Dashboard Design Mistake #5: Misuse of Colour
Dashboards contain a lot of information and it is very easy to create a display that is visually overwhelming.
This is particularly true when it comes to colour.
Properly used, colour is an important tool for conveying meaning.
But badly used, colour can be confusing and even misleading.
Here are the five common mistakes when it comes to using colour in dashboards:
1. Over-using highly saturated colours
2. Using different colours to represent the same item on different charts
3. Assigning random colours to items in a sequence
4. Misusing traffic light colours
5. Using the company’s corporate colours
Here’s how to deal with each of those mistakes:
1. Over-using highly saturated colours
Highly saturated colours are colours that are at or near 100% in intensity, whereas de-saturated colours are closer to grey:
In nature, full-saturation colours often indicate threats or mating opportunities (think plumage, flower petals, blood, etc.), and we’re evolutionarily wired to immediately pay attention to them.
If a dashboard is full of highly saturated colours, everything is demanding attention, so users don’t know what to look at first. They end up feeling overwhelmed.
It’s best to tone most colours down.
Klipfolio’s default colour palettes are already nicely desaturated, but you can also use Cynthia Brewer’s excellent site, http://colorbrewer2.org/, which does a great job of suggesting colour palettes that are comfortable to look at. As a bonus, this site even suggests palettes that handle colour-blindness.
There is a role for fully saturated colours, but it’s limited to calling out things that require the user’s attention.
2. Using different colours for the same item on different charts
In a dashboard, consistency is important. It reduces the mental effort users have to make to understand what they are seeing.
So be consistent in your use of colour: If you use a brown line to show, say, the Western region in one line chart on your dashboard, try to use brown to denote the Western region in all the charts on your dashboard.
3. Assigning random colours to items that have an inherent sequence
Colour is an important tool for grouping items. Here again, consistency is important.
For categories that have an inherent sequence or relationship (time, risk levels, grade levels, lead progression etc.), you can make it easier for users by using the same hue (blue, for example) for all items, but varying the intensity of the hue (see example below). Users then only have to remember that higher-intensity colours are more recent/advanced/progressed/riskier or whatever, which is easier than memorizing multiple random colours.
Example of random colours for related items in a sequential activity (funnel conversions)
Same example with the same colour but varying hues
Cynthia Brewer’s http://colorbrewer2.org/ is a great resource for this. Just select the “sequential” radio button to get good sequential palettes for use in your dashboards.
4. Misusing “traffic light” colours
In Western societies, red means “stop” or “bad” and green means “good” or “go.” This can be extremely useful when designing dashboards:
However, there are a few things to avoid, and consider when using them:
1- Inconsistency: If green and red are used to denote “good” and “bad” in one chart, they shouldn’t be used to denote anything else in any other chart on your dashboard. For example, if red means “bad” on one chart and “East region” on another, this suggests that the East region is bad. If used consistently and strategically, however, traffic light colours can enable users to quickly scan the whole dashboard and spot problems (red objects) and opportunities (green objects) with ease.
2- Misusing amber/yellow: If a value is neither good nor bad, it’s usually of less interest to users. Colouring it with amber is, therefore going to draw a lot of unwarranted attention, and makes the dashboard a lot busier.
3- Overuse: Not everything needs to be red/green colour-encoded. Only major problems and opportunities in the data should be red or green, so that they pop out. If there’s too much red or green, you can end up with the Christmas tree effect, in which the dashboard is an undecipherable mess of red and green objects.
5. Using your corporate colours
You may be tempted (or asked) to assign your organization’s corporate colours to elements in your dashboard charts.
This is almost always a bad idea…….
First, your organization’s colours may be too intense, too light, or otherwise unsuitable for dashboards.
Second, if they are colours that people associate with concepts, such as red (bad, hot), green (good) or blue (cold), using them in your dashboard may be misleading, or at least very limiting from a design perspective.
And since most dashboards are used inside the organization, it’s also unnecessary to use corporate colours – unless you’re worried people are going to forget what organization they’re working for!
Avoiding the above mistakes will make your dashboards easier to use. They’ll also be more attractive. And research suggests that people find information more credible when it’s presented in an attractive manner.
Next in this series: Common dashboard design mistake #6: Forcing users to do mental math.
Originally published December 18, 2015, updated Jun, 17 2019