Instructions on How to Use ColorBrewer

ColorBrewer is a web tool for selecting color schemes for thematic maps, most usually for choropleth maps. I designed the color schemes and Mark Harrower designed the interface. ColorBrewer includes 35 basic schemes with different numbers of classes for over 250 possible versions. Each scheme has CMYK, RGB, Hex, Lab, and AV3 (HSV) specs for the colors. The software is designed simply to list color specs for a scheme you find useful so you are able to create these colors in the mapping software you are using.

Below are some utterly bare-bones instructions for using ColorBrewer. Implementation of ColorBrewer was funded by NSF through a Digital Government grantGeoVISTA Center, Penn State Geography Department. See recent updates for more information on ColorBrewer development.

Click on the link to ColorBrewer on my home page (or someone else's), or go to You need to have a current Flash plugin to run this web tool (Version 5 at least); ColorBrewer should prompt you to go to the Macromedia site if you do not have the right plug in (here's the link: Flash Player). You will get a 'loading' message as the Flash program is loaded by your browser. It is over 1 MB so it may take a minute if you are on dial-up. The initial screen is fairly bare; go through the four steps below to see example map colors.


Step 1:
Start in the upper left corner in the Step 1 box.
Set the number of map classes you would like to examine by clicking on the two triangle-shaped arrows to increment and decrement the number (5 classes is the default).

Step 2 (below Step 1):
Choose the type of scheme you would like to examine by clicking on the scheme label in the Step 2 box (sequential, diverging, or qualitative; see the 'learn more' in Step 2 for a brief description of these options).

Step 3 (below Step 2):
A set of mini legends will appear showing the general appearance of the color schemes I have prepared for the scheme type you chose. Click on one of these choices (click on the small five-class legend in the Step 3 box). The map at right will fill with the colors. Read the 'learn more' above the map for a full understanding of how to use this diagnostic map display.

(Step 4) Legend and Specs (below Step 3):
Click on the type of color specs you would like to see by clicking on one of the buttons above the big legend in the lower left. The color specs will appear to the right of each legend box. You can write these down to use on your map, or print a summary page of these numbers using the print button below the legend.

CMYK: cyan, magenta, yellow, black percentages. Use these for print applications like Illustrator. Do not use these in ArcMap; ESRI uses a different RGB-to-CMYK conversion algorithm so the colors will look wrong on screen. (If you intend to go to press with the colors then go ahead with the CMYK numbers...they will look bad on screen but give you the colors you want at the press.)

RGB: red, green, blue ranging from 0 to 255. Use these in ArcMap, ArcIMS, and other onscreen applications.

Hex: hexidecimal color specs. Use these  for use in Flash and other web applications.

Lab: Lightness, 'a' for red-green axis, and 'b' for yellow-blue axis (a perceptual color space used in Photoshop and some advanced ArcMap work).

AV3: HSV (hue, value, saturation) for ArcView 3.x. Do not use these in ArcMap 8.x (they'll look wrong; ESRI changed their HSV algorithm between ArcVeiw 3.x and ArcView 8.x)

The icons to the left of the legend in the lower left of the screen suggest contexts in which the particular scheme should work. Click on each icon to learn its meaning.

To see color options, you can click through different mini legends in Step 3 without returning to Steps 1 and 2. To change the number of classes, you'll need to re-click a mini legend after adjusting the number in classes in Step 1.

Note the options and another 'learn more' along the bottom of the screen. Experiment with different border and background colors. Check out how type and lines will look over the color set.

A summary collection of all of the 'learn more' information from seven buttons, plus icon descriptions, in the ColorBrewer interface is linked.

General Notes

ColorBrewer is not mapping software. It is designed specifically for you to look up color sets to use in other mapping environments you are working in. It does not allow you to read in your own data and it will not open any other geography files.

The screen you see is a Flash program. Use the 'close' or 'return' button within an instruction or information box to close it. Do not use your browser 'Back' button to close these boxes. If you do use 'Back', you will exit ColorBrewer, lose the colors you have selected, and be back to the last web page you were looking at before you came to ColorBrewer.

I hope this relatively simple tool helps you make beautiful maps. Please credit my color designs if you find them useful. Also, feel free to adjust the colors as you need to once you are using them in your software; they always look different on different monitors and with other printers.

During the summer of 2002, Geoff Hatchard and I imageset negatives, proofed, and adjusted the ColorBrewer schemes, so I am reasonably confident the CMYK specifications will work in print (printed by offset lithography on a printing press). We improved the CMYK specs for about 80 colors and adjusted all of the corresponding numbers (RGB, Lab, Hex, and AV3). (For another set of colors that printed well, see my Census 2000 atlas colors specs online.)

If you are really lost, I do consulting work on color selection for mapping...

Cindy Brewer, September 2002