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Data Visualization: Understand How Your Audience Sees Color

Data Communication

Jaime D’Agord



When designing a report or any form of data visualization for that matter, it is essential to know that colors hold different meanings across cultures. Color is an aspect of design that can have extensive and sometimes unintentional effects on users and readers. Understanding the audience of your report or design plays a significant role.

Culture Influences Color Interpretation

In western cultures, red promotes a feeling of anger or danger, while in Chinese cultures, it represents good luck and success. Purple is associated with royalty and honor in western cultures, in Thailand and Brazil purple represents mourning. White is associated with purity, cleanliness, and weddings in western cultures, while white symbolizes death and grief in eastern cultures and unhappiness in India.

Although many colors on the color wheel are perceived differently among cultures, this is not true for all. Therefore, when designing visualizations, especially for an international audience, keep in mind the effect your color scheme will convey. For instance, in the US, “being in the red” has a negative meaning, but in the Chinese culture, it’s portrayed as good luck, a positive connotation.

Circle Vs. Rectangle – Choosing the right graphic representation

Below is a picture was taken at David McCandless’ SAS Global Forum 2016 talk – depicting Colors in Culture. The original can be found here.

The color wheel catches my eye and makes me curious, but I find the circular references confusing and challenging to read. For example, follow the letter “E” on the diagram which corresponds with the Chinese culture to the color representation for death. Is the result, the color white or a blank space? A data visualization should be easy to understand, a way to find information swiftly, not leaving the user with questions or having to pull out a geometry set to figure out results.

Stephen Few recreated this visual in an easy to read tabular form, as shown below. While the table doesn’t quite catch the eye the way the circle representation does, the columns and rows make it easier to lookup values and see similarities across locations.

Take our previous example; for instance, we can quickly locate the Chinese column across the top, and the row associated with death as they appear in alphabetical order. We can effortlessly and rapidly find that the color representation for death in Chinese culture is white.

Using Good Color Versus Bad Color

In this image borrowed from Why Dashboard Gauges Aren’t as Bad as You Think by Tricia Aanderud, do the red, yellow and green colors have an implied meaning? How do people of different cultures interpret the colors? Traffic lighting is a universal concept.

However, the definitions in graphs and other visualizations can take on other meanings as we’ve previously learned. The red can be interpreted negatively by western cultures and associated with positive sense in eastern cultures.

Does Color Matter?

Color is essential in data visualization, and it is used as a means of communication. It helps to visually search a report quickly, show associations, to improve user experience, and invoke emotion. The meanings of colors can be opposite across cultures, but some can also be universal.

When selecting colors, think of your audience, know which colors to avoid and remember, color matters!


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