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Home » Data Visualization

Designing Dashboards: Finding the Fantastic Five Colors

Submitted by on 2017-06-19 – 3:45 PM

Color may have the most impact on your design. People react strongly to color either through culture values or personal choices. As with fonts, color is another element of style. And just like fonts, colors communicate meaning as well. [Read: Understanding the Importance of Color in Reporting] SAS offers many pre-chosen styles or palettes that work well. You may want to distinguish your dashboard from others. Color is an easy way to do that.

There are many websites that can assist with selecting a palette and others that suggest them. It is hard to select an aesthetically pleasing and effective palette. Sometimes the end user insists on their corporate colors and if so then you are stuck. However, if the dashboard remains internal to the company they may not feel as strongly. My thought is that it’s better to have a dashboard that serves the user instead of worrying about corporate branding. If I work for the company, then I probably don’t need the brand reminder!

Here’s the guidelines to consider as you select your palette:

  • Use a neutral background that allows your data to be the star. Neutral can be gray, beige, light blue, black, or white.
  • A softer palette works better. A sharp palette may be too shocking or hard to understand distinguish without a darker background.
  • Select five colors that provide enough contrast that you can distinguish them in a bar or line chart.

Finding the Fantastic Five

An awesome color palette is a tall order. If you poke around on the web, you’ll find articles like “best web color palettes” that you can use. However, you can also find web sites that change a photo into a color palette. One site I like is Color Palette Generator because it provides dark, medium, and light shades in range based on your photo. Here’s the default site page with a yellow flower on green background. The Hex code for the color is provided. The palette doesn’t have enough contrast to work well for a report.

 

How Can I Test It?

Even based on the three simple tips above, you still need a test method to make sure the colors have enough contrast. I created a sample report in SAS Visual Analytics that would allow me to test some of the palettes I was seeing. I needed to see the colors as solid boxes and then in actual use – line charts, bar charts, and even a bubble plot. Each section of the report uses a different data skin so I could learn how different it might look.

My idea was that I could later use them in a simple report or even create a theme around them. Since there are many different inspirations, I wanted to share all of them – mostly just for fun.

Example Themes

The colors are too similar but it’s not the worst color combination. Some of the bubbles and lines are difficult to tell apart. There are some other colors in the above example that I could choose. Perhaps adding more from the dark palette.

Neon Sharp

This one has a real 80s feel I think. I didn’t change the text to white for the titles but you can imagine it. It might actually make the black background look ugly. Again – I have the issue where the pinks are too close in color and difficult to tell apart.

Modern and Clean

My sample report can handle five colors. The colors are placed in some common data objects so you can see how the colors work. For this Modern and Clean example, noticed how close in color Product B and Product D are – in fact it’s hard to see the difference. If I was going to use this palette, I would want to switch the Product D peachy color to another color, perhaps gold? If you look at the dashboard gauge – you can see the gold is complementary and stands out.

Art History Inspired

I used an image from an Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh as the idea for this one. It’s really my favorite. I like the dark stone against the colors. The colors worked well but I think the better idea is to have 5 different colors. I should substitute a blue or a green for a different color as note above – it would be better to add some red and possibly brown that were in the original work.

What Colors are you Using?

There’s nothing wrong with the themes from SAS – they offer the right amount of contrast. However you may want something that reflects your organization’s colors or perhaps you are doing something where color would add some impact.

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Tricia Aanderud

Director of Data Visualization at Zencos Consulting
Tricia Aanderud is a SAS Business Intelligence and Visual Analytics consultant based in Raleigh, NC who works for Zencos Consulting. She has written several books about SAS, presented papers at many SAS conferences, and has been using SAS since 2001. Contact her for assistance with your next project.
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