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Honey, I Blew Up The Color Panel

Consider the poor Color panel. Don’t you kind of feel bad for it? It’s overshadowed by its big brother (Swatches) and a “Flashy” newcomer (Kuler).

It looks on with envy at the capabilities of its cousins, the Color panels in Photoshop and Illustrator. Almost everything you can do with the InDesign Color panel, you can do elsewhere, faster, easier, better. But it does serve one unique purpose: a non-modal CMYK color picker. Kuler only speaks RGB and hexadecimal. InDesign’s actual Color Picker is in a modal dialog box…and only lets you pick in RGB and LAB modes…and has been described around these parts as an unholy mix of “evil” and “pathetic.” So if you want to click to pick, the Color panel is your friend. Sort of.

The Color panel could actually be handy as a color picker if it weren’t for two problems: First, the color ramp that you need to click on is so darn small it’s practically impossible to pick a specific color. Second, clicking the ramp yields silly CMYK values, with three decimal places.

So what to do? If you’re on a Mac, you have the ability to magnify anything on your screen by going to the Universal Access System Preference and enabling Zoom.

Be sure to click Options and confirm that Smooth images is turned off.

With the Color panel showing, mouse over the color ramp at the bottom of the Color panel. Your cursor turns into an eye dropper. Hold down Command-Option-= and zoom in all the way. It feels like you’re one of the kids in the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The Eyedropper is enormous. Tiny pixels have grown to big blocks of color. And you can clearly see the individual color squares that make up the color ramp. Now you can actually decide which one to click on. Grab a color and zoom back out (Command-Option–). Windows folks: is there a similar way to zoom on a PC?

Once you have the color you want, how do you load it into the Swatches panel without those dumb decimals? Double-click on your new color (it will be in either the Fill or Stroke button in the Color panel). This opens the Color Picker.

By default, you only see the option to Add RGB Swatch. To change that to Add CMYK Swatch, click anywhere on the letters CMYK or the values next to them.

When it gets added to Swatches, there are no unsightly decimals. Nice.

There is another thing you can do to make a color picker of virtually any size and still see the rest of your screen. And it will work on a Mac or PC. Just show the Color panel and take a screenshot of the CMYK color ramp. Place the screenshot into a document. Scale it as big as you like. You want to see each pixel clearly. This is your revenge for every time you were scolded for scaling an image to far.

To sample a color, click on it with the Eyedropper tool. Option/ALT-click if you want to sample a different color. You’ll see that you sampled an RGB value. That’s OK. As before, double-click on either the Fill or Stroke button in the Color panel to open the new color in the Color Picker. Again, just click anywhere on the CMYK letters or values to get the Add CMYK Swatch button.

When you’re done sampling colors, switch away from the Eyedropper tool so you don’t accidentally keep sampling or coloring page objects. And be careful not to fall into any giant bowls of cereal.

Mike Rankin

Mike Rankin

Editor in Chief of, InDesign Magazine, and Author of courses on InDesign and Illustrator. Husband. Dad. Dog walker.
Mike Rankin

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14 Comments on “Honey, I Blew Up The Color Panel

  1. Apple menu->System Preferences->Keyboard & Mouse->Mouse tab.

    Enable control-click to zoom and now you can do it on the fly with the mouse scrollwheel.

  2. Thats so klugy… Adobe PLEASE fix this travesty.
    Thanks for the tips on a workaround, its a shame a workaround is even needed.

    Has to be one of the weakest parts of the creative suite.
    Is anything else in the suite this poorly thought out?

  3. Mike, blowing up the Color panel is a fantastic idea!

    However, I have an even easier way of adding the color you picked from the Color panel to the Swatches panel and getting rid of the unsightly decimal numbers.

    From the Swatches panel menu, simply choose Add Unnamed Colors. This simple command also gives you nice wholesome, whole numbers.

  4. Thanks all!

    This is what I love about writing for this site. I post a little tip and in a few hours, it’s already evolved into something faster, slicker, and cross-platform thanks to you guys.

    Thanks for making the tip even better! The only problem is now David gets to avoid the Color Picker. I was picturing him putting on rubber gloves before double-clicking on the color. I’ll have to come up with another tip to make him confront his colorpickaphobia. ;)

    To quote Rhino from “Bolt”: You’re beyond awesome. You’re… be-awesome!

    And I hope you realize you’re only encouraging this behavior…

  5. @Deb: an alternative to opening the Run dialog in Windows is to press Windows-key + R, same as pressing Windows-key + E opens Windows Explorer, Windows-key + M minimizes all windows and Windows-key + F quickly opens Windows’ file search.

    On-topic question: Any guess as to why Adobe even set the color picker to default to RGB in a DTP program with the main output (historically) being offset printing?

  6. The Magnify feature in Windows works just peachy in Parallels too.

    Though it’s easier to use the Mac’s zoom controls, which work even when a Windows app is in focus.


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