Munsell Palette

As the web advances, old code tends to get left behind. Sometimes that’s for the best — we’re strong believers in The Future and inventing new things. But, other times, we loose something unique and special. And, while the remarkable Munsell color system isn’t going away, we’ve been remiss in keeping the code for this color picker up to date. So, sadly, the project featured on this archived page, no longer works. 

Being too busy with other projects is never a great excuse — but it’s all we’ve got to offer. If you’re interested in fighting the ravages of time please contact us. Perhaps you can help bring it back to life.
While you’re here, take a look around our site, blog, and tweetings. Maybe you’ll find something interesting.


Picking colors is not an easy task. It is definitely an art. And available software tools don’t make the task any easier. This is because most color models (such as RGB, HSV, and web color palettes) are based on mathematical formulas which have little to do with how the human eye sees colors. For example, if you look at an RGB palette you’ll see large areas of very similar colors, and then, in small areas, big color changes. (Ie. uneven color distribution.)

The Munsell system is different because it is based on how people perceive colors. At its core is a set of data from perceptual studies (done in the late 1930’s) where people were asked to judge the differences between color pairs. The result is a data set which defines a perceptually uniform color space. (For more information on the Munsell color space, see this article [pdf] from the Adobe site.)

The Munsell Palette software on this page is based on software Triplecode principal David Young encountered while a student at the MIT Media Lab. But that software (originally written by David Small) was developed before the web and was limited to use within a custom windowing system developed by fellow students running on high-end workstations. The updated version here uses the same Munsell data, but can be used on any computer that supports the Flash plugin.


Play with this tool to find the way it can work best for you. Notice that within a panel, the distance between colors along the same axis is perceptually similar. So if you pick every third color going down a column in the middle axis, you’ll have a nice set of similar colors.

  • Click on a color to get a popup menu that let’s you save the color to the list below or recenter the palette.
  • The popup menu also has a ‘predict’ choice. Use it twice, and you’ll get a perceptually-matching list of colors that contains the two chosen colors.
  • The most recently clicked-on color gets a soft highlight around it to help you keep track of where you’ve been. (2d view only)
  • Roll over a color to see its hex value at the bottom right
  • Use the zoom buttons to see more or fewer colors.
  • Click on a saved color to recenter the palette on it.

To have the palette recenter on an arbitrary color: enter a color in the typein field at the top right, and then press the ‘go’ button. Enter colors as either RGB (values separated by spaces like: 255 12 3) or as hex (like ff00ac or 0xff00ac). The palette will recenter on the closest Munsell color match.

In the 2D view: the left panel contains colors that all have the same hue (with the X axis changing chroma, and the Y axis changing value). The middle panel contains colors that all have the same value (with the X axis changing chroma and the Y axis changing hue). The right panel contains colors that all have the same chroma (with the X axis changing value and the Y axis changing hue).

In the 3D view: the panels are arranged in 3D space. It gives a better sense of how they relate. Although, in this view, many color chips are obscured.


Here are some Munsell and color related resources:

See also…

If you enjoyed this, you may be interested in Information Landscapes, a video of work from the MIT Media Lab. It’s on my blog, Inventing Interactive »