Colour in reporting 1In brand and advertising trackers, it’s quite common to colour charts according to the actual brand colours. For example, the bars and line for Coca Cola would be red and Pepsi blue throughout the presentation. It’s easy to automate this colouring as well, with automation software like E-tabs Enterprise, and in PowerPoint VBA. You can specify each brand colour according to a precise RGB code, and even have the brand colours vary by country. This is certainly eye-catching, and avoids the smart-Alec in the audience saying “Why is Coca Cola coloured blue?…” during your presentation.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time setting up this colouring automation on various projects. However, after looking at a lot of data visualisations from outside of market research, I am wondering whether this is always the best approach. Old PowerPoint (2003 and older) coloured each series of a chart a completely different colour as a default – hence possible gaffes with Coca Cola ending up blue. In newer PowerPoint, the default is shades of the same colour. This makes more sense in a lot of ways. Looking at large-scale visualisations of thousands of bits of information, every variation tells you something different. But if you have a chart where Coke and Pepsi are already labelled, colouring Coke red and Pepsi blue doesn’t actually tell you anything new. If you can already distinguish between them on the chart, there’s no need for them to be different colours.

Removing colour, or rather neutralising it by making chart series all shades of the same colour, opens up opportunities to do more with the overall design. If the colours match the overall theme of the presentation deck, the effect is more unified and pleasing on the eye.

Colour in reporting 2

A striking dark background works when the chart colours are neutrals. You can make the background textural or include photographs, or have a much stronger graphical theme that the presence of lots of clashing colours would detract from. Icons work best when in the same colour, because the mind looks at the shape rather than the colour. I’ve seen white-on-dark versions of brand logos used in this way to great effect.

Colour in reporting 3

Keeping colours as similar as possible when they don’t have to be different also means that colour can be used to add in more information. Brands could be coloured according to their attributes, for example by price band, product type (business or leisure), region, size, ownership, etc etc. So the colour changes are actually communicating something on top of the brand name. Changes and differences can be made to stand out more. In a multi-coloured chart, a red cross and a green tick are less noticeable than if everything else is the same colour. Significant differences, changes over time, comparisons to a benchmark or the highlighting of the best or worst performer, will all have more impact against a more neutral background.

In the examples above, there is actually very little information being displayed, and this is more obvious if you neutralise the colours. It would be feasible to include much more insight into this visual by using colour to tell us something new.

One frequent criticism of market research reporting is that our visuals are very busy and try to convey a lot of information without it being obvious what we should really be looking at. Yet reporting in other sectors manages to display much more data-heavy visuals in a less confusing way. It is possible to present large amounts of information effectively, if it’s well designed and there’s no clutter. So how about this golden rule: If it tells us something we don’t already know, it’s information. If it doesn’t, it’s decoration and should be banished.