Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Color Critique Will Always Be There For You

June 23rd, 2016

A client warned me the other day: “I like the color schemes but just so you know these bosses have a way of changing colors, it’s the way we work around here.”

I said, “Right, that’s completely expected but thank you for the heads-up because it means that I will take a few minutes of extra time at our next demo to explain that these colors come from a previously published paper on the subject. That way if they do decide that the palette should be changed, they’ll be aware that it will be different from the published standard.”

I added, “Having been in the cartography business for 17 years, I’ve learned that debate over color is part of the career. Sometimes even for the better.”


Set designer: “Let’s make Beaker’s hair a little more orangish.”


Everyone Hates Your Colors

January 14th, 2016


The color palette is without a doubt the most divisive topic that will come up regarding the majority of your maps whether you make them for the public or for a single client. General complaining about the colors and admonishments to change the colors will invariably out-compete any complaining regarding interactive functionality, included or not included datasets, load speed, scale bar specificity, legend descriptions, layout design, or any number of items that we cartographers think are just as important as color.

Brian Timoney says that the reason that our map readers get so worked up about color, indeed why everyone these days seems to be a color critic, is because it is the thing we all know most about and therefore feel the most confident in discussing.


Think about it. What was it that we had to put on those kindergarten bio posters? Our favorite color. We are encouraged to pick out a favorite color and have an opinion about color from very early childhood. This makes the general public much more aware of color than of any of those other important aspects of the map that they may have honestly not even noticed.

Heck, people don’t even agree on what colors are.

Exhibit A)

Exhibit B)

XKCD did a color survey a while back where volunteers were asked to name colors. The results are definitely worth a look. One volunteer ended up saying:

—Anonymous, Color Survey*

Now what do we do about these map readers who hate your colors? How do we know if their critique is warranted or if maybe they just have a different sense of style? How many of us use the exact same color schemes in our clothes or our decor? Does the fact that we like modern, dark style colors on maps (black background with a few bright colors, say), mean we can’t appreciate a map that’s more subdued?


Should we, as cartographers, present our clients with a style board much like interior decorators do, in order to get a sense of what the clients like color-wise, before the project starts, and then once a palette is agreed-upon then the client has to pinky-swear that they will not complain about colors from then on out?!

I don’t know, those ideas could work. I may even try it out sometime. However, what I can tell you is that over 16 years of doing this my method is to assume that colors will change as we go and I try to give great respect for my client’s color needs. I also have learned the hard way that time for color changes absolutely has to be built into the time estimate. And occasionally you must build your own maps along the way so that you can build up some work that really says “you.”

Of course these ideas are really most applicable to cartographers who do client work. Those who work in just one style, for a newspaper, for example, have a whole host of other color issues, I’m sure.

*Hey, it’s a PG blog.

Create Color Schemes in Maps Using Color Theory

November 2nd, 2012

This post defines and illustrates the various types of color combinations used in color theory. In order to focus just on the color schemes, the map examples are presented as slices of maps. For most of these examples, clicking on the map will take you to the full, original, source map.

MONOCHROMATIC color schemes have one or more shades of a single color. In mapping, we commonly see monochromatic color schemes representing the magnitude of a variable in a choropleth. In choropleth maps, remember to keep the number of shades in a monochromatic color scheme at five or less. More than five shades of the same hue are too difficult to track back to the legend.

Conversely, in a heat map, where the exact magnitude does not need to be tracked back to the legend, more shades could be used for a smoother appearance. (Both heat maps and choropleth maps can be non-monochromatic as well.) You might also see a monochromatic color scheme described as “sequential”.

ANALOGOUS color schemes contain colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. These colors often create a subdued feeling for the finished map. Colors schemes with green and blue, for example, are ubiquitous in reference map design and, if done right, are calming to the eye.

COMPLEMENTARY color schemes have opposing colors. This is usually thought of in terms of the classic color wheel: colors on opposite sides are complementary. However, the exact hues can vary somewhat depending on the color model that you are using. The traditional complementary color pairs are red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and violet.

In mapping, complementary colors are often used in choropleth and heat maps. These are sometimes referred to as “diverging” color schemes when they are also accompanied by a hue progression from light to dark or from dark to light. In reference mapping, complementary colors are employed in order to provide sufficient contrast. For example, a map could have a green background and red reference lines.

NEUTRAL color schemes are only composed of black, gray, and white. Sometimes this definition is expanded to include colors that are particularly unsaturated, or absent of hue, such as beige and taupe. In cartography, neutral color schemes are used in report maps or other publications that will be printed on black and white printers. However, they are not unheard of in webmap design.

POLYCHROME color schemes have colors from all over the color wheel. Maps with polychrome schemes are common on maps where multiple layers are visible at the same time, as the use of many colors is sometimes the only way to differentiate the layers adequately. This schema is also used on maps with a single layer with multiple feature-type differentiation needs.

These schemes need to be visually cohesive despite their many and varied hues. Map makers may use color schemes that are already proven, by using reference materials such as paintings, books (Cartographer’s Toolkit contains 30 pre-formed and pre-tested map palettes, for example), and the like, to find a good palette. Applying the stronger colors to smaller features is one method of achieving color harmony in such a scheme. The reverse—strong colors throughout with a few, smaller, bright colors—is also sometimes effective.

Converting Munsell to RGB

July 5th, 2011

In the section of GIS Cartography: A Guide to Effective Map Design on land use and land cover mapping, I provide the conversions from Munsell to RGB of the standard Anderson classification colors assigned by the USGS. It appears as though they are now charging for the software to do this over at WallkillColor. It is very reasonably priced at $9.95, if you need it.

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration