Big Ideas for Small Business

Why Color Matters

Color Wheel Choices

I recently saw a television commercial for a computer printer in which two businessmen are sitting at a table looking at a graph. The graph is in black and white. The businessmen are having trouble determining what the graph is showing them. They rotate the paper, but still look puzzled.

Suddenly drops of color fall from the ceiling. The colors fill in the bars on the graph. And suddenly the graph meaning is crystal clear.

Are your graphs colored by drops falling from the ceiling?

Of course not. But if you are using the default colors from your graphing tool , you may as well be. Default colors work alright to differentiate objects on a single graph. But the default colors don’t add any consistent information to a series of graphs. Graphs showing different KPIs (Key Performance Indicators.) Or comparing your performance to your competitors. Or showing year over year performance. To really gain the power of color, you need to specifically select colors for your graphs.

But your computer can generate over 250 million colors. And you create graphs of over 30 KPIs and groupings. It would take you too much time to select colors every time you go to create a graph. How do you choose from 250 Million Colors!

Although your computer can generate 250 million colors, you don’t have to select millions, or hundreds of thousands, or even hundreds of colors. In fact, it would be a waste of time because most people can’t easily differentiate between many of the colors. You can shortcut the process by using a trick graphic designers use.

The Graphic Designers Friend

Graphic designers reduce the choices they have to make by using a palette. A palette is a set of colors that work together. Colors with contrast between them. A good designer selects a palette of colors once. Then uses the palette colors for:

  • The web site
  • The company logo
  • Company stationary
  • Advertizing materials
  • Sales materials

Consistently using the same set of colors across all of a company’s materials saves the designer time. The choice for a new branding or sales piece is from the six or so colors on the palette. Using the same colors create a connection in the customers’ minds with the company. Think of the Blue and White that have been linked with IBM forever. Or the Yellow and Green that are BP’s signature colors. Or look at the Viagra web site where blue, black and grey make up the palette for the “Little blue pill.” You see how powerful the palette of colors can be. Let’s look at how you can create your own palette.

Creating Your Palette

When you start to think about creating a palette you are probably asking yourself questions like:

Where do I start?
How many colors do I need in my palette?
How do I know which colors to choose?

These are good questions. And luckily the solution is not as complicated as it might seem. You need a set of colors that will make the meaning of your charts clear. So you only need a few colors. Use the graphic designer’s palette as a guideline to selecting your colors. The graphic designer’s palette can be divided into three categories:

  1. The Basics
  2. Primary Color
  3. Secondary Colors

To create your palette all you have to do is select colors for each of these categories. It’s easy to do. Let’s start with The Basics.

1 The Basics

Sample color palette.

Exhibit 1 – The Basic colors, the first part of every palette.

The Basics are colors everyone needs. There are three colors in The Basics white, black, and grey. Any of the three colors can be used for a background. Any of the three colors can be used for text. Any of the three colors can be used for differentiation.

Which is what makes white, black and grey The Basics. They are indispensable. We don’t need to make any choices for our palette, which leads us to the next category, Primary Color.

2 Primary Color

Sample color palette.

Exhibit 2 – Your Primary Color and two shades make up the second part of your palette.

The Primary Color will be used in every chart. It will be used for most of your KPIs. In fact, the Primary Color is the default color for a single KPI. Since the Primary Color is integral to your presentations, you should use the Primary Color from your company’s designed materials.

If you are IBM your Primary Color would be a dark medium blue. If you are BP your color would be green. Like The Basics, selecting your Primary Color is simple.

Just identify the Primary Color in your designed materials and you are almost done. The last decision you need to make about your Primary Color is choosing two shades. One lighter than your Primary Color. And the second much lighter. With your Primary Color selected you are ready to proceed to the Secondary Colors.

3 Secondary Colors

Sample color palette.

Exhibit 2 – The 4 colors you select for your Secondary Colors complete your palette.

Why do you need to select Secondary Colors? Between The Basics and Primary Color you have 6 colors.

But your background is White or Black and this uses up one of your colors. When you chart KPIs with shades of a single color you imply there is a connection between them. If you don’t want to imply a connection you only have 3 colors. So you need more colors. Which is where having a set of Secondary Colors to choose from comes in handy.

Secondary Colors fill two needs. Secondary Colors can be used to differentiate between the KPIs or different members of groups. Secondary Colors can also highlight one or more items or groups on a graph. Selecting Secondary Colors will give you the flexibility you need in your palette.

How Many Secondary Colors Do I Need?

How many items will you ever need to differentiate on a chart? You could start by counting what you want to compare in your charts. How many competitors? How many internal organizations? How many product lines? How many major customers? How many major vendors? And start with the highest number. That number could be as high as ten or twelve.

But are you going to ever chart ten or twelve organizations on a single chart? Have you ever created a chart with that many? It looks like spaghetti, doesn’t it. Ten or twelve is too many lines for a single line chart. Five is the most lines you can really use on a single chart 99% of the time. You already have the Primary Color. So you need to select four colors.

The colors you select should be easy to differentiate from each other and the Primary Color. To make the choice simple I suggest you select from the following: Red, Green, Blue, Purple, Gold, Brown. Assuming your Primary Color is in the list, you just have to jettison a color and you are almost done.

Pick a default order to use your Secondary Colors. Whatever order you like. This is the order you will add colors when you add a line or bar or series to a chart. Picking the sequence now will eliminate a step from your chart production. Once you have chosen your sequence, there is only one more step for Secondary Colors.

Your Secondary Colors should contrast and not clash when printed, projected or displayed on a screen. As a result you want to choose darker and less vibrant shades of your colors. Have you ever noticed how bright red and bright green clash in a bar chart? Darker shades do not clash when placed next to other colors.

Put The Pieces Together

Sample color palette.

Exhibit 4 – A sample color palette.

When you have selected your colors, put them together in a palette. Exhibit 4 is a sample palette based on the process.

The color palette is a great start to giving your colors meaning. Use the palette every time you create a new chart. A consistently used palette will become familiar to your audiences. And make your content much clearer.

Don’t Wait For Colors To Drop From The Ceiling

Create and start using a palette for all of your graphs today. Save yourself time by using the Graphic Designers trick of creating a palette of colors. Select a set of colors for your palette before you create your charts. You have three decisions to make for your palette. First select a Primary Color for use on the majority of your KPIs. Then select two shades of your Primary Color. One lighter and one much lighter. Finally, select four Secondary Colors to be used to differentiate or emphasize KPIs or groups.

Apply the same palette every time you create graphs and you will save yourself time. And you will gain an added benefit. Your audiences will quickly become familiar with your palette. Which will let them focus on the performance conveyed instead of the format of each graph.

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