As I usually do in my workshops, I talked to a group in Warsaw, Poland about how we should use color intentionally in our data visualization and that, in fact, the color choice itself can help us tell our story. I prepared a little activity around this issue, in which I asked them to generate a list of the words, phrases, feelings, memories, etc that come to mind when seeing this color:

Go ahead and try it for yourself. Try to come up with 3-4 things in your list.

The participants in my workshop said things like easy, energetic, and too bright.

And, go figure, its the color I pulled from a common Polish convenience store logo:

Convenience stores are meant to be exactly those things: easy, energetic, too bright. Makes sense.

And that’s the field of color psychology, which studies how humans have associations with specific colors. But it is tricky because associations with colors are shared, culturally (as in, green means growth to many in the US), and also incredibly personal and unique (but in Lansing, green means Michigan State Spartans). It can be a difficult area to gather data and, as a result, difficult to use color to support your story in your data visualizations, particularly if your audience is global.

I anticipated that there might be some cultural differences regarding this yellow, so just before my workshop, I posted this color to Twitter and asked people to reply with whatever comes to mind for them. People chimed in from around the world. Now, culture is not necessarily geographically-bound, but here’s a map of your associations with this particular shade of yellow.

Obviously, this isn’t enough data to state anything with any kind of certainty. But some interesting things popped up:

Denver folks mentioned a children’s game and characters from a kid’s movie. Must be a fun place to live.

It meant sunshine and warmth in places that don’t really get much of that, like Portland and Boston, and in places that have it to excess, like Tucson.

Minnesota brought up yellow snow. Makes sense.

Nebraska folks mentioned a kid’s TV show and a school bus. When I clicked back on their Twitter accounts, they both worked in education.

DC and London were the only places that just said, straight up, “yellow.” Go figure.

While it generally was associated with happiness all over the globe, there were places that said the opposite, such an envy in Kuwait and cowardice in southern California and illness in Kentucky.

What else do you notice in these responses? How do your own associations fit in this map?

I don’t know what to make of all of this, exactly, other than to say that while there are some shared cultural associations (happiness) there are plenty of associations that counter that (painful) to warrant us being very thoughtful about which colors we select and apply to our reports, slides, dashboards, and graphs. As tricky as it is, anything will be better than the Excel default colors.

Investigate some of the common (to the Western world) associations with different colors and pair these up with the colors in your logo or mandated color scheme so you know what to use, when.

And throughout the writing of this entire post, I had this song stuck in my head.

 

Color is an entire chapter in my latest book, Presenting Data Effectively, 2nd edition. I talk at length about how to choose the right colors and apply them to your work so your story is clear.