Quarter Life Crisis

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Colour me Picked

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Colour Pickers go quite some time back in the Mac OS. They are one of those things which really benefit from being part of the OS. Not only because of the consistent user interface they give you across applications but also because having someone dedicated to programming a colour picker at Apple will most likely give much better results than every shareware author making his own simple one.

Classic colour picker with colour red selected

And indeed, the colour picker used to be quite good in the Classic days. It came with a number of modules to pick colours: RGB, CMYK, HLS, HSV and the Crayon picker. And I’ve loved the crayon picker ever since I first saw it. Sure, there are millions of colours in the computer but how many of them can the average person tell apart? The crayon picker gives you a very natural way to choose the colour that will do for most people. Even better, it shows you a little scribble of the colour you selected – which is even drawn live and slightly differently for each colour you choose.

Classic colour picker with colour 'obsidian', aka 'Black' selected

Pretty, simple, natural, very neat and with attention to detail. Exactly the kind of ‘getting things right’ that I love to see. If it weren’t for ‘one more thing’. You see the colours have written names for them. While I probably don’t even actively know that many names for colours, I still think that it’s a sweet idea to do that as it gives people an easy way to remember the colour they used before. However, some of those names just don’t make sense. You see ‘Obsidian’ in the screenshot above? I’d usually name that colour black. And I have never heard anyone ask me to plase ‘turn that text obsidian’. On the other hand, they get red and blue (but not green or yellow) right.

But a new age has come since. And in an amazing feat of user interface improvement Apple managed to improve their colour picker a lot. By making it floating (rather than modal) and resizable to very small sizes (rather than a fixed size). Obvious things to do but still great work (or great keeping things from the Next days). And they added extra features like a colour clipboard where you can store your favourite colour, a tool to pick up colour from any position on screen and the ability to have plugins add extra colour pickers (which is needed, even, as Apple ‘forgot’ to include a proper HTML colour picker in their OS and you’ll have to use the RCWebColorPicker plugin for that).

All in all, I’m quite happy with the OS X colour picker. If it weren’t for ‘one more thing’: its crayon colour picker doesn’t even know the word for red anymore – at least in German it’s called apple now. And black changed its name from obsidian to licorice. This just doesn’t make any sense to me:

Colour picker in OS X displaying red, aka apple Colour picker in OS X displaying black, aka licorice

Finally, let me highlight two little features of the OS X colour picker that easily escape attention. It’s all about little triangles. You may see a little triangle at the top right corner of the area displaying the selected colour. As That seems to indicate that the colour selection is influenced by a colour profile other than the standard RGB one. You can hover the mouse pointer over the current colour field to get a tool tip displaying the current colour profile.

Colour picker displaying a shade of green in 'device RGB'

In the screenshot above you see a shade of green picked up using the magnifying glass tool (from iChat’s audio chat icon if you must know). That colour was taken in the ‘Device RGB’ profile apparently and I assume the display starts including the little triangle at the top to warn you about things being non-standard.

Colour picker displaying the colour profile menu

And once we’re at the topic of colour profiles you may look very carefully for yet another little triangle in the colour picker – the tiny one in the rainbow field left of the popup menu. Clicking there will give you a choice of colour profiles and by selecting the different profiles you can convert the numbers of the colour you are seeing to a different profile on the fly. While I doubt that many people will use that – as the people who need and understand the subtleties of colour profiles tend to work in applications which bring their own colour pickers – I quite like knowing that there’s more depth to the colour picker than is immediately apparent.

In fact, that seems to be one of the big points for good software to me: simple at the first look. But still able to do more sophisticated tasks without making them terribly hard or destroying the simplicity.

April 22, 2006, 0:52

Tagged as Mac OS X.


Comment by Pope: User icon

One other cool thing about the Crayon Picker in the old Mac OS: the nubs wore down over time!

January 6, 2010, 4:26

Comment by Eric3: User icon

… but only in Mac OS 8. That easter egg was removed in Mac OS 8.5 and later by Apple’s No-Fun Squad.

January 9, 2010, 17:46

Comment by Leigh: User icon

Wasn’t there something in the pre-Mac OS X days, where if you clicked to the side of a crayon’s tip you got, for example, “Red-ish” instead of “Red”?

I swear I remember that… maybe that disappeared in the 8.5 purge too.

May 22, 2010, 20:21

Comment by ssp: User icon


Interesting question. Unfortunately I don’t have a system for testing this around anymore, but the internet suggests that the ‘-ish’ ending existed into Mac OS 9: screenshot (scroll to very bottom, look at #3).

However, the Mac OS 8 version thereof still shows wearing effects mentioned by @Pope: screenshot (again, scroll to very bottom, look at #3)

May 22, 2010, 22:09

Comment by Jens Ayton: User icon

The “-ish” suffix appeared when you selected a colour which didn’t have a matching crayon (using one of the other pickers).

A weakness of the OS X crayon picker is that it doesn’t have any browns, which I suspect are the hardest to find for people not used to the RGB and HSV models.

September 20, 2010, 14:03

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