Using Color in Maps

Using Color in Maps

1 - Plan on Purpose
Before you select colors for your map, it is important to understand who will be reading it, and how it will be used. In the following steps, you will choose an appropriate color scheme and then a color palette to best communicate the information you are trying to convey to the reader from the data included in your map. Particular color dimensions suggest particular characteristics of your data. Color hue suggests qualitative differences, color value ordered, quantitative differences. These guidelines apply to point, line, and area map symbols (Krygier 2011). Special consideration for color blindness should be noted when choosing to use color. The following examples are primarily for color on choropleth maps.

2 - Choose A Color Scheme

Does map show
ranked data?


Qualitative Scheme

Favorite Pie
— Cherry
— Boysenberry
— Sweet Potato
— Pistachio
— Blueberry


Does the ranking
have a “center”
or “middle”?

Sequential Scheme

Poverty Rate (%)
----50 or more
— 40-49
— 30-39
— 20-29
— 10-19
--- less than 10


Do the data
values trend

YES--> Converging Scheme

I00% Blue 50%B 50%R 100% Red
--------------> <-----------

NO --> Diverging Scheme
Change in Housing Prices
— Higher
---No Change
— Lower

Real arrows indicate direction in data value

3 - Pick Your Color Palette
Viewing Color Through A Cultural Lens

Culture has an influence over how
colors are perceived. Different hues have
conventional meanings based on nature,
politics, religion, etc. Some examples

blue: water, cool, positive
numerical values,
serenity, depression,
melancholy, truth, purity,
formality, depth, restraint,
loneliness, Democrat

green: vegetation, lowlands,
forests, youth, spring,
nature, envy, greed,
jealousy, cheap,
ignorance, peace

red: warm, important items
(roads, cities...), action,
life, blood, fire, heat,
passion, danger, power,
loyalty, bravery, anger,
excitement, warning,

orange: harvest, fall, abundance,
fire, attention, action,

yellow/tan: dryness, lack of
vegetation, intermediate
elev., “hot”, cheerful,
dishonest, youth, light,
hate, cowardice, joy,
optimism, spring, strong,

brown: landforms (mountains,
hills...), contours,
cozy, dull, reassuring,

purple: dignity, royalty, sorrow,
despair, richness, elegant

black: mystery, strength,

grays: quiet, reserved,
sophisticated, controlled

white: purity, clean, faith, illness

Color Dimensions
Our eyes are sensitive to blue, green, and red wavelengths of energy with overlap so we can sense the entire spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). One way to think about how people perceive colors is in terms of three dimensions of color perception: hue, value (lightness), and intensity (saturation, chroma).

HUE: names for psychological experiences
of particular electromagnetic wavelengths.
Humans can perceive millions of different hues.

Visual variables: Hues are qualitatively different,
I thus good for showing qualitative data.

VALUE (LIGHTNESS): perceived lightness and
darkness; easy to understand in a chromatic
(color) or chromatic (greys) series. Humans
can perceive thousands of variations in value or

Visual variables: Values are quantitatively
different, thus good for showing quantitative

INTENSITY: amount of pure hue in a color
relative to neutral grey. Example: radishes and
Visual variables: Intensity is subtle and good
for showing binary (yes, no), qualitative, and
quantitative data.

Compiled by G Strode, FREAC, Florida State University
Permission to reuse of chapter and other content granted by J.B.Krygier, PHD

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Using Color in Maps

shared by gstrode on Jan 10, 2013 in Geography

Using Color in Maps

shared by gstrode on Jan 10, 2013 in Geography


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This flowchart makes it easy to find the proper color scheme and palette for your map.
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