Color is in the eye of the beholder

Last summer I had the opportunity to speak at the Tableau European conference taking place in Berlin. This talk was under the banner of lighting talks, these talks were meant to inspire and be thought provoking.

I choose to speak about Color, more precisely how we as individuals perceive color. Not so much the bio-mechanics of it, but how our cultures, experiences and place of birth may influence our color perception. The inspiration came from an episode in Las Vegas not so long ago. During a Visualization competition, a jury made the link between the blue and red colors in the visualization below to political parties. Which is an easy connection to make, particularly since this competition was taking place in the US.

The contestant however retorted that it was a way to represent his native country by using the French flag colors.

Iron Viz Winner Tristan Guillevin

And this is something that happens to many of us everyday, without noticing. We create color associations based on our life experiences and cultures.

What is Color?

Color is the frequency of light detectable by the human eye. It’s a measure of how quickly light waves are moving. The visible light spectrum is the section of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum that is visible to the human eye. Essentially, that equates to the colors the human eye can see. It ranges in wavelength from approximately 400 nanometers which is violet to 700 nm which is red. It is also known as the optical spectrum of light or the spectrum of white light.

Despite our differences across cultures, we humans have a common pattern in the way we try to make sense of the world. Berlin and Kay’s work proposed that the basic color terms in a culture, such as black, brown or red, are predictable by the number of color terms the culture has. All cultures have terms for black, dark and white, bright. If a culture has three color terms, the third is red. If a culture has four, it has yellow or green and so on.

The meaning of color

The meaning of color is a complex and highly varying concept. When we look at the meaning of color it’s important to understand its differences from culture to cultures. Although some color meanings are universal, many colors are associated with rituals, holidays and traditions. When people across the world see various colors, each individual’s background and environment creates their own unique interpretation of that color.

People retain 80% of what they see.

Color meaning and association

Not an exhaustive list, but the more common color associations can be found below. As you design your visualizations it is worth spending time how you want to make your audience feel about the story your data is showing and using color to convey this.

Black is associated with authority, often worn by judges, poets and businessmen. Black is the color of mourning in the western world, often representing evil, death, witches and magic. At the same time black is also associated with elegance and luxury

White is a color often connected to purity, virginity and honesty. In Asian cultures white is also the color of mourning Japan in opposition to black in the US.

Red has the longest wavelength of the visible light spectrum. It is the most visually dominant color. The color of blood it evokes lust, passion and good fortune, particularly in China. At the same time red is connected to danger, aggression, anger, immorality and bloodshed.

Red color, due to its longer wavelength does not get scattered by the particles in the atmosphere and hence reaches our eyes more distinctly than the other colors. That’s why, red color is used for stop in traffic signals.


Researchers have found that red can evoke a sense of urgency. On top of that, it also has an innate ability to whet our appetites. And when you pair those two together you’ve got the perfect recipe to attract hungry customers who want food, fast.

Green brings images of nature, life, health, spring and hope. At the same time it also connects us to toxicity and poor health. If evokes feelings such as turning green… with envy. Finally it brings us safety and permission which may be the reason for the choice of color on green cards in the US.

Yellow is connected with the Sun, intellect, optimism. But also with amusement, humor and spontaneity.

Blue Interestingly Russia has two blue’s goluboy (like the sky) and siniy (like the sea). The United Nations use blue as it brings its synonym with calm, concentration and harmony. confidence and faithfulness. However is also connects us to sadness, longing and the expression feeling blue.


Every color in the rainbow inspires different feelings and communicates different qualities to the consumer.

The color blue is typically associated with credibility, trust, knowledge, power, professionalism, cleanliness, calm and focus.

The healthcare industry relies on blue as a primary provider more than any other industry. When we look at industry leading providers, blue appears in nearly 85% of all logos.

Red in CVS a drugstore, seems to be a strange choice at first, but not so when we look at other popular retail drugstores: Walgreens and Target also rely on red. We see in the retail industry that red lures shoppers inside, so the bold logo works to draw attention to their stores. These companies aren’t directly dealing with life-or-death situations

The brown color is seen widely in nature, in wood, soil, human hair color, eye color and skin pigmentation. Least favorite color of the public; the color is most often associated with plainness, the rustic and poverty.

Purple Rarity, royalty, magic, mystery. Eroticism and seduction, Byzatine Empire and Church use it in their stoles Similarly in Japan, the color is traditionally associated with the Emperor and aristocracy. Purple is most favorite among women and girls, and is symbolic of the women’s empowerment.

Orange is the only color with name of a fruit, it is associated with Autumn, creativity, warmth and loudness. In Asia it is an important symbolic color of Buddhism and Hinduism.

Grey is undecided it is neutrality and conformity. It is boredom, old age and indifference. Preferred by 1% of people. However a great color to be used in data visualization that allows us to contrast with most of the other colors.

Pink It was first used as a color name in the late 17th century. Associated with charm, politeness, tenderness, childhood, femininity and romantic. Its combination with other colors changes its significance dramatically.

Pink + white = innocence and virginity

Pink + black = eroticism and seduction

As we’ve seen color has many meanings, cultures and experiences will influence our feelings and perception as well. These are important considerations to make when looking at the audience of your visualizations, in some instances you can use that to your advantage, either by using strong colors to shock or explore different palettes that help support a metaphor. I hope this post inspires you to think about the colors you use in your visualizations, that encourages you to explore color combinations and for further reading I recommend Bridget’s blog here.

Resources:

  1. https://help.tableau.com/current/pro/desktop/en-us/formatting_create_custom_colors.htm

  2. https://public.tableau.com/en-us/gallery/100-color-palettes?gallery=votd

  3. https://tableaumagic.com/color-palette-generator-by-tableau-magic

  4. http://colortool.powertoolsfortableau.com/

  5. https://coolors.co/

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