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color: fun

Scientific graphical abstracts — design guidelines

visualization + design

If you are interested in color, explore my other color tools, Brewer palettes resources, color blindness palettes and math and an exhausting list of 10,000 color names for all those times you couldn't distinguish between tan hide, sea buckthorn, orange peel, west side, sunshade, california and pizzaz.

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) (source).

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.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
MagnaView PaletteView. (zoom, download)

PaletteView is an old application. Recently, its methods have been implemented online as gencolormap v2.1 by Martin Lambers [2].

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

[2] Lambers, M 2020 Interactive Creation of Perceptually Uniform Color Maps Eurovis 2020 (source).

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

Happy 2021 `\pi` Day—
A forest of digits

Sun 14-03-2021

Celebrate `\pi` Day (March 14th) and finally see the digits through the forest.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
The 26th tree in the digit forest of `\pi`. Why is there a flower on the ground?. (details)

This year is full of botanical whimsy. A Lindenmayer system forest – deterministic but always changing. Feel free to stop and pick the flowers from the ground.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
The first 46 digits of `\pi` in 8 trees. There are so many more. (details)

And things can get crazy in the forest.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
A forest of the digits of '\pi`, by ecosystem. (details)

Check out art from previous years: 2013 `\pi` Day and 2014 `\pi` Day, 2015 `\pi` Day, 2016 `\pi` Day, 2017 `\pi` Day, 2018 `\pi` Day and 2019 `\pi` Day.

Testing for rare conditions

Tue 16-03-2021

All that glitters is not gold. —W. Shakespeare

The sensitivity and specificity of a test do not necessarily correspond to its error rate. This becomes critically important when testing for a rare condition — a test with 99% sensitivity and specificity has an even chance of being wrong when the condition prevalence is 1%.

We discuss the positive predictive value (PPV) and how practices such as screen can increase it.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Nature Methods Points of Significance column: Testing for rare conditions. (read)

Altman, N. & Krzywinski, M. (2021) Points of significance: Testing for rare conditions. Nature Methods 18

Standardization fallacy

Tue 09-02-2021

We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty! —D. Adams

A popular notion about experiments is that it's good to keep variability in subjects low to limit the influence of confounding factors. This is called standardization.

Unfortunately, although standardization increases power, it can induce unrealistically low variability and lead to results that do not generalize to the population of interest. And, in fact, may be irreproducible.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Nature Methods Points of Significance column: Standardization fallacy. (read)

Not paying attention to these details and thinking (or hoping) that standardization is always good is the "standardization fallacy". In this column, we look at how standardization can be balanced with heterogenization to avoid this thorny issue.

Voelkl, B., Würbel, H., Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2021) Points of significance: Standardization fallacy. Nature Methods 18:5–6.

Graphical Abstract Design Guidelines

Fri 13-11-2020

Clear, concise, legible and compelling.

Making a scientific graphical abstract? Refer to my practical design guidelines and redesign examples to improve organization, design and clarity of your graphical abstracts.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Graphical Abstract Design Guidelines — Clear, concise, legible and compelling.