Colors can make or break a chart.
Colors direct our eye movements, and therefore our brains and attention.
It’s up to you: will you help or hinder your reader’s understanding?
Here are some simple strategies for communicating clearly with chart color.
Strategy 1: Select a Custom Color Palette
Rather than using Excel’s default colors, match your chart to the organization’s logo. (Consultants: Match your client’s logo, not your own.)
For my grad school projects, I align everything with my university’s logo.
Finding Additional Colors to Complement Your Logo Color
Does the organization have a super basic color scheme? My grad school’s logo is green and yellow, which doesn’t give me many options to work with.
So, I found a similar color palette on design-seeds.com.
I used the instant eyedropper to find each color’s RGB code. Now I’ve got six colors to play with instead of just two.
Strategy 2: Make Sure the Colors are Intuitive
Now, it’s time to apply those branding colors to ensure that your graph is intuitive.
You’ll need to figure out whether your variable is categorical/nominal, sequential, or diverging.
Categorical Variables Get Categorical Color Schemes
Categorical or nominal variables are things like race/ethnicity (African American, Asian, Latino, White, etc.) or gender (male or female).
Think about which pattern you want to emphasize, and use darker action colors to draw attention to that finding.
Sequential Variables Get Sequential Color Schemes
Sequential or ordinal categories have a natural order, like age ranges (5-9 year olds, 10-14 year olds, and 15-19 year olds) or years (Year 1, Year 2, and Year 3 of an evaluation).
Sometimes categories go from less to more or from nothing to something.
An example of a nothing to something progression is a satisfaction survey question that asks program participants to assess how likely they are to recommend the program to a friend (not at all likely, somewhat likely, very likely).
For these charts, the action color can represent the something and white can represent the nothing:
Diverging Variables Get Diverging Color Schemes
Diverging variables are opposites, like agree/disagree scales on surveys.
An example is a similar satisfaction survey question that asks participants to indicate whether they agree or disagree with the statement “I’d recommend this program to a friend.”
When charting divergent variables, you might design a diverging stacked bar chart, as shown below.
Select two different colors from your palette, like greens for agreement and yellows for disagreement.
Strategy 3: Declutter by Switching Black to Gray
Which information is most and least important?
Let’s declutter by removing or reducing anything without a crucial purpose. We want the reader’s attention focused on our most important patterns.
For example, if you’re using Excel, you might improve upon the default settings by deleting the border, the grid lines, or the tick marks.
If you decide to keep the grid lines or tick marks, try adjusting them from black to gray so they fade into the background.
You can also remove the legend and put labels within the chart itself (like that first bar chart with race/ethnicity information).
Finally, you can outline shapes in white to give the chart a crisper look and feel (like the diverging stacked bar chart shown above).
Bonus: Download these Materials
Want to create one of these charts? Download my Excel file below.Download the Excel File