The Internet went insane a few weeks ago. Over a dress. More specifically, the color of a dress. It caused more division than a year’s worth of calculus. The color of the dress was a gestalt optical illusion. I don’t want to dig into how you perceive the dress, but I think it’s worth talking about the science and psychology of color. Especially when it comes to picking and using colors in presentations and charts.
The psychology of color.
There’s some good news and bad news on this. The good news is that color has a huge effect on us. It can radically alter our mood. It can change our perception of value. It can influence what we pay attention to, and the choices we make.
One of the most famous examples, first discovered by psychologist Andrew Schauss, is the effect of the color pink. He was investigating if color could cause emotional and hormonal changes. Schauss enlisted the help of two Navy men, Commander Ron Miller and CWO Gene Baker. He asked them to paint a seclusion room at Seattle’s Naval Correctional facility pink.
According to a report filed by the U.S. Navy Bureau assigned to measuring such things, the color had a powerful effect. Violent, agitated sailors instantly calmed down on entering the drunk tank.
“There have been no incidents of erratic or hostile behaviour during the initial phase of confinement.”
Color does more than calm drunks though. Research has shown that red focuses our attention on detail oriented tasks, while blue allows us to be more creative. Colors enhance an individual’s visual memory. The color of the cup alters what we believe about the beverage.
Here’s the bad news. There is no [insert your choice of color here] bullet.*
We can, roughly speaking, attribute meaning to color, but it’s not absolute. How you interpret color, both consciously and unconsciously, is dependent on a host factors. When culture, experience, and context vary, you get twitter wars about the color of a dress.
What color to choose?
If you’re picking and choosing color schemes for a presentation or an infographic, or charts and graphs, you have a choice. Do you want to use color to:
- Draw attention?
- Help categorize?
- To decorate?
Drawing attention with color.
Perhaps the simplest use of color is to use it to capture attention. From an evolutionary perspective, we’re wired to pay attention to things in a certain order. Take a look at the block of Latin below for example.
What do you see? If your visual cortex works the same way everyone else’s does, here’s what you will see. First movement, then color, and eventually irregularity. That’s normal. That hierarchy is useful when we want to draw the eye. Especially in a business presentation. One piece of content is more important than another, and so on. This allows you to steer the audience in the way you want.
The same is true of charts and graphs. Use color to focus the audience’s attention on the part of the data that matters to your story. What’s important in using this technique is a sparing use of color. The majority of the page should be black and white or grayscale.
Categorization using color.
A second way to use color is to categorize. You are using color to create distinction between separate parts and order among many parts. Here’s a simple example. A visual description of gender diversity in employees at Google. You may need a ruler to understand that one gender outnumbers the other by 7:3. But you don’t need a legend to know that males are a larger group than females. The designer has used a cultural norm, (blue for boys, pink for girls) to categorize with color.
There are many such norms. Some are more universal. Blue cold, red hot. Some are cultural. Red state, blue state. Some are dependent on specific domain expertise; in the black, in the red (finance). What’s useful about these norms is that (like using color to call attention) they don’t need labels or keys to work.
But you can go wrong.
Here’s a simple graph using a simple convention. Green good, red bad. For most of us, that works, but if you’re color-blind, it doesn’t.
Categorization with color gets more difficult as things get more complex. Watch out that you don’t confuse people in your effort to make things simple. For example, using recognizable brand colors is a good way to use color.
Of course, sometimes there is no known connection with the colors you use to categorize.
Take this (abridged) award-winning infographic by RJ Andrews. The graphic displays the routine of creative geniuses on a clock face, with the activity color coded. The difficulty here is the labeling. Complex graphics usually need a key or legend. There’s a certain amount of mental gyration associated with that. You have to “load” the color key in short-term memory. Then you can correctly interpret the graphic. The alternative is to bounce back and forward between the visual and key to interpret meaning. In this case, blue means exercise, so you know that Tchaikovsky exercised way more than Franklin. The small annotations help you interpret the color.
Color as decoration.
All of the examples shown so far use color for a reason. Either to highlight or to categorize. They all have a certain aesthetic. They’re not only more memorable because of the color, they’re pleasing to the eye. But you can go too far.
This scorecard from the Wall Street Journal quickly becomes overwhelming, because of too much color. The same applies to the table below.
Choosing color for decorative effect is always a tricky task. Sure there are rules of thumb like a color wheel. This helps you pick a palette of colors that work well together. Adobe’s Color CC is a great place to start.
A great example of color to draw attention, categorize and decorate, is this award-winning poppy infographic by Valentina D’Efilippo.
My advice, (if you’re not a designer by trade) is simple. Don’t pick colors for decoration. Pick colors to draw attention and to categorize. Have a logic to your color choice and follow through on that consistently. If you need to pick shades that work with each other, use the pre-selected ones in your brand palette, or a color wheel. Finally, edit. When it comes to color, less is more.
*Did you guess silver? Well done.
 Gilliam, James E., and David Unruh. “The effects of Baker-Miller pink on biological, physical and cognitive behaviors.” Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine 5 (1988): 202-206.
 Schauss, Alexander G. “The physiological effect of color on the suppression of human aggression: Research on Baker-Miller pink.” International Journal of Biosocial Research 2.7 (1985): 55-64.
 Mehta, Ravi, and Rui Juliet Zhu. “Blue or red? Exploring the effect of color on cognitive task performances.” Science 323.5918 (2009): 1226-1229.
 Wichmann, Felix A., Lindsay T. Sharpe, and Karl R. Gegenfurtner. “The contributions of color to recognition memory for natural scenes.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 28.3 (2002): 509.
 Piqueras‐Fiszman, Betina, and Charles Spence. “The influence of the color of the cup on consumers’ perception of a hot beverage.” Journal of Sensory Studies 27.5 (2012): 324-331.
Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.