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On picking sexy colors for your “scientific” graphs: 3 favorite tool kits

What if you have a magic wand to create understandable plots with carefully-picked colors?
Behold our latest article, only talking exactly about that.

Hello readers, welcome to another “hands-on” tutorial from us, the ESRs of the SULTAN project. My name is Raka, and I have been working so far with tailings resource management and environmental assessment. I’m pretty sure you all are familiar with our project (Otherwise, kindly have a look at our collaborative poster and a bunch of articles that my friends wrote). This article, however, will tell about different stories. While working on my project, I met a vast number of tools that help me creatively to communicate scientific results clearly. Hence the theme: plots and colors!

There’s a pivotal reason why presenting results is the heart of any research outcome. It took me a while to realize this fact. When we were working on the first project right after graduation, circa 2015, a friend of mine identified me as a plot make-up artist. I didn’t know the exact reasons why. Only about five years later, I realized I often went overboard. This is, of course, not smart because too much time was invested excessively just to produce graphs! In retrospect, I experienced the unnecessary color mixing without taking any effort to look for available alternatives. But on the other hand, there is always something good with this kind of overdose. Communicating results with the right color balance can aid understanding and engagement after all (Plante and Cushman, 2020). Moreover, what us–researchers in the rapidly-evolving field–want to achieve is to send the message across, right?

Therefore, if you manage to read thus far, consider yourself arriving at the right place. It is the crystallization of what I discovered and has been proven useful, especially when in doubts.

The good news: all these toolkits are free to use, so don’t worry about time limit nor hidden charges! Are you ready?

1. Color Brewer

The opener is, in fact, my favorite toolkit in map coloring so far! Not only it allows users to easily export the color into software or code readable formats (either in HEX or RGB color types), the website itself is very intuitive, such that you get the idea at first sight. I show hereunder (Figure 1) a brief demo on how to select five diverging color schemes and several options available before integrating these into your graph-producing tools. Carefully see that you can also select the number of data classes (up to twelve, but who will inundate their plots with more than ten schemes anyway). You no longer have to waste time this week after getting the hang out of color brewer.

Go to Color Brewer

Figure 1 I snapped a record of myself navigating through the colorbrewer website


2. Adobe Color Wheel

Despite coming from another realm (original targets are digital artists and designers), Adobe gives a flexible and out-of-the-box coloring palette that will never disappoint. Of course, no one will deny their superiority – Adobe CC shines so brightly, and no other graphic or creativity software clusters can match its prowess at present (I’m talking about the collective software, the whole package). It is, unfortunately (depending on how you see it) bundled with a ridiculous price tag. However, Adobe color wheel is unique, simply because you can immediately access and play around completely free, even without any registered account. That said, the intuitiveness is much less than the previous tool (i.e., Colorbrewer), so take some time to grasp the Color Wheel’s features. Notwithstanding the time spent, if you are also interested in design in general, Adobe Color service is like a tycoon for enthusiasts. Shown below in Figure 2 is a glimpse of frames at the other tab like explore, trend, etc.

Go to Adobe Color Wheel

Figure 2 The left panel is the key: pick how you want the colors to diverge or converge


3. I want hue

Yes, you read it right. I just recently found out about this web service, and it also packs a punch rich in terms of capability. They take a different approach, providing a dynamic coloring and distinct color mixtures (see Figure 3), seemingly thanks to the analytics process running behind the server. Yet, this could also be the drawback, because I find it difficult to repeat the same procedure on other computers or refreshed webpages unless I have already exported the color codes before closing the site. One exclusive feature that distinguishes ‘I want hue’ from others though: they have a dark mode. I rarely place my figures on a dark background, but it could be reconsidered one day if I decide to do something different.

Go to I Want Hue

Figure 3 Another contender: dynamically generated palettes, only one click away



There you have it, my thoughts about some of the ‘low-cost, high usability’ coloring services out there. As you may have noticed, the space between science & visuals might get a bit blurry and daunting at times, so again, my recommendation is to learn enough materials, concentrate on particular services (one or two should do the jobs well) of your preference, and then get back to the research work desk a.s.a.p.


Other coloring inspirations (not specifically for research plots but can be sources of ideation still): color-hex.com, color-hunt.co, coolors.co and many more. On a serious and blunt note, you won’t ever have a shortage of resources in the design/ creativity arena.

Notes on inking your canvas

Before doing any adaptations, you should first master your graph producing apps. In there, you can right away play around with some colors without being dragged by “ah, how to do this, that, and other confusions”.

  • If you code (for examples: in R/ Python/ Matlab) most of the time you can get by after copying the HEX code. A piece of advice: Stack overflow does help most of the time!
  • In other cases, such as in Microsoft Excel, RGB coloring system is the only choice to assign colors to your chart.

What’s the deal with HEX and RGB!? Slow down buddy, you might also want to read this beautifully written wiki page about the definition of web colors: RGB, HEX, and many others. From my experiences, knowing differences between RGB and HEX is more than enough to fully transfer what you can get from the tool kits reviewed in this article.

Lastly, if you want to analyze more thoroughly the philosophy or thoughts behind data coloring, readers are suggested to check this article. Fortunately, it’s open access and recent.

  • Plante, T.B. and Cushman, M. (2020), Choosing color palettes for scientific figures. Res Pract Thromb Haemost, 4: 176-180. doi:10.1002/rth2.12308

All I can wish to you all: happy charts experimenting!

Do you think you have some other tools (open, freeware, or paid version) that are worth sharing? If so, do let us know by sharing this article with your peers and/or by commenting below!

Author: Raka, ESR 15 | PhD student at ETH Zurich