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Programmatic Color Palettes

January 16, 2017

Coming up with a consistant set of colors for us in UI design is no easy task. Many times, when style guides are created, a few key hues are picked out and documented. This doesn't take into account he myriad tints and shades that may be needed when used in practical applications.

One approach to this is to use something like SCSS' rgba() function to build new a new color to build a new color.

.alert {
    background-color: rgba($red, 0.1);
    border-color: $red;

This gets us pretty far without much effort - but visually, the effects can sometimes be less than desirable. Certain hues behave different under different levels of luminosity. As Henry Munsell in his 1905 book A Color Notation noted, reds, blues, and purples have a much longer chroma axis than some yellows. Likewise, some hues may need to be adjusted as saturation increases to keep them optically consistent.

I found myself wanting the flexibility to pull or push hues around quickly, and I wanted the results to be something that could be quickly translated to code so that the single source of truth could live with the developers, rather than a sketch file designers would have to export and transmit back and forth.

I tried some existing tools created by Brent Jackson, namely Palx, which served as a huge inspiration for this project. However, it didn't have the flexibility to adjust hue or saturation. I built Palettes using the same tool as Palx, Chroma JS, but retooling it to have increased flexibility. This little library works wonders.


Here's a peek at Palettes:

const stepsToFloat = options =>
  Array.from({ length: options.luminance }, (n, i) =>
    (i + 0.5) / 10).reverse()
  .map(s => modulate(s, [0, 1], [options.start, options.end]));

This is the first piece. It will return the number of tints of a given base color to me, specified later in config.js

I then needed to be able to adjust colors with a few parameters.

const shiftColor = (color, s, index, shift) =>
  .set('hsl.h', chroma(color).get('hsl.h') - ((index * (index * 2)) * (shift * 0.01))).hex();
const shiftSat = (color, s, index, sat) =>
  .saturate(((sat * 0.1) * Math.log(index + 1)))

Figuring out the math here was a bit of trial and error. By picking colors manually and plotting them on a curve, I found I was consistanty adjusting saturation on a roughly logarithmic curve. Hue shifts were adjusted on a quadradic curve. This takes a starting color, a step in the scale, an index, and a level of saturation or hue shift. Positive numbers shift hue right on the standard CIECAM02 model. Negative numbers shift the hue left.

Then I needed to adjust each color based on it's starting point, changing hue and saturation as those parameters existed:

const buildColor = (key, sat, shift) => {
  const color = hueSet[key];

  const steps = stepsToFloat(lumSet)
  .map(s => chroma(color.hue).luminance(s).hex())
  .map((s, index) => (sat ? shiftSat(color.hue, s, index, sat) : s))
  .map((s, index) => (shift ? shiftColor(color.hue, s, index, shift) : s));

  // return values as incremented key value pair
  const values = expandColors(key, steps);

  colors[key] = values;

I can loop over this for each step hue I specify:

const buildPalette = (set) => {
  Object.keys(set).forEach((key) => {
    buildColor(key, set[key].sat, set[key].shift);
  return colors;


The config.js has two objects defined in it:

const lumSet = {
  luminance: 10,
  start: 0.05,
  end: 0.95,

const hueSet = {
  blue: {
    hue: '54A2F0',
    sat: '3',
    shift: null,
  yellow: {
    hue: 'FFCC00',
    sat: '3',
    shift: '12',

start and end are used to keep values from going to dark or too light. This way, individual values remain distinct.

When I run the script through node with $ npm run build it will output a .json blob that can be read in to a webapp's config file.

    "blue": {
        "blue0": "#ecf5fd",
        "blue1": "#d4ecff",
        "blue2": "#bce1ff",
        "blue3": "#a1d5ff",
        "blue4": "#84c9ff",
        "blue5": "#62baff",
        "blue6": "#2fa8ff",
        "blue7": "#0094ed",
        "blue8": "#007bc9",
        "blue9": "#005b98"
     "yellow": {
        "yellow0": "#fff4ca",
        "yellow1": "#ffe788",
        "yellow2": "#ffd43a",
        "yellow3": "#ffc300",
        "yellow4": "#eeaf00",
        "yellow5": "#dc9a00",
        "yellow6": "#c78300",
        "yellow7": "#af6a00",
        "yellow8": "#924f00",
        "yellow9": "#6b3300"

You can grab the tool for yourself here

Next Steps

This project is by no means done yet. I'd love to expand more on this, building it into a webapp to visualize colors on the fly.