Planning By Color

Dear Management Doctor:

I am currently a student at Virginia Commonwealth University who is working on my final studio project. I have a question regarding land use colors for jurisdictions who use multiple categories within the same type of district.

For example, the jurisdiction I am working in has 6 business zoning classifications and about 12 different residential classifications. As well as some residential office classifications. What is the best way to show all of these districts on a color map? I am familiar with the Land Use color scheme described in the Planning and Urban Design Standards Manual. I tried to use that but as you may guess I soon ran out of colors. Is there a standard that can be used for these multiple districts?

Color Challenged


Dear Color Challenged,

I have stopped doing land use planning and zoning so will see if some of our emailers can help you out. My "seat of the pants" reaction is:

  1. Maybe you just have too many classifications. Are we really that sophisticated?
  2. You could give a number to some sub-categories in one color.
  3. You could add categories by a black and white pattern over a color.
  4. Keep in mind that I doubt that most of us can distinguish between 18 colors on a map.
I recently was working with a major international architecture and planning firm. I noticed their table of felt tip markers that must have had at least 100 different colors. I am certain GIS and the computer are also capable of the same number and probably more. The big question is who will be using the map and does it communicate or confuse?

Good coloring,

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

I have placed a link for a "Color Brewer" that was established and tested by Penn State Researchers. The color schemes they use/recommend were designed to best suit the human eye, printing, monitors, projectors, etc. It's a must have book mark for any mapper.


Michael L. Borzick, GISP
Canyon County DSD

I'm not sure if this is a restatement of the obvious, but what I see most often is the use of different shades of the same color to convey a shared relationship between land use types. For example, all of our (seven) residential zones here in James City County are depicted in differing shades of yellow; ranging from yellow-green to orange. At a glance, a person looking at our zoning map can easily see where our various residential uses are concentrated. Because the shades of yellow are similar in some instances, a little closer scrutiny may sometimes be required to differentiate two neighboring (but different) residential zoning districts. The larger (and more starkly different) land use separations (e.g., industrial vs. residential vs. business) are easily distinguishable because they utilize different areas of the color palette.

Hope this helps!

David W. German, AICP
Williamsburg, VA

If you are looking for exactness, don't use colors at all. Insert the zoning district symbol on a black and white map; i.e. R-1, C-1, etc. then there is no doubt or interpretation of colors needed.

Wayne Neumann, AICP
Missouri City, TX

On our comprehensive plan we have 8 different residential density categories. That's probably too many, but we number them 1.1 through 1.8. On our colored map we use 6 different shades for these 8 designations, from pale yellow to brown. Prior to GIS, the guy that colored our maps was color blind, so we went to a numbering system.

Allan Giffen
Everett, WA

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