The Ape of Things to Come

ColorMunki helps designers create and share palettes across platforms.

ColorMunki Design

If you bred an Apple iPod with a Stanley tape measure, you might get the ColorMunki, a handheld silver-and-white plastic gadget, four inches square, with a swooping radiused corner and a chunky circular dial. It’s the perky love child of X-Rite (an industry giant in the world of high-end color management) and Pantone (the iconic color-communications company, recently acquired by X-Rite). The device links up with software installed on your Mac or PC, yielding a tool that lets you calibrate printers and monitors, create and share color palettes, and harvest swatches from the real world.

Just what does the ColorMunki do? The basic device comes with a black neoprene bag that zips around its body; two weighted straps hang off one end. Connect the Munki to your computer via USB right through a port in the bag, and then drape the device over the top of your monitor. (Get it? It’s a “monkey” hanging off your screen.) The weighted straps allow you to point the Munki’s laser eyeball at exactly the right spot on your monitor, as directed by an on-screen interface. Although the black bag has all the sex appeal of an athletic support, the whole process is quick and simple to implement. Calibrating your printer is almost as easy. The software walks you through the process, which involves making a test print from your printer onto each paper stock you use, scanning it with the Munki to determine your printer’s range, running a calibration, and then scanning a second print and calibrating again to arrive at an improved profile.

Creating color palettes is where the fun starts. Import any image file into the Projects area, and the software automatically generates a 12-color scheme, each hue labeled with a descriptive name (Moderate Blue, Pale Orange-Yellow, Reddish Gray, and so on). You can delete patches or grab what you want to make smaller sets. Even better, you can instantly generate harmonic three-color palettes from any patch (monochromatic, analogous, split complement, and so on) as well as producing stepped variations of any color according to value, vibrancy, and warmth. No matter what kind of junk I fed into my Munki software, I got remarkably pretty results in return. When I snatched a hotdog straight from Google, the system spat back colors ranging from Moderate Reddish Brown to Light Orange. Although these colors aren’t very attractive en masse, the system turned out a decent-looking triadic palette based on the color of a sandwich bun.

This kind of magic happens entirely onscreen, and you can try some of it for free online ( The physical Munki gadget, however, lets you scan colors from the real world and instantly capture them as swatches. The device’s interface is a bit obscure here. The rotary dial has to be turned to a specific position depending on what you’re scanning, whether it’s ambient light, your computer screen, or a projected image, and the device itself offers no clues in the form of text or icons. The onscreen interface is always there to help out, however, because the ColorMunki only works when it’s plugged into your computer via USB. Yes, this Munki has a tail, and if you want to capture colors you’ll have to do so while connected to a Mac or PC. Alas, my Munki and I won’t be able to wander around together, snapping up exotic palettes at the tropical fish shop or the local Persian-rug emporium; nor can I discreetly aim the Munki at my mother’s dye job to get the correct specs for Forever Blonde.

Importing color palettes into other applications such as Adobe Illustrator and InDesign CS3 is pretty easy, too, but be sure to adjust your Munki’s “synchronize” preferences to generate the correct file type for each application. (InDesign requires an .ase file, while Illustrator uses .aco.)

All said and done, ColorMunki is a friendly and helpful companion. Personally, as an independent graphic designer already burdened by the cost of endless hardware and software upgrades, I wouldn’t be rushing out to spend $499 on the ColorMunki. For me, the Munki’s best feature is its color-creation software, but someone running a design office with a complex workflow will probably find the gadget’s calibration functions quite useful.

Ellen Lupton is director of the graphic design MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art and a curator at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.