Choosing the perfect color combination can be both an art and a science—it involves an innate sense of aesthetics, a grasp of color theory, and, preferably, a sophisticated knowledge of the semantic resonance of colors.
Yet scroll through the account of Twitter bot @colorschemez, and you’ll find a feed full of posts combining three colors, all selected completely at random by an algorithm, and paired together in one square image. Some of the combos are downright garish—as the Twitter description admits, “I’m trying to find colors that go well together. I’m probably not very good at it because I’m a robot with no sense of style”—but others are surprisingly pleasing to the eye. The color names—also grouped in unlikely combinations, in this case thanks to randomly selected adjectives—are always pure delight.
The brains behind the bot is Joe Fox, a graphics editor at the Los Angeles Times, who came up with the idea in February 2015, right after “The Dress” meme went viral for its color-morphing ambiguity (was it black and blue or white and gold?). The ridiculous nature of The Dress controversy, paired with the outrageous names of paint chip colors—i.e., “Mermaid Treasure” (blue) or “Glacial Tint” (white)—prompted Fox to create an initial version of the bot that just paired two colors together and tweeted out a picture of the combination.
But the account, which now has 14,000 followers and counting, didn’t start to see a surge in popularity until Fox created the current version of the bot using an algorithm that pulls three colors from a color-naming survey conducted by the popular webcomic xkcd in 2010. The survey asked readers to name colors using their own modifiers, i.e., “olive yellow” or “purpleish.” Ultimately, it surveyed 222,500 users who named 5 million colors. Using the results as a starting point, Fox then programmed the bot to draw from a public corpus of 8,000 adjectives to further modify the colors. This is the aspect of the bot that gives the descriptions their odd poeticism: olive yellow becomes “inconsiderate”:
Meanwhile, the color purpleish is described as “disquieted”:
Fox has made three other Twitter bots, but none have come close to the popularity of @colorschemez—others, like @burritopatents (Fox’s favorite) or @AndromedaBot only total in the few hundreds or few thousands of followers, respectively. Fox attributes the popularity of the color schemer bot to the fact that it caught the attention of artist and designers on Twitter, a few of which have messaged Fox to tell him they’ve used the bot’s color combinations as inspiration. Several have told him they use the colors in digital illustrations or websites, and the Twitter account @spacecolourbot alters its own generative space photos using colors from the account.
The most popular tweeted color combinations tend to be composed of muted tones, though the algorithm also seems to spit out just as many of the poppy gem tones that are usually associated with UI design. Sometimes the color combinations and their text descriptors seem especially on-point, as is the case with this “tetratomic poison green” or this scrubs-colored “paediatric greenish teal.”
But the bot isn’t learning, says Fox–even if the more you scroll, the more the color schemes start to make perfect sense. “That’s totally on humans,” he says. “The bot is totally random, but humans can see patterns anywhere I guess.”