Data Viz Tips: Using Color Effectively

data viz tip May 03, 2022

Using color in a graph can be fun, and in certain circumstances, you may choose to add color for design purposes. But you always want to use color intentionally and for a specific purpose. For the clearest communication, make sure colors are used consistently and in a limited way.

In this first example, the number of penguins of each species is shown as a bar graph. Each species is labeled on the graph.

If color is added to distinguish each species, the audience has to work harder to understand the graph because they have to figure out what the colors mean. This makes it more difficult for them to find the message of the graph.

If only one color is used, the audience can still see that there is one bar for each species, and it makes it easier for them to read and interpret because they do not have to work as hard - the cognitive load is lower!

So, it's important to think carefully about your color use in data visualization. Sometimes, only one color can be used, and it's easier for the audience to understand.

In this second example, there are two line graphs showing different data over time for three different penguin species.

In the first view, the colors used for each species are different in each of the graphs. This makes it difficult for the audience to compare the data between the two graphs. They have to spend time figuring out what each color means in both graphs.

In the second view, the colors used for each species are the same in each of the graphs. This makes it easy for the audience to compare data between the graphs. Once they know what color is used for each species in the first graph, they don't have to work so hard to understand the second graph.

Again, it's important to think carefully about your color use in data visualization - make sure that you use the same colors for the same categories in different charts to make it easier for your audience to understand the data.

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