Simplify your design workflow with the handy Swatches panel in Adobe design applications. Use this in-depth guide to learn everything you need to know about swatches.

Cover image via REDPIXEL.PL.

You may think of swatches as those little color squares with a specific color name or code that you find in a paint store. That’s essentially the Swatches panel in Adobe programs: little interactive squares of color. With this handy panel, you can create and edit custom swatches, load swatch libraries, import swatch files, and more. While the Swatches panel appears simple, there are a ton of things you can do with it, especially in Adobe Illustrator.

Let’s dig in and learn everything you need to know about the Swatches panel.


View the Swatches panel in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop by navigating to Window > Swatches and in Adobe InDesign by selecting Window > Color > Swatches. This palette is the central hub for default process color swatches, along with saved swatches from your design or library.

How to Toggle Swatch Views

In Adobe Illustrator, you can toggle the views of each swatch by selecting the icons below the hamburger dropdown in the Swatches panel. Thumbnail view allows you to see just the color swatches, while List view allows you to see the color name along with each type of swatch.

Everything You Need to Know About the Swatches Panel – How to Toggle Swatch Views

The Swatches panel as seen in Adobe Illustrator. 

InDesign and Photoshop both feature a List and Thumbnail view. In InDesign, each view can be accessed by going to the hamburger dropdown and selecting from Name or Small Name and Small or Large Swatch. Within Photoshop, the List and Thumbnail views can be selected within the hamburger dropdown.


Types of Swatches

Within the Swatches panel, there are various types of swatches: gradient, pattern, spot, global, tint, process, CMYK, RGB, and Lab.

Everything You Need to Know About the Swatches Panel – Swatch Panel Labeled

The Swatches panel viewed in Adobe Illustrator.

  • Gradient swatches – created within the Swatches panel in InDesign, or the Gradient palette in Illustrator. Both linear and radial gradients can be accessed within the panel.
  • Pattern swatches – create and edit patterns within Window > Pattern Options or access default patterns in the Swatch Libraries Menu in Illustrator.
  • Spot colors – such as Pantone swatches, can be created and accessed within the Swatch Libraries. Identified with a triangle and a dot in the color thumbnail, or with a square and circle next to the color name.
  • Global Swatch – a swatch that will automatically update in the design when edited. Identified by a triangle on the color thumbnail on process swatches.
  • Tints – spot swatches with added white, are specified with a percentage next to the color name. For example, Pantone Pink C is seen in full and as a tint at 36%.
  • Process colors (link) – a color comprised of separate tints in percentages to create a color. Identified by a patterned square next to the color name.
  • CMYK – swatches viewed and created in CMYK mode with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (key). Identified by a square consisting of the CMYK base colors.
  • RGB – swatches viewed and created in RGB mode with red, green, and blue. Identified by a square with RGB base colors.
  • Lab – this device-independent color mode shows the human perception of color; Pantone swatches with no CMYK equivalents are specified in Lab values.

How to View Swatch Libraries

Access color properties, books, patterns, and more in the Swatches Libraries in Adobe Illustrator.

Everything You Need to Know About the Swatches Panel – Swatch Libraries

The Swatches panel and libraries as seen in Adobe Illustrator.

Click on the Swatches Libraries icon towards the bottom of the panel, or select the hamburger dropdown and click Open Swatch Library to see the libraries. Illustrator features the largest selection of swatch libraries, from Pantone swatches to basic textures. When a swatch library is selected, a new window will pop up containing its swatches. Navigate through various swatches with the arrows at the bottom of the panel.

Photoshop features a smaller selection of mostly spot color libraries. Click on the hamburger dropdown in Photoshop’s Swatches panel to choose from the libraries.

Everything You Need to Know About the Swatches Panel – Swatch Libraries Pantone Spot Colors

In Illustrator, you can access thousands of color swatches, consisting of color books, patterns, textures, and gradients.

Simply select the swatch to add it to your Swatches panel; when design elements are selected, you can apply color to your designs in just one click.


How to Create and Edit Color Swatches and Groups

To create your own swatch, select a color within your design to bring up a Fill Color. Then, click on the hamburger dropdown in the Swatches panel and select New Swatch. This will show a new window to name your swatch and select the color type or mode. You can also click on the New Swatch icon at the bottom of the panel, specified by a folded square.

When selecting a color in RGB or CMYK mode, select the color type as Process Color; assign the correct color mode, depending on the space you’re working in.

Everything You Need to Know About the Swatches Panel – How to Create and Edit Color Swatches and Groups

You can also toggle the color sliders to create a new color or adjust the existing hues. Hit OK to see your swatch pop up within the Swatches panel.

Tip: To quickly add swatches from your design, select all components with the Selection Tool (V) and click Add Used Colors (Illustrator) or Add Unnamed Colors (InDesign) from the hamburger dropdown menu.


How to Create a New Color Group

When dealing with a color palette, or more than one color in your design, you can create a Color Group to organize your swatches. Click on the folder icon at the bottom of the panel, or select the hamburger dropdown and hit New Color Group.

Everything You Need to Know About the Swatches Panel – How to Create a Color Swatch Group

A new window will pop up, asking for a color group name. Hit OK to see a folder appear in the Swatches panel. You can easily drag and drop swatches into the folder as well; a blue line will appear, indicating a successful transfer to your folder. To add swatches directly into your color group folder, click on the folder icon and add a new swatch.


How to Edit a Swatch or Color Group

Want to edit a current swatch? Double-click on the swatch you’d like to edit to bring up the Swatch Options menu. You can also select the Swatch Options icon at the bottom of the panel, specified by a square with bullet point options. In InDesign, edit a selected swatch by clicking the hamburger dropdown and clicking Swatch Options.

Everything You Need to Know About the Swatches Panel – How to Edit a Swatch Color Group

Duplicate a color swatch in just one motion; click and drag the swatch to the New Swatch icon to copy the swatch. To delete a swatch or color group you’re no longer using, select the swatch you want to remove, then click on the trash can icon towards the bottom of the palette.

You can easily edit an entire color group in just one click. Select the color group folder and then hit the color wheel icon to bring up the Edit Colors menu. Drag the circles around the edit individual hues, then select OK to return to the Swatches panel.


How to Import and Save Color Swatches

Importing swatches is a great way to easily upload color swatches seen elsewhere. Head over to the hamburger dropdown and click Open Swatch Library > Other Library.

Everything You Need to Know About the Swatches Panel – How to Import and Save Color Swatches

To import in InDesign and Photoshop, click on the hamburger dropdown and select Load Swatches. This will show the files on your computer; click on a swatch file saved as an ASE, which can be imported into any design programs. Other file types, such as ACO, may not import properly in Illustrator or InDesign, but imports well in Photoshop.

Everything You Need to Know About the Swatches Panel – How to Load ASE Swatch Files

Custom swatches can be easily saved as an ASE swatch file. Delete all other swatches to reveal the colors you want to export, then select Save Swatch Library as ASE in the hamburger dropdown menu. I used the Aged Arrangement colors from these 101 Color Combinations to create this custom palette.

Simply name your swatch file and determine its saved location. You can now import this swatch file in other design applications, like Photoshop and InDesign.


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