Colourful thinking, part 2 - tips for using colour

On with today’s topic: colour. Or, to kickstart it, how to do smart reports without colour. The answer? Use typography and design. That is, learn a few quick 'design' tips and tricks. They create visual interest and prevent pages from looking visually flat. Reports look sharp. Which in turn helps us resist the urge to add colour.

But where to find these tips and tricks? Try my book... (it has six pages on it all).

However, we are where we are. If you want colour, here’s some do’s:

Use colours people can name, it makes conversations and commentary easier. Avoid colours like teal. Taupe.

Use muted colours (soft green, orange, blue, etc), not loud, garish ones.

Use just one colour – and use it sparingly too: maybe use your corporate colour, plus grey. Red and grey. Blue and grey. Green and grey. They all look good.

Use colours consistently: if doing a series of graphs on unit performance, ensure a unit is the same colour throughout.

Do slides need colour? If there’s lots of them, probably. If staring at them a long time, maybe. But here is a TED talk on flags that I’ve mentioned in a previous email simply because it breaks every 'TED talk' rule. Yet it’s fantastic. The guy sits. He reads his script. He has typographically dull slides – study the one at 9 minutes and 27 seconds (why does the word ‘related’ stretch onto the second line of point 5?!). And no colour either. Yet it doesn’t matter one bit, for the talk is great.

Also, here’s some don’ts:

Avoid stuff that relies on colour codes: some people are colour-blind or colour-deficient, so avoid RAG reports (this email suggests how) and avoid colour-coded legends in charts. (Avoid legends anyway, they create puzzles for readers to decode.) And when presenting, refer to items by their colour and location (“see the red line at the top”).

Avoid colours that have connotations: in finance, red often means a loss, so avoid it in financial graphs (unless, of course, you’ve made a loss). Also, strong reds and greens together can look like festive wrapping paper – try it and you’ll see what I mean.

Avoid swathes of background colour: it overwhelms, hinders readability and comprehension, plus - if printed - soaks up toner.

Avoid reversed fonts (white font on coloured background) other than for very brief bits of text. It slows reading.

Avoid obsessing about colour: in many reports, fretting about colour is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. That is, the report is so bad, tweaking colours won’t stop it tanking. Nobody in their right mind thinks: “Ah! The report is rubbish... but its colours are nice!”. For many people, colour is something they comment on only if: (1) colours are dreadful; or (2) the report is dreadful, but they don't know what else to say.

Don't assume readers want colour: a firm with over 2,500 staff had reports that were replete with blue - blue tables, fonts, shading, etc. I removed all blue and showed a redone page to the CEO and Chair - and they both said: "Phew, I've always hated that blue". (P.S. They then asked me: "Why do people add it?"; I said: "They think you want it!".)

Avoid sarcasm, at least to bosses: sometimes when people tell me that their bosses want more colours in their reports, I suggest: "Give 'em crayons... they can add it themselves - it works for six-year-olds at junior school". I mostly avoid saying it to bosses though. 

Avoid confirmation bias: yes, we've all seen smart stuff that's colourful. And ugly stuff that's not colourful. But that proves nothing. Actively seek smart stuff that's not colourful. It's enlightening. I've seen sharp-looking external reports done by top companies - in portrait and without a big logo on each page and hardly any colour too. Sometimes, even none. And anyway, black-and-white stuff can be beautiful. Think zebras, giant pandas, etc... Who’d have thought it, eh?

As you can see, these tips are a mix of what to do and what not to do. Maybe I could have put a green blob against the ‘to do’ ones and a red blob against the ‘not to do’ ones…. but no. Instead, I grouped them. As I often say, many Red-Amber-Green reports are nothing more than poorly sorted lists – sort the list and you don’t need colours.

The fun bit: which came first? People occasionally ask me about graphical causality: did people do bad graphs before Excel existed? Or did Excel give birth to bad graphs? And the answer is (cue drum roll): bad graphs existed before Excel, as proven by this wonderful clip from the 1943 movie The Sky’s The Limit (start at one minute 42 seconds). It's a comedy scene of someone badly explaining bad graphs - and I bet something similar happened in your firm recently. 

And why show it in this email? Because when I watched it, I never once thought: “If only it was in colour…”. As I said above, actively seek stuff that's great but which has little or no colour.

Til next month


P.S. If you're thinking: "Hypocrite... this email has bits in blue", read my previous email.

Clarity and Impact Ltd | +44 20 8840 4507 | |

To receive these emails at a different address, email me with details.

Want my GDPR policy? Click here. It's a bit irreverent, plus has two jokes.

Want to see previous emails? Click here for loads.

Been forwarded this email? Want to get future updates directly? Click here

Clarity and Impact Ltd