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Color Swatches That Won’t Delete

Delia wrote:

I recently worked on an internal design for a book, using black plus a spot (PMS) colour, but in the end I couldn’t delete the unused PMS colours from the Swatch palette. I would choose ‘select all unused’ in the swatch palette and the colour would be highlighted, but when I tried to delete it by dragging to the trash, the trash icon would be ghosted.

You are not alone in this problem, Delia. This has plagued many InDesign usrs. Invincible color swatches (ones that cannot be deleted) usually occur when the spot colour has been used in a graphic (usually EPS, PDF, or PSD). Sometimes you don’t even realize the color is in the graphic, and there, and it’s not easy to figure out (though here’s one method). Unless you change or delete that graphic, you won’t be able to remove the color swatch.

However, occassionally, the color is really stuck, usually due to some kind of minor document corruption. One of the best ways to get the document back on track is to use File > Export to create an InDesign Interchange (INX) file. [Editor’s note: INX has been replaced by IDML. For the rest of the article, where you see INX, you can mentally replace IDML.] Then re-open that file in InDesign and you should be able to remove the color from the Swatches panel. Make sure to proof the new file carefully against the old one, as things can sometimes change a little in the conversion.

Synchronize a Book

Here’s another option for a stuck color swatch, if you’re sure it’s not in an image. Honestly, I’ve never tried this method, but I have heard that some people are also able to delete their color swatches after a book synchronization:

  1. Create a new document that has a color swatch with exactly the same name as the one you’re trying to delete.
  2. Use File > New > Book to create a book panel, choose Book Page Numbering Options from the book panel’s flyout menu, and disable Automatic Pagination (called “Automatically Update Page & Section Numbers” in CS3). Then add the two documents (the old one and this new one).
  3. Make sure the new document is the “master” document (click in the left column in the book panel).
  4. Choose Synchronize Options from the book panel’s flyout menu and turn off everything except Swatches.
  5. Click Synchronize.

If all goes well, you should now be able to delete that swatch.

Deep INX Clean

If the INX roundtrip and the synchronize tricks don’t t work, here’s one last attempt. This is hard core, but it should work:

  1. Export the document as an INX file.
  2. Open the INX file in a text editor (such as TextWrangler on the Mac, or Notepad in Windows). Don’t use a word processor or anything that could add formatting to the text.
  3. Search for the name of the color you’re trying to remove. You should find it inside an XML tag named “colr”. Remove that whole element (see what’s selected in the image below).
  1. Now search for the name again. You should find it in a tag named “cink”. Remove that whole element.
  1. Use Save As to give the INX file a different name and then open that new INX file in InDesign. The color swatch should be gone.

Messing with INX files is always a little dicey, so make sure you’re working on duplicates and save your work before proceeding. A wrong tag in an INX file may crash InDesign upon import.

David Blatner

David Blatner

David Blatner is the co-founder of the Creative Publishing Network, InDesign Magazine, and the author or co-author of 15 books, including Real World InDesign. His InDesign videos at are among the most watched InDesign training in the world. You can find more about David at
David Blatner

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80 Comments on “Color Swatches That Won’t Delete

  1. Another tip I just discovered for those who find this thread through search. You will not be able to delete a swatch that is used in a paragraph style under Paragraph Rules > Rule Above or Rule Below, even if it is NOT ACTIVE (no paragraph rule is on). I had to turn the Rule Below on, remove the defunct color swatch not in use in the paragraph rule that was also not in use, and then turn the Paragraph Rule off again to be able to select the color swatch with Select All Unused swatches and remove the unwanted swatch.

  2. And don’t forget any swatches used for fill defined in a Table Styles or Cell Styles, they show up, too. I sometimes forget these when I’m focused on finding the unwanted swatch in the paragraph and character styles, or in linked images.

  3. Place in an image such as an eps file with the rogue spot colour in it. Then delete it. You should now be able to delete the spot colour.

  4. I had this problem when there was a PMS swatch in a linked Illustrator file that wasn’t even being used! I deleted the swatch in the .ai file, refreshed the link and was then able to delete the swatch from InDesign. You can use “Select All Unused” in the Illustrator swatch panel to ensure there are no rogues in there.

    • Thank you for you advice – it solved my problem – after deleting from Ilustrator´s swatch panel it is possible delete it in Indesign :)

  5. Hi everyone, I’ve had this issue a few times and again recently. There’s quick ways of finding out where those pesky lab colours come from.

    1) Finding lab colours being used directly in InDesign (i.e. not within a linked file):
    Find > Object > To the right of “Find object format” click on the button with the loop which is “Specify Attributes to find” > Under ‘Fill’ Select the lab colour and click ok > Click ‘find next’ and it’ll show up any lab being used. > Go through the same steps again but this time choose ‘Stroke’ instead of ‘Fill.

    2) Finding lab colours being used within a linked file (and there can be many as we know!
    Export the Indd file as a pdf > Under ‘Output’ > ‘Ink Manager’ make sure the ‘All spots to Process’ box is NOT ticked (or it’ll convert everything to CMYK) > In Acrobat pro, open PDF > Print Production > Output Preview > You’ll see all the colours listed in the doc. Untick all boxes except the LAB colours. Now the PDF will ONLY show colours that are lab – go through the pdf and find those evil colours > Now that you know which embedded files have LAB colours, go to the original linked files and change the lab colours there. Don’t forget to relink the files once done!

    Hope this helps people out there :)

    • A quicker method is to use the separations within InDesign itself (Window > Output > Separations Preview) turn off CMYK, leave your spot turned on and go through the pages till you find what you’re looking for. Also check the pasteboard area.

  6. Good morning! (Software used is IND v.CC-2017)

    I must have a truly messed up InDesign file because I have tried what I consider “everything” to delete this disgruntled swatch. Where to begin…

    I’ve tried changing my PMS 300 CMYK swatch (yes, CMYK) to a spot color. It won’t let me modify the swatch.

    The option to delete is grayed. The option to select unused swatches does not illuminate the pesky color.

    Using the separations panel doesn’t even show the color as a used ink.

    I’ve searched using the find object with this color selected as a fill and as a stroke.

    Exporting to an IDML does not fix color issues. It just caused more issues by losing fonts. That’s an entirely different animal that I won’t go into.

    I traveled the XML route and deleted the PMS 300 color from the inner XML files and that 100% broke the IDML file.

    The only thing I found to work is to transfer everything to a newly created file. It took a long while. I’m just at a loss because this has happened more than once.

    Unfortunately, I am working with files from InDesign CS2 and have zero ideas as to what the people before me did to the files. It is a long and arduous process to renew all of these files and get them pristine! Anyway, I was wondering if anyone had any thoughts as to what I can do, or what I did incorrectly. Thanks!

  7. To properly get rid of the unused Swatches, you will first need to get rid all of the unused Paragraph Styles, Character Styles, Object Styles, etc. These also use the ‘SELECT ALL UNUSED’ feature. Apparently a swatch will always stick to your document if an UNUSED style is set to use that swatch. So clear your unused styles first, then your unused swatches!

  8. Well, I tried clearing ALL unused styles and I located one of the used styles that originally incorporated this PMS 300 color, but was currently using a modified style. I changed all used styles to black or the correct PMS color.

    I tried removing the Pantone 300 color swatch from the XML files within the IDML exported file with an AppleScript compression app. I learned that if you re-compress the file, it compresses a mimetype file which needs to be uncompressed. That didn’t work.

    There is a 100% Cyan swatch that is also stuck with the PMS 300 swatch. Neither of them allow me to remove or modify. I was able to finally remove the Cyan swatch only after deleting all styles down to the [basic] styles. The Pantone color is still stuck. I can go on with my daily life and just not use these swatches, but it is quite annoying that these get stuck. I’m out of ideas. Thank you for your help, Lucian!

  9. Apparently this works on a PC like this (without Mike’s script):
    – save as IDML
    – rename IDML to ZIP
    – go inside the ZIP and there will be some folders
    – go inside teh Resources folder and edit Graphic.xml which contains a raw list of swatches
    – delete the ones you need to delete
    – save, rename back from ZIP to IDML and open in Indesign and seems to work!

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