No More Red Yellow Green

Listen we absolutely must stop using the stoplight color system in our data visualizations and dashboards. You know what I’m talking about. It’s stuff like this:


and this

It’s the worst thing ever. For several reasons. Here’s they are:

The red-yellow-green color coding system isn’t legible for people with colorblindness. Here’s how the indicator dot looks on a few metrics to a person with red-green colorblindness. Are they terrible or great?


You can’t tell. And that’s exactly the first problem. If you are at all concerned about 508 compliance you can’t use the stoplight color coding system because it all looks pretty much identical to a person with colorblindness.

Reason #2 why it is so bad:

Related to reason 1, if the dashboard is printed (yes, people still print) on a black and white printer (yes, these still exist), the color loses all meaning. Here’s how that dashboard looks in black and white:



Useless. And that’s the second problem.

Reason #3 why it is so bad:

It puts a color on everything. And when everything has a color, nothing stands out. And the whole point of the icons or color coding is to alert the viewer to problems (or successes).

It’s way more efficient to pick a side. Either highlight your successes with green (with the understanding that everything that isn’t green is not up to par) or highlight the places that need work with red (and be cool that the things without a red icon are fine). Selective color coding actually serves the original intention, which is to point attention to areas of interest. Here’s how to set up those icons in an Excel dashboard with just one color.

I know some organizations are really wedded to this color scheme and I will have to pry it from some people’s cold, dead hands. If you are at all interested in becoming more compliant, efficient, and streamlined, stop with the stoplight. Focus decision-maker attention on the areas that need it and – BAM! – you shine, you’re the rockstar, you get a promotion. You’re welcome.


  1. I think that using conventional color associations (red = problem!) to convey additional meaning is still really helpful, but i agree that less is more – whe it’s all over the place, nothing stands out.

    Print compatibility and colorblind utility are real issues, though – like everything else, stoplight color schemes always need to be considered in the broader context of other concerns.

      1. Yup. Just red is a great approach. It excludes unnecessary stuff: if you’re indicating that something is in one of two categories, you only need to show one category. Cognitively, people are capable of that basic process of elimination.

        1. Great article. I almost always find that neutral colours like grey for most things and blue/red for tops/flops work well with a lot of people that are used to stop light colour coding and makes phasing out of that old model a little easier.

        2. Great article! And couldn’t agree more with your comment here. RED can be good or bad, it is all about the context of the data, and the visualization. But regardless of positive or negative, color should be used strategically. Using a single Primary color in combination with a grey scale is great way to draw your users focus to a specific story.

  2. Great post, Stephanie! I like the alternatives you presented. We are using a dark green, light green, light gray color scheme in various charts to show whether grantees are meeting (dark green), nearly meeting (light green), or not currently meeting (light gray) specified benchmarks. In this case it feels more appropriate to highlight the positive (with green) versus the negative (with red). We quickly nixed the stoplight idea in our early drafts. Phew.

  3. Great post, the plight of black and white printing is real. Instead of relying solely on color to convey the meaning of the indicator, how about a shape to further communicate the meaning. I’ve used three symbols in the past, circle=good, triangle=okay, x=bad, to communicate the meaning, Excel has a similar three symbol grouping. Also, maybe instead of single column for the indicator, it can be split into 3+ columns, the one that is filled in, corresponds to the indicator with the column heading indicating the good, bad or okay. I worry about using gradations of a color, the difference between red, light red, and dark red may evaporate when printed, or viewed on a high contrast display. To me, the real challenge in my mind are the bars and lines, this is probably where direct labeling comes in, and/or small multiples.
    By the way, I love these posts!

    1. I like the shape idea too, except that Excel’s available shapes look cheesy. Let’s start a petition for better shapes. Three columns could work if someone doesn’t have to worry about space – and that’s the primary thing about a dashboard, ya know? I think you can easily get away with 2 shades of one color but more than that may be tricky for exactly the reasons you suggest.

  4. Nice post. Yes- stop the stoplight, be 508 compliant with visuals (presentations, handouts, etc.), use color strategically to highlight. Also, there is a cultural component to using color- the same color may convey different meanings in different cultures. If we are aware of this component of our audience & integrate it into our work, then our visuals can communicate in visually-appropriate as well as culturally-appropriate ways.

  5. Thanks for another thought-provoking post! My favorite part about nixing the red/yellow/green color scheme is that it does away with yellow. Items coded in yellow tend to be ignored or “monitored” (which typically means ignored). One more argument for using one color to put the focus where you intend it!

  6. I’m a big fan of the “less is more” and so the ‘only red’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘shades of green’ works for me, I’m not a big believer in blind 508 compliance nor black and white printing as a key issue. It’s not that I’m insensitive, I believe it is more situational; if clients’ stakeholders likely to view these reports/dashboards are colorblind, then adjust accordingly. Most organizations I work with regularly use color printers and so black and white printing is not an issue. Again, if it is prevalent, then adjust accordingly. My point is know your customer and provide the best visual experience possible. Okay with red only (works for 508 and printer). Am I being naïve?

    1. Nah not naive. I think it can be hard to predict what will happen with the design. Even if you make something for a client, can you guarantee they won’t post it to the web (where there may be colorblind folks or people with black and white printers) or put it in a conference handout where it again can be out of your primary audience? If you are sure your audience is well known and tightly controlled, you are probably ok. In my situation, that’s rarely the case.

  7. Thank you for this article. I can only agree. Especially tricolor Bullet Graphs in dashboards I think is not meaningful. The basic idea of color signal is lost through this excessive use.
    Just before you published your blog post, I blogged also about the effect of colors (in Bullet Graphs). The theme is probably global. For our reduced dashboards we always get positive feedback. This is encouraging. I wish you similarly positive feedback.

  8. Great article, keep them coming.
    If RAG is needed in charts, I tend to go for a dark intense red a medium orange and a light green so they still have some appearance of natural order in black and white (or for people with deuteranopia). For icons to highlight data points in a list, then as you say usually the neutral should have the least emphasis, and one or both extremes should stand out, but that can mean the intuitive colour gradient (or saturation gradient in B&W) is lost. Like so many things, people need to be wary of taking one rule such as “make neutral data neutral in colour” which works well for icons, and applying it somewhere else such as column/bar charts.
    I do a lot of work with charts and dashboards in customer service where people have a natural instinct to use RAG colour scheme at every opportunity. Faults / incidents / complaints have a priority field? Then high should be red, and low should be green! We have a due date or SLA? Then overdue must be red, nearly due is amber, not yet due is green!
    The problem is that in these scenarios people see green and think “good”. More green? More goodness!
    But wait! – more green just means we have lots of faults that have a low priority or long time to fix them. Is a large number of any kind of fault actually a good thing? I try to steer my clients towards a RAT (red, amber, tan) colour scheme, so there is no prominent “good” colour, the “tan” being less orange than amber but not really green. And it is the lightest shade of the three, so this still works well in black and white.
    And ideally get smart with a combination of things like priority and age to score things, to an old low priority case eventually gets as much attention as a brand new high priority one.
    As for icons in different shapes, again some care is needed. Bad = red cross, good = green tick (check) can be OK. Be wary of up or down arrows. These are often interpreted as direction indicators – red up arrow? Bad but improving? Bad and higher than last month? Green down arrow – good, but not good enough? I did some work with a client who produce monthly reports for their customers about various business metrics they measured, and how the customers could improve on them. Each report section started with a summary page, with a chart of progress over time of one metric, and key highlights below, with icon indicators. We made sure the consultants writing the reports used the right colours and icons, because some metrics get better as the numbers go down (so a downward green arrow is “good” for faults, say), whereas others get better as numbers increase (productivity going down would be a downward arrow, but in red).
    A good test for any proposed colour meaning in charts or icon shapes on a list is to cover up the values and ask people what they think the colours/icons mean. Or cover up any legend and ask them to explain the colours or icons in their own words. Test with regular users and with people who do not work with that data on a daily basis, to challenge preconceived ideas based on “how we have always done it”.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.