When you’re creating charts, in Jira reports, how do you choose your colors? Do you pick whatever looks nice, or do you just go along with whatever your software spits out by default? Perhaps you’re always on brand and make your graphs and charts follow the color scheme of your business?
Treating the color of your charts as an afterthought like this is common: on the face of it, it doesn’t seem that important. But there’s a good deal of science that shows how color can have significant effects on human perception and emotion.
In this article, we’ll look at the science of color psychology and how its findings can help you to create better charts in Jira.
The Taste Test
What better way to kick off a scientific discussion than with a practical demonstration? And as a bonus, this one involves eating sweets. You can do this experiment with most confectionery, such as gummy bears or chewy fruit gums. A popular choice is Skittles with loads of YouTube Videos of people using them for this experiment.
All you have to do is close your eyes and pop a random Skittle in your mouth. Now try to guess what flavour it is. It’s much harder than you think, without the visual cue of color!
This has led some people1 to say that Skittles are all the same flavour. Mars Wrigley, (producers of Skittles) vehemently denies this2, claiming that each Skittle has a unique flavour profile.
It’s apparent that the color of these sweets has at least some influence on how people perceive the taste.
Beyond Skittles: How Color Affects Perception
There have been numerous other studies into the effects of color on perception. It’s been shown, for example, that the color red influences men’s perception on the attractiveness of women, which has been linked to evolutionary indicators, such as the blush of skin.
Men have been shown to be more attracted to women in red, whereas women show no such preference.
Other studies have shown how color can alter the efficacy of medication3, with hues like red, orange and yellow being associated with stimulants, for instance. Greens, purples and greens are generally linked to sedative, hypnotic and anxiolytic drugs.
It’s also been shown that color can affect the performance of sports teams. The work of Frank and Gilovich4 indicated a link between the color black and perceived aggression, which is supported by the fact that teams who wear black uniforms are more likely to be called up for fouls. On the opposite side of that coin, there’s a certain shade of pink5 that is thought by some to have a calming effect, and which some sports teams experimented with by painting it all over their visitor locker rooms.
As you might expect with anything that has the potential to influence or control behaviour, color psychology has also been of great interest to the marketing industry. As you can perhaps guess, hot colors like red and orange are associated with excitement and impulse buying, while cool colors like blue and green are linked with more carefully thought through purchases. This kind of logic is also often applied to logo design6.
So what of the rest of the color spectrum? What other effects have been observed? Here’s a handy chart, from Wikipedia, which summarises some of the apparent effects of color, based on the research to date.
Using Color Psychology In Your Jira Reports
First and foremost, it’s important to point out that we’re not suggesting the color of your charts is more important than their other characteristics. It doesn’t matter what color your charts are if the data is inaccurate or if they’re cluttered and confusing.
It’s also unlikely that changing the color of your charts is going to have a profound, instant effect on those who view them. If anything, you can probably only expect a subtle effect, perhaps observable over a long period of time. In other words, we’re talking about gentle psychological nudges, not mind control.
These caveats aside, what can you do in terms of using color in your Jira reports and other charts? First of all, if you’re creating charts in Jira or Confluence, we recommend checking out our Custom Charts app, which, among other things, gives you the ability to customise the colors of your charts in Atlassian software.
Next, we’d like to point you to the work of data visualisation consultant Stephen Few, who we stumbled across while researching this article. Among other things, Few has come up with nine key rules for how to use color in charts, which you can read here. He covers various issues, such as consistent use of color, avoiding red and green in the same chart because colorblind people will struggle with them, and using bright and/or dark colors to highlight your most important data.
Our two favourite rules, however, are rules three and four:
Use color only when needed to serve a particular communication goal.
Use different colors only when they correspond to differences of meaning in the data.
At the heart of both of these rules is the idea that color shouldn’t be applied to charts just for the sake of it. As Few puts it, “Whenever you’re tempted to add color to a data display, ask yourself these questions: “What purpose will this color serve?” and “Will it serve this purpose effectively?” If the answer is “It serves no useful purpose” or “It serves a purpose, but something other than color or this particular color would do the job better,” avoid using it.”
The upshot of this is that he recommends that if you’re using colors in your charts, you are often better off using just one color. The following bar charts show how you can apply this concept.
Where you need variation of color, sometimes you’re better off with shades of the same color. Not only does this look better, but it’s easier to then apply the principles color psychology to your charts – whether you’re using Jira reporting or exporting Jira to Excel. These pie charts demonstrate that.
Final Thoughts On Color Psychology In Charts
We’ve already pointed to the main limitations of color psychology: the effects of colors on people are subtle at best, and there will also be individual differences from person to person.
And while there are some colors which seem to have fairly broad associations7 across the world, such as red with passion and black with death, there are also cultural differences8 in how people react to colors. Yellow, for example, is linked with happiness in the UK and the USA, but in Latin America, it’s a color of death and sorrow. These differences might be something you want to take into account if working with foreign business partners or customers.
There really are no hard and fast rules about how to use color in your charts and in Jira reports. In general, though, less is often more. Begin with that in mind, and acknowledge that the color of your charts actually matters, and you should see some immediate improvements in your charts.
“If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not trying hard enough.”