Create and share color themes with kuler

by Maxine Schur

The only color I don't have is navy brown. —Yogi Berra

What do a fashionista, new apartment dweller, graphic designer, and website developer have in common? They can all use kuler, the free web-hosted application available from Adobe Labs.

With kuler, developed by the Emerging Markets & Technologies team (EM&T) at Adobe, anyone can create harmonious color themes of two to five colors based on scientific color formulas or use an interactive color wheel to create their own. The color themes can be created in RGB, CMYK, and LAB color spaces and can be represented as hexadecimal values for use on the web.

According to Mark Hilton, vice president of the Creative Solutions business unit at Adobe, "You don't need to understand color theory to use kuler; we created the program for experienced designers as well as anyone who wants to be creative."

Users can search the online community for themes by a tag word, creator, or theme name. For example, searching for the tag blue pulls up 223 themes, while a search on winter results in 35 winter-related themes with names from Iceish to Oven in the Winter.

People use kuler for an astonishing number of applications, such as simple birthday card creation, interior decor, web design, wedding planning, and textile design. One of the most exciting aspects of kuler is that it lets users share and comment on themes worldwide. Yes, worldwide. It's not an eclectic selection of people who've discovered kuler; it's a global community.

In the first 29 days that kuler has been publicly available, more than 7,300 themes have been created, and more than 5,000 tags have been made in 26 languages. This widespread popularity is even more amazing when you consider that kuler was not marketed through traditional Adobe marketing channels but, instead, caught on virally. kuler has appeared on more than 500 blogs and continues to be listed on 5–10 new blogs each day.

kuler colors

Kuler screenshot

kuler, the free web-hosted application
available from Adobe Labs

With kuler, anyone can construct completely individual color themes that resonate both publicly and personally. The public aspect derives from users' ability to share and download swatches as well as comment on them and rate them. Users can quickly view the most popular, the highest rated, and the most recently created themes in the kuler community.

Just as intriguing is kuler's personal aspect. Artists have long asserted that color preference and emotional response to color are completely individual and undeniably psychological. American artist Andrew Wyeth confessed that the very thought of the true colors of nature could drive him mad. Monet wrote that his all-day obsession with certain colors gave him intense joy, while Paul Klee declared, "Color and I are one."

The personal aspect of kuler is the user's ability to choose the base color and the color rules to create themes, such as analogous, monochromatic, or complementary. Adding to this individuality are the objects and people who inspire the color themes: an old friend, a beloved piece of clothing, a memory of a 1960s kitchen. Just as surprising are the original names that users give their themes, such as Evil Monster's Day Out, Cubicle Monotony, Whore of the Baskervilles, Robot Skin, Overwatered Plant, Flying Octopus, Freshalicious, and a 1970s trio of gold browns called simply Dad's Clothes.

Cradle for creativity

Just as those who use kuler are not restricted by a lack of formal design knowledge, the EM&T team was not restricted in their development of kuler. As Hilton explains, "Adobe's loyal customer base is both a blessing and a challenge because customers have high expectations of Adobe offerings. However, the EM&T team is not constrained by customer expectations. They're not constrained by previous user paradigms. They're not constrained by product development or shipping cycles or deadlines. They're free to succeed and to fail, and this freedom fosters imagination and innovation."

Lydia Varmazis, director of the EM&T team, says that the pioneering nature of the process is a new model for how Adobe responds to the software ecosystem of Web 2.0. "What we've seen is that we can put a technology preview out there and generate huge enthusiasm. The application has to be functional but it doesn't have to be perfect. Given the expectations for an application from Adobe, we expected greater scrutiny from the users. But we received more support than criticism, in part because users saw that Adobe addressed bugs as they were being discussed. We didn't sit around and talk about it; we fixed it."

Democratization of design

kuler taps into the universal human love of color. Everyone has an opinion about color. Often our first visual response is to color, and this creates a joy in discovering and sharing new color combinations. kuler helps to democratize and energize ideas about color — what artists have long called "the mysterious realm."

For Sami Iwata, EM&T's community manager, the response has been surprising. "We certainly didn't expect design amateurs to enjoy this program so much. They call themselves 'color clueless' yet are motivated to design things themselves. These people love kuler and have been very creative with it. Their success has been the most gratifying."

kuler's user enthusiasm and experimentation continually teaches Adobe how to evolve the product. As Iwata says, "Color has proven to be a broad way to interest people. Color really resonates with just about everyone, across skill levels and technical savvy. kuler's users want to partner with us to help the product grow. We listen to them and inspire them, and they speak to us and inspire us."

Maxine Schur is a marketing communications consultant who has written for numerous publications including The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, and She is also an essayist and author. Find out more at