Episode 41: [Mini] How to Go on a Color Diet
Welcome to episode 41 of Data Viz Today. Are you terrified of color? Me too! :) Sometimes there are just too many choices. So I’m going on a color diet! What is a color diet? Well, for me, it means to be more conscious about how I use color in my visualizations to make sure that I’m using color to solve a problem. In this episode, we’ll talk about how a color diet can improve your work, plus a few tips on how to get the most out of the few colors that you do use.
Welcome! I'm Alli Torban.
Today is a mini episode where I talk about a data viz topic that I think is important. And today that topic is how to go on a color diet. What is a color diet? Well, for me, it means to be more conscious about how I use color in my visualizations to make sure that I’m using color to solve a problem and not just as visual entertainment. So in this episode, we’ll talk about how a color diet can improve your work, plus a few tips on how to get the most out of the few colors that you do use.
I don’t have any formal design training, like many people in the data viz field, so I never learned the ins and outs of color like a lot of people who come from like a graphic design background. So my color evolution went from just accepting software defaults, to changing defaults to other colors based on my whim, to where I’m at now where for personal projects I like to find colors that first make sense for my data, like is a diverging color palette appropriate or can I group these categories in a reasonable way so I don’t have 100 colors? And then I find other colors that are complementary, or pleasing to the eye as needed and color-blind safe. One of my favorite ways to find color palettes is to the Google Art & Culture Art Palette site which shows the palettes of tons of artworks, and then run it through Susie Lu and Elijah Meeks’ Viz Palette tool to make sure there aren’t any color conflicts.
But when it comes to picking color for work projects, I’m frozen into a panic. The choices feel super overwhelming the stakes seem so much higher. So I decided to go on a color diet and explore how to do more with less.
The first step in going on a color diet is to design your visualizations without color, using a monochrome palette, which means displaying images in black and white or in varying tones of only one color. Think of a color ramp from white to black and all the grays in between.
A big benefit of designing without color, is that you can really focus on the data first. Anand Satyan wrote a really great Medium article about the benefits to UX designers to design with no color. One of which is that you allow your eye to really see the layout and spacing of all your elements. Your eye isn’t getting drawn by color, so you notice how things are grouped, how readable is your text…
Another benefit is that the people you’re working with, clients, stakeholders, will start asking better questions when you show a monochrome design first. Anand says that you can have a conversation about what color works for which elements, rather than the conversation focusing on why you chose yellow.
So first designing without thinking about color will help you focus on your layout, spacing, alignment, hierarchy. And it’ll also help you and your client focus on HOW you’re using color rather than which colors you’re using.
That line I recently read in Scott Barinato’s new Good Charts Work Book, which is an amazing book that I’m working through with hands-on exercises. In the chapter about color, he wrote: “Think HOW, not WHICH.” And this itty bitty change in thinking was huge for me. It totally changed my perspective and anxiety around color. Instead of freaking out about WHICH colors to use, I first needed to think HOW. How will using color improve my reader’s understanding? How will this color in this spot make this viz more effective?
When your goal is to use color to solve a problem, the choices are a lot easier. Do you have a line chart of temperatures in 10 cities? The software default will give you 10 nice bright colors for each, but HOW is color going to improve your reader’s understanding? Maybe your point is to show how your city compares to other cities, so 9 will be gray and your city will be blue. Color has helped focus your reader on your story.
So how can you get the most out of using a monochrome palette, it can feel kind of restrictive at first, but I came across a presentation by the cartographer Daniel Huffman where he argues why you should design maps in monochrome. The presentation is only 10 minutes long, and definitely worth watching all the way through, but there were two tips in there about getting the most out of monochrome that I really liked.
One tip is say you have a map and you make the water white and the land gray. That would be my initial instinct if I were going to only use a white to black ramp. But now, the grays you have left for everything else are limited. But, you can get those grays back, if you make the water and land both white, and you just give a glow to the land so it looks like it’s popping up away from the water, or add concentric water lines to the coastline. So your reader can distinguish between the two, but you still have your whole color ramp to use for other things.
Another tip that Daniel had was to think about how you can use patterns, like diagonal lines or dots. This allows you to use one color of gray for a whole bunch of things.
If you think about it, some other benefits of designing in monochrome is that you don’t even have to worry about whether people are going to understand your viz if it’s printed out in black and white, or if your palette is color-blind safe!
My final takeaway is that designing your visualizations without color or in monochrome helps you in the design process by allowing you to focus on the layout and helps you focus on HOW color will help your reader. You can get the most out of using a monochrome palette by using techniques like glow or shadow, or using patterns. Once you max out your monochrome, think about how that one pop of red will make the HUGE impact you’re looking for.
I’m looking forward to going on a color diet and pushing my monochrome limits. If you have a pro-tip on designing without color, I’d love to hear! I’m on twitter at DataVizToday.