Be careful with your colours!

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You may have heard of semantic networks – but have you heard of semantic colours?

“Semantic colours” is the concept of using colours that are associated with content / words.  For example – if I were to ask you “what is the colour of spring, the colour of autumn and the colour of love?”, you might reply something along the lines of “spring is green, autumn is orange/red/brown and love is red/pink”.  Even though these seasons and feelings (spring, autumn and love) have no colour per se, our brains have become conditioned to associate colours with them – these are semantic colours.

If a key principle of data visualization is using visual aides (colour, pattern, size and organisation) to make data easier to understand, then it make sense that we use semantic colours – or associated colours – to enhance our data visualization even further.

Case in point – the following article on HBR.Com gives readers a simple bar chart and asks them to quickly state which fruit has higher sales – blueberries or tangerines?  The first chart on the left uses default colour assignment (looks like Tableau to me!) and does not assign semantic colours (we can see from the legend that blueberries are identified as ‘green’ and tangerines are identified as ‘pink’).  Contrast this with the chart on the right – where semantic colours are applied – with blueberries identified as blue, tangerines identified as orange.  Which is easier to read?

Semantic Colours

 

Semantic colours, by their very definition, are dependent on the environment and the culture in which they are to be used.  Another great example from the HBR.com article – the colours green and red and their association with luck or fortune.  In many Western cultures, green is associated with luck and positive results – however a number of Eastern cultures associate red with luck and good fortune.

Using, or attempting to use, semantic colours will only be effective if they are aligned with your stakeholders’ colour associations – just another reason to make sure you involve your stakeholder in all stages of your analytics projects, from design to done!

 

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