When we understand the science behind color, we can better understand how our human brains react. This ability is an evolutionary adaptation and researchers have shown that colors can affect our mood, feelings, behavior and perception. When we understand the science behind color, we can better understand how our human brains react.

Color has become one of the hottest topics in marketing, design, and art. The use of color in data visualizations can either add stunning visual aesthetics or with the wrong choices can cause chaos.

Markus Maier and Andrew Elliot, noted researchers have found: 

“Given the prevalence of color, one would expect color psychology to be a well-developed area. Surprisingly, little theoretical or empirical work has been conducted to date on the influence of color on psychological functioning, and the work that has been done has been driven mostly by practical concerns, not scientific rigor.”

And yet, studies of colors have shown that certain colors can be associated with eyestrain as well as an increase in metabolism or blood pressure.

Tapping into the refined art of color in data visualization can make use of the psychological attractions that will enhance a visual and complement the story.

Here are the key color takeaways:

  1. Examining How We Relate to Color
  2. The Influence of Colors
  3. Using the Right Colors
  4. The Changing Trends of Colors
  5. Fine Tuning Color for Data Visualizations
  1. Examining How We Relate to Color

Data visualization can make use of some of the basic marketing rules: select colors that are complimentary to each other and any text should be limited to a maximum of two font types/styles. But choosing the colors can be a slippery slope.

Leatrice Eisemen, color specialist, has indicated that the manner in which colors affect us is a direct correlation to how a specific color behaves in nature. She has interviewed thousands of people to get opinions on colors and has discovered quite a few patterns. She indicates, “We have a repository of information about a color. For example, the color blue is almost always associated with blue skies, which when we are children is a positive thing; it means playing outside and fun. Evolutionarily it also means there are no storms to come. This is why it is reminds us of stability and calm.”

Eisemen does caution that there isn’t really any ‘magic bullet’ answers when it comes to color; but there are some generalities that can be brought to the table from the decades of research. Color can be completely personal as well as cultural. An example would be the color ‘white’. In Western societies, it is associated with purity whereas in certain Eastern cultures it is related to mourning.

2. The Influence of Colors

The human brain is hardwired to receive the ‘primary colors’ of red, blue and yellow. Our visual cortex is setup to recognize these colors and is the method that we use to discern our world. The ‘secondary’ colors are those that are blended with the primary to create new colors such as blue and yellow to create green.

The psychological effect of colors on emotions and perception are used every day as part of a subliminal message:


The color red evokes strong emotions. It can create a sense of urgency and is associated with both passion and energy. Red acts as a physical stimulation. It accelerates the heart rate, nerve impulses, and blood pressure. This color is also known to stimulate the appetite.


The color blue is associated with a sense of peace, reliability and calm. Blue instills a sense of reliability and security. Blue may calm the appetite but it also acts to stimulate productivity. It is a color that seems to be preferred by men and those that are younger associate the color blue with maturity.


Yellow is considered to be a warm and cheerful color. It is often used to stimulate for impulse buyers as it promotes the part of the brain involving enthusiasm and logic. However, if yellow is used too much the effect can be higher anxiety. Oddly, the color yellow is one that makes babies cry.

Secondary colors have a value as they can act to complement, accentuate or even tone down a message:

Green is the color of nature and is associated with health and tranquility. Green encourages a sense of harmony in the brain as well as balance. This combination offers an encouragement of decisiveness. Stores often use green to help to relax their shoppers.

Purple may be associated with royalty, but is also stimulates the portion of the brain for problem solving and creativity. It has a subliminal effect that is associated with wealth, respect, and wisdom.

Black and white can be powerful when used in the right way:

We associate black with power, authority, strength, and stability. It can act to symbolize intelligence as well as sophistication. If black is overly used it creates a view that is overwhelming.

White gives an illusion of freshness and purity and act as a ‘clean slate’. Excessive white space has long been used in marketing as a backdrop to emphasize the main color or message.

The elusive and mysterious gray:

This color can represent practicality, timelessness, and solidarity in life. It is a color that needs to be used sparingly as it can be related to old age, depression or even death. Using too much grey can leave the viewer with a feeling of ‘nothingness’

3. Using the Right Colors

Marketers are fully aware that colors can influence purchases. According to CoolInfoGraphics, customers making a decision to buy made their decisions based on:

  • 1% on sound or smell
  • 3% on the product texture
  • 93% focused on the visual appearance

Other interesting things to note:

  • 84.7% of buyers indicated ‘color’ was the primary draw card
  • 52% of customers stated that they won’t return to a store if they disliked the aesthetics
  • 80% of people believed that color is a main reason for brand recognition

4. The Changing Trends of Colors

New tech startup companies that achieve values of $1 billion or more are often referred to as ‘unicorns’. Of the top fifty unicorns, the most common primary color was grey or black. The trend to look differently in the use of these colors has included such companies as WeWork, Vice and Uber.

In business, blue continues to be a strong color and therefore it’s no surprise that of these same top fifty unicorns, 20% used blue as their main branding color. This includes SpaceX and Dropbox. Their choice may be that they want to follow in the well-known ‘Big Blue’ branding path of IBM.  

Red makes up around 16% of these unicorn companies and includes such well-knowns as Airbnb and Pinterest; with yellow coming in at 12% (e.g. Snapchat) and 6% in green. Where green was once a color that was more dominant, it is now the least used, with the exception of Spotify.

5. Fine Tuning Color for Data Visualizations

Graphiq is a company that is focused on color palettes and they have a few rules-of-thumb on the topic of data visualizations:

  1. Have a wide range of both brightness and hue: Make sure that the color palettes that you choose incorporate enough brightness and are easy to distinguish.
  2. Make use and follow the natural color patterns: As humans, we are conditioned to the color variations that we see in nature. For example, yellow can transition to a dark purple in a sunset, but we don’t have any correlation to a deep purple moving to a yellowish brown.
  3. Don’t forget the gradient colors: The gradient part of the color palette are those shades that edge on either side of the main color. Using these variations in tone can create a natural migration that can emphasize a story or journey.
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