Consider the following example. You have a chart that uses two colors, and orange and green. Both were chosen with S=V=100%. You now need to select a second color for each that is brighter. You cannot directly use HSV because both orange and green colors are already at full value. How do you intuitively increase brightness?

The reason why you cannot in do this in HSV is because V does not directly correspond to the color's perceived brightness. You are stuck fiddling with the saturation and value to try to select a brighter pairing.

What would be useful here is a color space which uses the intuitive parameters of HSV, but is perceptually based. In other words, instead of value, the space would define a color based on its perceived brightness. Luckily, this space exists — LCH, which defines color based on its luminance (perceived brightness), chroma (purity) and hue. Unfortunately, design and presentation software do not have LCH sliders and we cannot easily take advantage of this color space.

This is where the Brewer palettes come in.

Brewer Palettes

Brewer palettes were selected for their perceptual properties. These palettes were created by Cynthia Brewer for the purpose in cartography, but have found use in other fields.

Types of Brewer Palettes

There are three types of Brewer palettes

  • qualitative — colors do not have a perceived order
  • sequential — colors have a perceived order and perceived difference between successive colors is uniform
  • diverging — two back-to-back sequential palettes starting from a common color

Swatches of Brewer Palettes

I have prepared Brewer palette swatches in .ase or .ai format. For programming, use the plain-text version.

The image below (zoom) shows all the Brewer palettes.

Brewer palette colors - all swatches

Uses of Brewer Palettes

Qualitative palettes are excellent for bar plots and pie charts, where colors correspond to categories.

Grayscale Brewer palettes are available and are perfect for achieving good tone separation in black-and-white figures.

Sequential and diverging palettes are useful for heatmaps.

Brewer Palettes and Color Blindness

Some Brewer palettes are safe for color blindness — the pink-yellow-green (piyg) is one. For others, see colorbrewer.

I have designed 15-color palettes for color blindess for each of the three common types of color blindness.


news + thoughts

Snellen Charts—Typography to Really Look at

Sat 18-02-2017

Another collection of typographical posters. These ones really ask you to look.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Snellen charts designed using physical constants, Braille and elemental abundances in the universe and human body.

The charts show a variety of interesting symbols and operators found in science and math. The design is in the style of a Snellen chart and typset with the Rockwell font.

Essentials of Data Visualization—8-part video series

Fri 17-02-2017
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski

In collaboration with the Phil Poronnik and Kim Bell-Anderson at the University of Sydney, I'm delighted to share with you our 8-part video series project about thinking about drawing data and communicating science.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Essentials of Data Visualization: Thinking about drawing data and communicating science.

We've created 8 videos, each focusing on a different essential idea in data visualization: encoding, shapes, color, uncertainty, design, drawing missing or unobserved data, labels and process.

The videos were designed as teaching materials. Each video comes with a slide deck and exercises.

P values and the search for significance

Mon 16-01-2017
Little P value
What are you trying to say
Of significance?
—Steve Ziliak

We've written about P values before and warned readers about common misconceptions about them, which are so rife that the American Statistical Association itself has a long statement about them.

This month is our first of a two-part article about P values. Here we look at 'P value hacking' and 'data dredging', which are questionable practices that invalidate the correct interpretation of P values.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Nature Methods Points of Significance column: P values and the search for significance. (read)

We also illustrate how P values can lead us astray by asking "What is the smallest P value we can expect if the null hypothesis is true but we have done many tests, either explicitly or implicitly?"

Incidentally, this is our first column in which the standfirst is a haiku.

Altman, N. & Krzywinski, M. (2017) Points of Significance: P values and the search for significance. Nature Methods 14:3–4.

Background reading

Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2013) Points of significance: Significance, P values and t–tests. Nature Methods 10:1041–1042.

...more about the Points of Significance column

Intuitive Design

Thu 03-11-2016

Appeal to intuition when designing with value judgments in mind.

Figure clarity and concision are improved when the selection of shapes and colors is grounded in the Gestalt principles, which describe how we visually perceive and organize information.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
One of the Gestalt principles tells us that the magenta and green shapes will be perceived as as two groups, overriding the fact that the shapes within the group might be different. What the principle does not tell us is how the reader is likely to value each group. (read)

The Gestalt principles are value free. For example, they tell us how we group objects but do not speak to any meaning that we might intuitively infer from visual characteristics.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Nature Methods Points of View column: Intuitive Design. (read)

This month, we discuss how appealing to such intuitions—related to shapes, colors and spatial orientation— can help us add information to a figure as well as anticipate and encourage useful interpretations.

Krzywinski, M. (2016) Points of View: Intuitive Design. Nature Methods 13:895.

...more about the Points of View column