In Using Colors in Excel Charts I discussed a lot of details about Excel colors, predominantly in Excel 2003, and specifically with charting in mind. I mentioned the Color Brewer, a neat little utility for selecting colors and designing color palettes. In ColorBrewer2.org Mark Harrower of Axis Maps announced Color Brewer 2, which updates the 8-year-old Color Brewer (that’s 56 in dog years, and 80 in web years, as Mark says). The new tool is available at ColorBrewer2.org.
After my earlier article about chart colors, I used a ColorBrewer-derived palette in Excel 2003. At this point, though, I’ve decided I’m not terribly fond of this palette: the colors are fine together, but they are not the “pure” colors I’d like. The red has an orange tinge, the green is shaded somewhat towards blue, the blue is a bit purplish, etc.
So I’ve changed palettes to be more in line with the colors that one would expect to find, as set forth by Stephen Few.
Here are the default Excel palette, my previous palette, and my current palette. Notable changes are the evolution from Excel’s unattractive default charting colors in the bottom two rows of the palette, to the ColorBrewer derived colors, to the Few inspired colors. In the earlier custom palette (center) I also lightened up some grays in the right column of the palette, and also changed the green color (fourth tile in the third row) to something more visible. I replaced some default colors from the fifth row of the palette with the lighter versions of the Few inspired colors, so I moved these replaced colors to the top row, where the default colors are all too dark to distinguish (though I may decide to bring back the brown color).
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Here is the ColorBrewer2.0 screen for the colors in my earlier palette. Compare the bottom row of the center palette above to the column of colors in the bottom left of the ColorBrewer screen.
And here is an excerpt from Stephen Few’s white paper Practical Rules for Using Color in Charts where he talks about colors. I’ve used Few’s darkest set of colors (middle row) for my dark chart colors, I’ve lightened his medium-dark colors (top row) somewhat for my chart fill colors, and I’ve added highlighting colors which are slightly darker than his light colors (bottom row).
Why am I still worrying about the Excel 2003 color palette? I suppose I should start using Excel 2007 more, especially since the release of the Excel 2010 beta is imminent. But I have not yet become comfortable in Excel 2007, especially for charting, so I would just as soon use 2003. I will keep using 2003 for my chart images, and if a protocol in 2007 differs by enough to confuse readers, I will then capture whatever screen shots are needed.
If you are thinking about colors for a blog or web page theme rather than for Excel, check out the Color Sceme Designer. It is pretty flexible. Its emphasis is on graphic design colors for web page schemes, not for charting (though the two purposes are related).
Update 30 June 2009
I’ve updated the Palette Chooser utility so it includes the original and adjusted Few-inspired palettes. The Palette Chooser was created in Excel 2003, and should also work in Excel 2002 and 2000. I don’t know whether it will work in Excel 97 or in any flavor of MacExcel, and it is irrelevant to Excel 2007.
Download and unzip the Palette Chooser zipped workbook. When the file is opened, the Format menu has an added item called Custom Palette; this menu item is removed when the file is closed.
Colors are stored in the Colors worksheet of PaletteChooser.xls. Palettes are laid out in four-column ranges, with the color index, red, green, and blue values for each color to be modified. Follow the same format to define your own color palette, then assign a worksheet-level name to the range containing your definitions. This name is what is listed in the Palette Chooser dialog.
To modify the palette of a workbook, activate it first before selecting the Custom Palette menu item. The Custom Palette command launches the Palette Chooser dialog. The listbox includes a Reset item, which reverts to the palette which was active in the workbook when the dialog launched. The other listbox items are palettes defined by the named ranges containing the color information.
Here are the Set2_Dark2 (my previous palette) and Paired palettes, based on ColorBrewer:
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Here are the Pastel1_Set1 and Pastel2_Set2 palettes, also based on ColorBrewer:
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Here are the original and adjusted Stephen Few-inspired palettes:
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