Big Ideas for Small Business

Your Charts Can Benefit From DaVinci’s Shady Side


Use shades of your palette colors to give more meaning to your charts.

What do Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt van Rijn, Vincent Van Gogh, and Winslow Homer have in common? They were all artists who created paintings and drawing beyond the two dimensional stick art which everyone can draw.

All great and even good artists give depth and dimension to their drawings using techniques learned over thousands of years. Over the years the techniques have been refined and taught to new artists. The two most common techniques are:

  1. Perspective
  2. Depth of Field

Perspective and Depth of Field give artworks depth and contrast. Your charts can benefit from applying the concepts of shading and perspective, making the charts easier to understand. Let’s start with Perspective.

1) Perspective

Imagine you are looking down a road that runs straight out to the horizon. You know the road is the same width everywhere. But when you look at the road, the sides appear to converge. The convergence is what artists work into their drawing to create a sense of depth. The technique is called perspective.

A Palette Is Just A Good Start

In my earlier article Why Color Matters, I showed you how to set up a palette of colors for your charts. The components of your palette are The Basics (Black, Grey, and White), The Primary Color (A color of your choice) and The Secondary Colors (Four other colors).

Using the colors of your palette randomly or in sequence for your charts is the equivalent of drawing two dimensional pictures. Which is where perspective and shading come in. Let’s look at how you can apply perspective to your charts.

Applying Perspective to Your Charts

The perspective you want to add to your charts is not a matter of changing your chart types to 3 Dimensional charts. Applying perspective through colors is a technique to clearly identify each of the lines in your charts. The perspective in your chart lines is stratification.

The term Stratification comes from Geology and refers to layers of rock or strata. When you look at strata you know the older rock is below the younger rock layers. Let’s look at how to use color to stratify a Year over Year chart.

Exhibit 1 -Taking the default colors gives you no information. Your have to rely completely on the legend every time you look at the chart.

A year over year chart presents each year of data represented by a different line. Exhibit 1 is a sample chart of the current year and three prior years of Sales presented in a year over year chart.

The chart uses a default set of colors from Microsoft Excel. The default colors give you no clues to the relative age of the lines. You have to read the legend on every Year over Year chart. You have to do the same thing over and over again as you look through the set of charts in a presentation.

You could replace the random or default colors with a consistent set of colors to show the relative age of each line. colors add no useful information. The viewer would still have to repeatedly look at the legend to understand what each line represents.

Stratification To The Rescue

Stratify the lines by selecting the colors you will use. Start with Black, Grey, your primary color, and one or two shades of your primary color to show the relative age of your lines.

Sequence your colors so the darkest are the most current and the lightest is the oldest. For example, on a four year chart you might have:

  • The current year is black.
  • Last year is the primary color.
  • Two years ago is a lighter shade of the primary color.
  • And the oldest year is grey.

Exhibit 2 – Using Black, Grey, and your primary color with shades adds aging information to the chart. The darker colors are more recent and the lighter colors older.

With a stratified set of colors you do not need a legend to understand the aging of the lines. The lightest (grey) is the oldest and the darkest (black) is the current. When you look at a chart you can easily see the relative performance without reading the legend. Exhibit 2, below shows the same numbers as Exhibit 1 but uses the more intuitive color scheme.

Once you know the older lines are lighter than the newer lines, reading the chart is a snap. The legend is included, but you don’t find yourself looking at the legend continually to understand the chart. Instead you can focus on what the chart is telling you about Sales.

You can see how not only will using perspective will save you time, but it will also make your charts more easy to understand. Let’s take a look at the second technique for using shading, Depth of Field.

2) Depth of Field

Depth of Field is the technique used to create a 3 dimensional image or separate foreground from background objects. In a painting Depth of Field is applied by coloring areas of an object with lighter and darker colors. The lighter areas simulates light is reflecting directly off the object. And the darker areas represent the shadows. Mixing light and dark areas on an object give it the depth of a three dimensional object. Similarly more drab shades of colors are used in the background with the brighter shades saved for the foreground objects. The difference in shades draws the viewer’s attention to the foreground objects.

So, Why Does Depth Of Field Help Numbers?

Sometimes you want to present a set of numbers for a single period, but only focus on a few of them. The default solution is to use a different color for each bar. The problem with taking the default is that the less significant items on your list get much more attention than you want to give them. Instead of drawing your audience’s attention to the items you want to emphasize.

You could just remove the items that are not important. But you would lose the context of the important numbers.

Photographers emphasize one object over others in a photograph using depth of field. That means creating clear focus on the important object and blurring the other objects in the foreground and background.

You can easily accomplish the same effect on your charts. Give a unique color from your palette only to the items you want to emphasize. Then blur all the rest by giving them a light shade of grey. Here’s an example.

Depth of Field Example: Reduce Production Expenses

A production manager has been charged with reducing expenses. There are nine major production expense categories captured. Only four of the nine expense categories are in the manager’s control. All nine of the expense categories are are charted as percent of total expenses using the most recent Quarter’s expense numbers. Exhibit 3 shows a bar chart of the nine expense categories.


Exhibit 3 -Default colors give no emphasis to any of the expense categories.

The chart has a default set of colors from Microsoft Excel. The muted colors do not differentiate the categories well. There are some colors which are repeated. Using the same color implies connections between the two greens, the two greys, the two browns, and the three blues. Also there is no indication of any subset of expense categories as the focal point of the chart.

The manager recast the chart by selecting brighter unique colors for each bar. The result, Exhibit 4, resolved the problem of the implied connections. But it still does not draw emphasis to the four expense categories important to the manager’s goal.


Exhibit 4 -Unique color for each bar eliminate the implied relationships but give no emphasis to the priority expense categories.

To resolve the issue, the manager colored the four expense categories in unique colors and all of the other categories in a single light grey shade. Anyone looking at the chart in Exhibit 5 can immediately see that the focus of the chart is Materials, Warehousing, Labor, Maintenance, and Shipping. By applying the Grey color to the other categories, you can see the percent each of them contributes to your total Production Costs.


Exhibit 5 -Combining shading of the unimportant categories and unique colors for each priority category, create the desired focus and emphasis.

Using shading with your primary colors to create a depth of field will simplify your chart production. Adding the depth of field will also help you focus any audience on your goals.

Take A Lesson From Great Painters

Apply the technique of shading which helped artists over thousands of years give their work depth. Add perspective by stratifying the colors you choose to make your Year over Year charts more clear. Apply Depth of Field shading to create emphasis on your priority measures or groups. Make these techniques a permanent part of your chart designing. You will benefit from the reduced time to create charts. And your audiences will benefit from more easily read charts.

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