Everyone Hates Your Colors


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.

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